Like forging the first brushstroke on a blank canvas, the act of building on an untouched plot of land can be a daunting endeavor. Especially if that plot of land is a 45-acre patchwork of pasture and woodland in rural Rappahannock County, surrounded by vistas of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. And as if that weren’t idyllic enough, a river runs through it.
Such was the challenge facing owners Barbara and Matthew Black and their architect, Richard Williams. Matthew, a retired economist, and Barbara decided to leave their long-time Capitol Hill home to live at a slower pace, in tune with nature. Having vacationed in a cabin they owned in the area for 15 years, they’d already fallen in love with the Rappahannock countryside. When their search for an existing property turned up nothing that “sang to us,” says Matthew, he and Barbara opted to buy land and build from scratch.
To kindle the process, Williams asked his clients to write vision statements on their future home. Both wished to tread lightly on the landscape. “Ours was probably the first house ever built on this land and we felt an almost steward-like responsibility to have it be harmonious with the site. We wanted something that would celebrate our presence, but sit gently,” reflects Matthew.
“Humility,” adds Barbara, “was a word we used a lot.”
After 35 years in a row house, the couple craved natural light, openness, views—and storage. Though the empty nesters would be sole occupants most of the time, they wanted room for the fundraisers and art gatherings they regularly host, as well as visits from their two married children and four grandkids. Also on their list: a pool; a guest house for Barbara’s sister, artist Darien Reece; and a freestanding barn/studio for making art and hosting gallery tours.
Deciding where to build on their property, the Blacks were drawn to a knoll with sweeping views of meadow, woods, river, mountains and sky. One night, they pitched a tent, experienced sunrise by the river and agreed they’d found their spot.
A spirited collaboration ensued as Williams, project architect Justin Donovan and the Blacks refined a design scheme that would express the owners’ desires while respecting and accentuating the site. The architects used GPS modeling to determine exactly how to orient the home, tweaking angles to capture the best views. The final plan positioned the house on an east-west axis aligned with mountain peaks at either end. On the main floor, the plan extends from a handy mudroom entry near the pool to the kitchen and screened porch, a great room and Matthew’s study, culminating at the master suite. Nestling the structure into the contours of the site enabled the architects to create an above-grade lower level housing two guest rooms and baths; an office for Barbara, a retired fundraiser and wellness educator; and storage/utility rooms.
This positioning also lends the home a low profile—and an air of mystery—in the front. From a winding gravel road, visitors initially glimpse just the flat roof and chimney of the main house before rounding a bend where the building comes into view.
On the southern, river side of the residence, both stories are revealed. “It was a goal for the house to be somewhat modest and restrained in front,” says Donovan. “Not until you see it from the downhill side do you realize it’s actually pretty big.”
Just as the architects masterfully blended the 4,900-square-foot abode into the site, they also articulated views from within. Understanding their clients’ routines—from morning meditation to reading by the fire—empowered them to create moments in architecture. Dramatic, floor-to-ceiling windows in the great room immerse residents in the meadow, while smaller surprises, such as a clerestory opening, reveal a mountaintop or a passing flock of geese. “In everyday comings and goings,” explains Williams, “we present the landscape to enrich their daily rituals.”
Architects and clients embarked on the plan without a preconceived style in mind. As ideas evolved, they leaned in a modern direction yet embraced organic materials and forms associated with Piedmont vernacular. “I was interested in going modern but having an old sensibility,” says Matthew.
Though applied in a pared-down manner, cedar, whitewashed brick, cleft bluestone, copper and steel-framed windows convey rustic familiarity. “There’s modern that can be incredibly soulful and allude to traditions even of vernacular building,” Williams observes. “We think of this as a Virginian modern house. The structure is very abstract and geometric, but the materials are nicely crafted and warm it up.”
Other gestures nod to bygone days. Thick, 30-inch walls harken back to old stone dwellings—but conceal built-in storage. And an elongated brick chimney evokes the ruins of an abandoned homestead where only a chimney remains.
Landscape architect Gregg Bleam joined the team “to knit the house into the site,” he says, “and make it look like it was always there.” Bleam dotted the front courtyard with crabapple trees to suggest the remnants of an old orchard and tapped J.W. Townsend Landscapes to plant the four-acre meadow with wildflowers.
“The meadow attracts so many birds, butterflies and insects,” says Barbara. “It’s a wonderful habitat.”
The Blacks also coexist with deer, foxes and possums, though Matthew admits to a “love-hate relationship” with beavers that have provisioned ironwood trees he planted along the river’s edge. When the grandkids visit, they have free rein outdoors and love to skip stones in the river, tend the vegetable garden and feed the neighbors’ horses grazing nearby.
Barbara still pinches herself in disbelief that this home is really theirs. “It feels like an incredible privilege and surprise,” she declares. “And, after participating in and helping set the vision for it, also like an old glove.”
Architecture: Richard Williams, FAIA, principal in charge; Justin Donovan, AIA, project architect, Richard Williams Architects PLLC, Washington, DC. Builder: Dale Abrahamse, Abrahamse & Company Builders, Charlottesvillle, Virginia. Landscape Architecture: Gregg Bleam, FASLA, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lighting Consultant: hinsondesign.com. Windows: hopeswindows.com; kolbewindows.com.
Landscape Contractor: townsendlandscape.com. Cedar Exterior Stain: benjaminmoore.com.
Water Feature Installation: fountaincraftmfg.com.
Cabinet Millwork Fabrication: lantzwoodworking.com. Paint: benjaminmoore.com. Sofa & Upholstered Chairs: rh.com. Leather Chairs: randomharvesthome.com. Painting: by Thomas Mullany through haleyfineart.com. Rug: timothypaulcarpets.com. Dining Table: cotejardinantiques.com. Dining Chairs: crateandbarrel.com. Paper Light: Akari light sculpture through shop.noguchi.org.
Cabinet Millwork Fabrication: lantzwoodworking.com. Cabinet Paint: farrow-ball.com. Wall Paint: benjaminmoore.com. Carrarra Marble: cogswellstone.com. 19th-century Italian Stools: 19th c. Italian, Darien Reece Antiques. Pendants: handandeyestudio.co.uk. Painting near Porch Door: Judith Leighton through cynthiawiningsgallery.com. Ovens: subzero-wolf.com. Zinc Countertop: handcraftedmetal.com. Sinks And Faucets: blanco.com; grohe.com; duravit.com.
Pool Installation: alpinepool.com.