Most established DC neighborhoods present a similar scenario: treelined streets fringed with vintage homes set a bit too close together. The privacy and space constraints inherent in these older enclaves often prove challenging for architects asked to conjure something new—or refresh something old—for clients. This was certainly the case for Mark McInturff, who was tasked with realizing a bold, modernist vision on a small corner lot in Wesley Heights.
“The existing house was little and there were other versions of it around the neighborhood,” he recalls. “I looked at trying to save it, but it was hopeless. It would’ve been more work and more expensive to keep it.”
However, building anew on the narrow, 6,750-square-foot lot was complicated by zoning issues and two intrusive setbacks. For inspiration, McInturff and project manager Colleen Gove Healey (who has since launched her own firm) turned to an architectural vernacular found in Charleston. “It’s called a Charleston single house,” McInturff explains. “Each is long with a garden on one side. They all open from the side into the garden.”
The architects sited the 24-foot-deep, 4,000-square-foot structure close to the house next door, keeping it largely closed off on that side to give both the neighbors and homeowners privacy. The street-facing side of the house is open, connected to the garden by tall sliding doors and large expanses of glass. Since the southern exposure faces the neighbors, there’s no direct sun. “If you are facing north you have to get sun someplace else,” McInturff reasons. “We put in clerestory windows on the south side that reach over your shoulder to get the light.”
A smooth, collaborative process unfolded among the architects, contractor Dave Tillman of Mauck, Zantzinger & Associates and the owners, a finance executive and his wife. The couple trusted McInturff and Healey to conceive the home’s exterior aesthetic, which combines stucco, vertical and horizontal Hardie siding and glass to create a woven effect. At the request of the wife, dark-wood louvers are suspended four feet in front of some street-facing windows. “Colleen showed me a house with these louvers. I love lines and I fell in love with this idea,” the wife explains. “The wood against the glass adds warmth, texture and a layer of privacy.”
Visitors, who enter the three-story house at the west end, find themselves in the open-plan living/dining area with the staircase to their right. Straight ahead, the kitchen is delineated by a floating wall—so the whole space feels like one big room. “The kitchen is really just three units of cabinetry,” Healey explains. “They’re positioned to provide some screening from the dining/living area.” Beyond the kitchen, a screened porch beckons, along with a guest room, bath and pantry with extra space for a future elevator.
The second level is strung along a long gallery overlooking the main level on one side; bedrooms belonging to the couple’s two kids are on the other. The master suite lies at the far end. At the top of the stairs, a built-in desk has become a center for home-schooling during the pandemic. The partially below-ground lower level is made light by clerestory windows. It features the husband’s office, a family room, exercise room and garage.
A material palette of steel, white oak and glass keeps the spaces unified. Pale, white-oak floors and built-ins impart lightness while gray-painted, exposed-steel beams extend horizontally and vertically from the main floor to the second level. “Because our houses are very open, they need a lot of steel,” McInturff relates. “Clients usually want to cover it up, but we don’t do that. The beams create rhythm and texture. I think of the second floor as a big tray sitting on these steel beams.”
Compounding challenges posed by the cramped site was the top item on the husband’s wish list: a swimming pool. “This was hard because a pool has to be level and the lot has a slight hill. A retaining wall on a corner lot would be a zoning issue,” McInturff explains, adding, “With this house and pool, if anything had moved two inches we’d have had a problem—the boundaries and zoning were that tight.”
After addressing regrading issues with landscape architect Lila Fendrick, who joined the project early on, McInturff and his team were able to accommodate a pool measuring 75 by seven-and-a-half feet—without a retaining wall. “This was a very organized landscape composition designed to support the architecture,” notes Fendrick. “The pool was at the site’s lowest point, so we graded away from it to a storm-water retention area.” Fendrick also located painted-cedar fencing around the pool and implemented privacy plantings—an outer hedge of skip laurels with tree form hollies inside that are synchronized with the home’s vertical architectural elements.
Clad in a black-plaster surface, the pool conveys a grotto-like effect. An elevated ipe walkway stretches from the front entry back to the porch. Below the porch, a poured-concrete ramp connects the pool to a bath and shower on the lower level. Permeable pavers framed in bluestone clad the pool and adjacent seating areas.
The owners, who embraced the building process, are now enjoying its fruits. “Now—when the pandemic has forced us to stay home—is the time we should be restless,” the wife observes. “But we love our house and are not itching to go anywhere.”
Architecture: Mark McInturff, FAIA, principal; Colleen Gove Healey, AIA, NCARB, project manager, McInturff Architects, Bethesda, Maryland. Contractor: Dave Tillman, Mauck, Zantzinger & Associates, Washington, DC. Landscape Architecture: Lila Fendrick, RLA, ASLA, GRP, Lila Fendrick Landscape Architects, Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Windows & Sliding Doors: pella.com. Flooring: classicfloordesigns.info. Shade & Upholstery Fabrication: rockvilleinteriors.com. Home Automation: dcpowerhouse.com. Second-Story Railings: northeastironworksinc.com
Sofas: boconcept.com. Hide Rug: dwr.com. Dining Table: roomandboard.com. Pottery on Coffee Table: marimasot.com. Artworks in Dining Room: isabelmanalo.com. Built-in Steel Cabinet & Fireplace: akmetalfab.com.