Builder Alan Kanner knew the little house in leafy Takoma Park, Md., but he wasn’t impressed. “I had frequently driven by it and said, ‘What an ugly house,’” he comments. Low, flat-roofed, and modest to a fault, the building qualified as mid-century modern, but it registered with Kanner as little more than “a one-story blue box.” That is, until he bought it.
“It happens to be located on this really great lot,” Kanner explains. Because it backs onto wooded land, “for eight months of the year you literally can’t see the houses on the next street over.” But the building itself turned out to be the perfect vehicle for the project he had in mind: a lighthearted family home flexible enough to accommodate the occasional house concert. Working closely with architect Mark McInturff, Kanner produced a punchy two-story cube that’s as entertaining for large groups as it is for a single guy at home with his kids. The project was also a hit with our 2013 Remodeling Design Awards judges, who gave it a Merit Award for a whole-house remodel worth $250,000 to $500,000.
For budgetary and permitting reasons, Kanner and McInturff opted to expand upward rather than outward, creating a second floor for bedrooms and freeing the first floor for an open kitchen, living, and dining space and a semi-enclosed TV room. “We increased the ceiling height to 9 feet 4 inches,” Kanner says. “Both the second floor deck and the roof are framed with 16-inch-deep TGIs [truss joist I-beams], so there’s a clear span over the almost 30-foot width of the house.”
Working with project architect Colleen Healey, McInturff approached the interior volume as what he terms a “magic box”: a simple shape that holds some intriguing surprises. Making use of the thick floor system above, the architects detailed deep ceiling recesses for lighting in the living room and to create more height over the kitchen. “The kitchen almost resides in this little cube,” McInturff says. The living area and the master bedroom above it are dominated by a slightly projecting window bay that rises from the first floor to the roof. A glazed rooftop monitor lifts the master bedroom’s view even higher into the treetops.
When working with a limited budget, McInturff says, “you have to define the four or five things that are really important to you. You indulge those things, and they’ll carry the building.” The centerpiece here is the stair that slices into the building from its southeast wall. “I knew that I wanted an open-feeling house,” Kanner says, “and I knew that the stair was going to be a key element.” Improvising with the architects and his steel contractor, he produced a light, sculptural assembly of plate-steel stringers with welded steel “fingers” supporting white oak treads. The theme extends into the second floor hallway, where open steel floor framing and oak decking allow slivers of light to pass through.
McInturff and Healey abandoned the original split-level entry on the home’s southeast side for a new main entrance accessed from a deck on the northwest, and their subtle handling of the deck made it one of the project’s strongest exterior features. A bar-shaped element longer than the house itself, the deck stands off from the outside wall by some 6 feet. With its narrow bridge to the front door, McInturff says, “it’s kind of like a gang-plank coming up to a boat.”
Rather than the usual forest of posts, this deck cantilevers over a V-shaped cradle made of steel pipes and I-beams. “It becomes a very simple plane resting on this kind of lyrical support,” McInturff says. Because daylight falls between the deck and the building, he adds, “it’s not gloomy down below.” And while the bright yellow cradle adds “a bit of whimsey,” it also represents an elegant bit of engineering. Because it relies on the framing above for lateral stability, Kanner’s crew constructed the deck on temporary supports then slid the cradle into place on its two footings. Wood posts would have been less expensive, McInturff admits, but “as a shape, this rigid triangle is pretty much the most economical thing.”
Most houses consist of complex forms wrapped in rather tame color schemes, but on this one, the architects took the opposite approach. Rather than working against the building’s simple geometry, they heightened its effect with a skin of corrugated black aluminum, onto which they applied patches of bright color. “The metal box becomes a backdrop for these other events,” McInturff says.
The results are most striking on the home’s street-facing elevation, which centers on a rectangle of red trim surrounding four windows and a composition of painted cement-board panels. “It gives the house a whimsical public face,” says McInturff, who used the color scheme from one of artist Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series of paintings as inspiration.
To backdrop this vibrant play of colors, McInturff chose a siding material that looks “a little more tailored” than conventional galvanized steel sheets. With its tight, square-section corrugations, the prefinished aluminum is “more like corduroy,” he says, and more in scale with the building’s size. With help from the manufacturer, Kanner developed waterproofing details that permitted his crew to apply the panels in alternating directions. “The quilting of the siding gives it texture … makes it come alive,” he says. And Kanner’s little black box is nothing if not lively. “My charge to [McInturff] was to create a house that’s playful,” he says, “and he hit it out of the park.”
2013 Remodeling Design Awards Merit award winner
Category: Whole-House Remodel $250,000 to $500,000
Location: Takoma Park, Md.
General contractor: Added Dimensions, Takoma Park, Md.
Architect: McInturff Architects, Bethesda, Md.
Click here to see a slide show of the project and to read comments from the Remodeling Design Awards judges.