Designer’s Notebook: Point of Focus

by Kyle Clapham

In Washington D.C., homeowners frequently finish their basements as a separate living space and often convert them into rental apartments. Many times, it includes removing the connection between levels and separating the utilities.

These owners, however, had just the opposite: no connection between floors, no access to the utilities below, and no space for their own young family and visiting relatives. That is when they reached out to Jerry Levine of Levine Group Builders + Architects in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Situated close to Rock Creek Park, a national treasure of trees and wildlife, this classic 1920s wood-shingle house fits into its traditional Cleveland Park neighborhood. Prior remodeling projects opened the back of the house in a more modern, contemporary fashion with large floor-to-ceiling windows and doors, providing expansive views of the rear wooded yard. While not in keeping with the style of the house, it was a feature the owners loved and wanted to retain.

During the previous renovation, access to the unfinished lower level (where the hot water heater, furnace and electrical panel-box lived) was eliminated. Gaining access required going outside—no matter the weather—and entering the basement from the exterior. Furthermore, because the basement had been relatively untouched, the original stone foundation walls were intact and had the potential to look beautiful.

A traditional home, an unfinished basement, contemporary prior renovations, and breathtaking views to the rear that brought nature inside were wonderful individual components; yet, making them sing the same song would be the challenge.

Besides unifying the house, the goal of this project was to create an interesting connection between the floors that invited one to experience another full level of living space. The new lower-level would include a new guest bedroom for visiting relatives, a full bath and—most important—a large, multifunctional space that could serve as family TV space, exercise space or kids’ play space.

The first step was determining where the connection should take place and finding the perfect location for a new set of stairs. The final solution situated the stairs to one side on both floors, laid them out in a wider switchback formation, and kept the stairs in the middle of the house, so they would not interrupt the spacious family room, dining room and open kitchen toward the rear of the first floor.

To retain the views of the wooded backyard and to be able to see the children playing downstairs, a glass-and-iron rail was chosen for its strength and translucency. The staircase itself would be constructed of iron and painted gunmetal gray to follow suit with the more contemporary components of the house.

As a nod to the classic, the stairs would include stained-wood treads to match the existing first-floor hardwoods. Once the design was complete, constructing the staircase proved to be the next challenge. The floor-framing system had to be modified to create the hole to accommodate the new staircase. Much of the remaining existing first floor was supported with temporary walls while the new beams were installed.

Next, because the existing basement floor included a concrete step that would affect the layout of the stairs, a wooden staircase was constructed to ensure accuracy and serve as both the template and a temporary set of stairs during construction. Once the wooden set was constructed, it was determined the middle landing would need to be divided and include a step to meet head-height requirements.

Attaching the middle landings to the original stone foundation wall would not be possible. Bringing a fully constructed switchback set of stairs into the home, even if just stringers and platforms, would also prove to be impossible.

Once the metal stair components were fabricated, they were delivered as individual pieces and welded in place. Making those welds as clean as possible was very important since they would be seen. Five square posts were required to support the bulk of the weight of the stairs.

Attention was paid to the location of these posts and their relationship to the rail posts above. This helped create a look of seamless alignment and balanced repetition. Glass panels float between the top and bottom rails, providing both safety and a lightness that perfectly balances the iron and wood.

The existing foundation walls were cleaned up and left exposed. A painted wood wall-cap was scribed to the stone and creates a clean transition to the drywall wall above. A small portion of matching hardwood was installed in the lower level over a framed section of floor to tie the levels together while carpet was chosen for the portion instead of concrete, creating warmth and providing sound absorption.

By introducing the right solo element, the individual stylistic features that seemed to contradict each other suddenly harmonize and make sense. The new staircase, while being a visual focal point of the home, does much more than simply connect the living levels. QR

Cindy McClure, NCIDQ, ASID, MCR, CKD, GCP, has a firm foundation in residential remodeling as well as interior design. Her love of residential design and small commercial spaces design has provided several unique opportunities to work across the country and abroad. Her career began more than 20 years ago in the greater Washington, D.C., area after graduating from the University of Maryland.

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