Every successful remodeling project involves thoughtful consideration of the building’s context, but architect Todd Ray had to work harder than usual to find an authentic basis for the redesign of his own house. Located in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va., the bare-bones neo-Colonial dated from Washington’s post–World War II housing boom, and like the 100 or so neighboring houses built from the same set of plans, it never had much to say about its own place or time. So Ray dug deeper, drawing on his years of experience with the site, the neighborhood, and his neighbors to transform the generic builder’s special into a modern house uniquely attuned to its environment. 

Blank Slate. A 1940s-era tract house served as raw material for a more sophisticated response, both to its site and to contemporary expectations of building performance.
Blank Slate. A 1940s-era tract house served as raw material for a more sophisticated response, both to its site and to contemporary expectations of building performance.

Advanced Geometry

On paper, the project’s program was deceptively conventional. “We added one bedroom, one bathroom, and a primary living room, just like everyone else,” Ray says, “but the approach was slightly different.” Rather than simply add functional rooms or combine undersized spaces, Ray treated the existing house as an empty box. “We basically squared off the original brick house, took off the roof, and blew out the back,” he says. Gutted to its brick shell, the original home yielded space for an entry vestibule, bike closet, study, and half bath at the first floor and two bedrooms at the second.

Two visually distinct masses expand the house toward the rear. At the first floor, a glass-walled volume holds a combined kitchen, dining, and living space, four risers down from the existing ground level, that opens onto the property’s side yard and gardens. The new second floor spaces consist of a master bedroom suite and a bath that serves the secondary bedrooms. Contrasting finishes differentiate the building’s three compositional elements: painted brick at the original house, glass and cement board at the first floor additions, and laminate panels at the new second floor.

The final design—in which these basic shapes are subtly shaved, folded, and peeled open—emerged from an open-source collaboration with Ray’s colleagues at Washington, D.C.-based Studio 27 Architecture. “The whole studio had input at one point or another,” he says. During the extended design process—there were 12 design schemes in all—Ray also sought input from the people who would have to live with the final product. “We would build models and then talk to our neighbors,” he says. As a result, and in spite of a design that is by no means neo-Colonial, “the neighbor buy-in was actually a lot easier than the permitting.”

Sun Roof. High glazing and a large central skylight give the core of the house a courtyard-like openness.
Sun Roof. High glazing and a large central skylight give the core of the house a courtyard-like openness.

Bright Side

Ray paid particular attention to the home’s glazing, which provides abundant daylighting without compromising privacy. “One of the primary criteria was to connect the interior to the garden,” says Ray, but other prospects also got their due: the sidewalk scene out front, an alley of trees to the north, narrow views between neighboring houses. “We have little narratives for every single opening,” he says.

Perhaps even more important to the house’s bright, peaceful interior is its openness to the sky, which is facilitated by six skylights grouped atop a two-story space at the building’s core. Adjacent rooms get in on the action via interior windows and glazed floor openings. “We basically created a light volume and shared light with all the perimeter spaces,” says Ray, who says he seldom touches a light switch until after sundown. While it may sound obvious, it still bears noting, he adds: “One energy saver is just not using energy.”

Energy Star

Remodeling project manager Tim Mullen says that cutting the building’s lighting load was part of a comprehensive program to minimize its environmental impact across the board. “We had a pretty lofty set of goals,” for energy efficiency, water conservation, material sustainability, and indoor air quality, says Mullen, who shepherded the project to a LEED Platinum certification.

A combination of open- and closed-cell polyurethane foam fills the building’s wood-framed exterior walls, which are wrapped in a continuous layer of rigid insulation (new furring inboard of the previously uninsulated masonry walls was also sprayed with foam). Along with meticulous air sealing, highly efficient glazing, and heat-reflective membrane roofing, that blanket of insulation reduced the building’s heating and cooling load enough to allow a geothermal heat pump system half the size predicted by rule-of-thumb calculations. Rays says, “I spent a thousand dollars on energy modeling and saved $6,000 to $8,000 on a second geothermal well that I didn’t have to drill, plus the cost differential between a 3-ton system and a 6-ton system. That saved us at least $10,000.”

Outside the house, sand-and-bluestone hardscaping and a gravel driveway allow precipitation to percolate into the soil. Drainage from downspouts, retaining walls, and footing drains fills a cistern that provides irrigation for the vegetable garden. Native plantings elsewhere—daylilies, crepe myrtles, daisies, and native grasses—thrive on what nature provides.

Arbor Day
New Leaf. Dappled sunlight filtered through maple foliage inspired the CNC-fabricated MDF stair railing.
New Leaf. Dappled sunlight filtered through maple foliage inspired the CNC-fabricated MDF stair railing.

While carefully dismantling the existing interior, Mullen removed and stored the oak flooring that—supplemented with FSC-certified new material—covers the new floors. He and Ray gave equal consideration to two cherished but dying maple trees that stood outside. When the neighborhood was built, in 1944, Ray explains, “everyone got the same house, and they got two trees, one in the front yard and one in the back, both silver maples. And the life expectancy of a silver maple is 50 years.” Mullen salvaged the wood, which he used to build the slatted screen that separates the stair from the study. 

In a figurative way, the guard rail at the stair’s opposite side came from those same silver maples. Before felling the trees, whose shade he and his wife had long enjoyed, Ray photographed their leaves, silhouetted against a blue autumn sky. A pixilated version of the image, considerably scaled up, became the pattern for the railing. “We created CNC routing template files,” says Ray, who sent the data to an artist friend for fabrication in eight panels of 1-inch-thick MDF. “It’s a single pattern that wraps the whole railing.”