Once their kids moved out and went to college, newfound empty nesters in a Washington, D.C., suburb wanted to downsize to a home with fewer stairs. The couple lived in a large, traditional colonial house, so they asked architect Charles Warren to help them shop for a house that could become their “forever home.” They ended up purchasing a smaller residence about a mile away.

“That’s how my relationship with them started—as a consultant to some degree,” recalls Warren, co-founder and principal of design for Teass Warren Architects in Washington, D.C. “[We were] trying to find a house that would be a good fit for them where they wanted to be in the next stage of life. For them, it was a ‘forever home.’ It was the last house they wanted to buy.”

The well-constructed, largely intact midcentury modern residence sat on a sloping site in a leafy neighborhood. Beyond maintaining the integrity of its existing architecture, the owners sought to incorporate aging-in-place elements—including a primary suite on the same level as the kitchen and living spaces—and create custom spaces for each of their hobbies: baking and woodworking.

Great Bones

Approaching retirement age, the owners wished not to continue climbing and descending stairs into their later years. Initially, they desired a modern farmhouse aesthetic, but they were having trouble finding an existing house that could accommodate single-floor living without destroying its architecture. Then the midcentury modern home not far from their house came on the market.

“It already had a lot of that built-in, one-level living to some degree, so we didn’t have to alter it quite as much, but it definitely wasn’t modern farmhouse,” Warren says. “They had to come around to that, and they ended up getting into the midcentury style. They were a little hesitant at first; I just said, ‘This is a great house—it has great bones. We can do a really nice project here.’”

Warren immediately noticed the home was positioned well on the site and thus received an ample amount of natural lighting. The kitchen, however, had been updated at some point and boxed off into its own little room. In general, the circulation in the house became awkward at times, mostly because the stairway down to the basement encroached upon the entrance through the front door.

“It was a little uncomfortable to enter the front door because the stair down was so close, but the natural lighting and the volume of the space were just really great,” Warren explains. “It was obviously something [we wanted] to keep. It had that low-pitch roof line you see in these midcentury buildings. I thought was cool as soon as I walked in there.”

An addition at the front of the building would unify the two wings of the house with a light-filled foyer and create a generous entry with a direct view to the exterior. “The two wings of the house had a roof line that broke in the middle, so the addition not only unified those, but it also allowed us to loosen up the entrance, so that it’s a little grander, foyer type of treatment.”

Although a previous remodel closed in the kitchen, it did not rely on any structural or immovable walls, Warren notes. “We were able to demo all the walls that enclosed the kitchen and opened it up to the dining room. The way the structural systems were working in the house, there weren’t any load-bearing walls. Once we took them out, that allowed connections to the living spaces.”

Custom Design

General contractor The Block Builders Group of Bethesda, Maryland, preserved the shell of the home but otherwise gutted it. The company installed new plumbing, electrical, HVAC, windows and roofing and corrected some of the subfloors and floor joists, says Tony Paulos, who founded the business in 1990. He explained to the owners the pros and cons of every finish they selected.

“When you’re doing a renovation, there are lots of decision to be made and a cost impact of those decisions, whether it be the appliances, countertops, cabinetry, flooring, tile, plumbing fixtures or lighting fixtures,” Paulos says. “It’s an extensive process because when you go into lighting, [for example], you’re talking about the recessed lights you’re going to use: Are they LED? Are they LED bulbs, or are they LED built-in fixtures? Where can you get the most bang for your buck?

“The homeowners show us things they like—that they’ve torn out of magazines, or they’ve seen online—and then we will guide them to find that exact fixture or something that may be similar at a better price point,” he adds. “They can say, ‘Fine, this works,’ or, ‘We’d like to find ways to save money.’ And that’s when we start coming up with options to get the budget that they want.”

The client searched online and found a kitchen she liked, so Paulos asked the wood mill that he works with to duplicate the look, which combines painted and stained cabinetry. “She did have a vision for what she was looking for in terms of finishes,” Warren notes. “The color choices are interesting—a bold blue—and the wood is custom stained. She was really pushing for that, and we helped guide the design process, including the flow and location of appliances.”

Warren encouraged the client to tell him exactly how she cooks (and would like to cook) in order to position each piece where she needs it. “I feel like we’ve got five different ways to cook stuff in there, but it was all very specific and very much a custom design—even down to the cabinets. We can do little things like putting spice racks in the corner and custom cabinets for their mixers.

“It’s all custom cabinetry; that was definitely a big part of their program,” he says. “They wanted a really nice kitchen that would act as a gathering space for the family. She does cook and bake a ton, so it’s one of those things where it was just the right thing to do [for them].”

Normal Thing

The main level of the house now includes the kitchen, living space and office areas as well as the primary suite, which incorporates several universal design elements such as generous circulation, larger doors and a zero-threshold shower. A sculptural stair in the middle of the house seamlessly connects to the lower level, where a family room, additional bedrooms and the wood shop reside.

“That was a unique one; we had talked about trying to put [the wood shop] in the yard initially—like in an outbuilding or something,” Warren recalls. “It’s not a big yard, and they like to garden and have a lot of open space, so we ultimately decided to put it within the footprint of the house. We excavated below the mudroom to locate it in the new basement space. That’s not a normal thing to do.”

Keeping the noise and sawdust from the wood shop from spilling into the rest of the house made sound and air management even more critical. Sound insulation, sound isolation clips, metal stud furring and soundproof drywall provided a solution, Paulos says. “Making the room completely soundproof is prohibitively expensive, but you can take measures to reduce sound transmission quite a bit. The second part was to have an exhaust system that could get the sawdust out of there as he was working, so he was not affected by it. Because that space doesn’t have any windows.”

The wood shop has its own heating and cooling system, effectively creating a compartmentalized pod inside the home. “From the outside we wanted him to have his own entrance so that he could bring plywood and things like that and directly into it, instead of having to drag them through the house,” Warren explains. “So, there’s a little side entrance that goes straight into the wood shop.”

Warren used white oak throughout the residence for its warmth as a unifying material. A custom quartz fireplace with bookshelves now anchors the double-height living room. A glassy addition at the rear of the house creates transparency and connection to the landscaping outside while still maintaining privacy. “We added about 4 feet and utilized a lot of glass to highlight the wooded lot.

“They really love the outdoor space,” Warren says. “I think that was something they really were surprised about, how much they use it all the time. The way we designed the building, there’s a large deck that connects the whole back of the house, but you can get to it from multiple spaces. There’s a private portion off the primary bedroom, and all the living space are unified by the decking.” QR

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