A worn-out residence is given new life and a major eco-upgrade

Renovation and innovation come together to create sustainable homes in the D.C. area.

Around the D.C. area, humdrum structures--from brick ranch houses to shipping containers--are getting new lives as hip, innovative and even sustainable residences. Three projects in the city and the suburbs show how new life can be injected into worn-out buildings and boxes, with delightful and distinctly modern results.

Open House

When a Costa Rican couple moved into the single story, mid-century bungalow that would eventually be transformed into “Casa Abierta,” they couldn’t find a single space among the small, dark rooms that felt like home. They wanted openness and light—a house in which their growing family could spread out and safely explore.

They hired Janet Bloomberg of KUBE Architecture to renovate their 1,800-square-foot, two-bedroom house in Chevy Chase, which she inventively transformed into a three-bedroom courtyard house with walls of glass. The closed box of a house became a bright, open celebration of family life.

“Creating a courtyard surrounded by glass was the most important design objective,” said Bloomberg. “The indoor-outdoor relationship was critical.”

Her design focused on creating a warm environment with wood floors and a strong connection—essentially a continuation—between the exterior and interior space.

The renovation, a nine-month project that added 900 square feet onto the structure, involved building two new wings to create a C-shape centered on the backyard. To dramatically alter the space, Bloomberg redesigned the entry foyer, removed a fireplace and—in the project’s largest design challenge—replaced the home’s load-bearing wall with steel columns and an exposed beam.

In addition to embracing its environment with two flat-roofed, glassed-in “arms,” the house is also eco-friendly in other ways. The house uses natural gas to power a high-efficiency furnace and water heater, and a range and dryer. The design incorporates LED lighting, low-flow toilets and durable and sustainable materials like concrete blocks and Viroc (a composite cement board).

The palette of the interior space is subdued: The only splash of color is a bright lime on one kitchen wall and the inside of a built-in shelf. While floors of maple and Brazilian cherry provide welcoming warmth, the true attraction of the space is the brilliant green of the yard just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Shipping-Container Cozy

Architect Travis Price is known for his inventive, modern design and creative use of materials. One of his latest projects—SeaUA, a multiunit housing development made of recycled sea shipping containers— is a stunning example of his unique vision.

The inventive building, made of 18 industrial containers and located in the Brookland neighborhood near Catholic University of America (CUA), is the first of its kind in D.C. Each of its four 1,900-square-foot group apartments for CUA students has six private rooms with bathrooms, plus spacious common areas. Price’s design was based on two thesis ideas he developed in the 1970s: a passive solar village and a high-rise condo building made of containers.

“When clients asked 40 years later about a low-cost solution that was hip and modern and super sustainable, I picked up a pen,” said Price. “A momentary shock hit the clients but within 30 minutes they were all in.”

Only five and a half months elapsed between conceiving the design and 24 occupants moving in—“record time, low-cost, sustainable, and capable of centuries of life,” said Price.

The building is incredibly green: The insulation exceeds United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, the walkways and balconies are eco-friendly polymer/wood composites and the polygal stair coverings—made of high-quality polycarbonate used for commercial greenhouses—balance cooling and heating. Roof scuppers direct water underground to onsite plantings, and the high-efficiency heating and cooling units are individually metered.

Price says that despite the novelty of building with shipping containers, his is hardly a revolutionary design idea.

“It’s not new technology at all, it’s a cultural shift,” he said. “Handsome modernism is now a mainstream idea. Steel exteriors are simply a new norm, and containers fit the bill better than anyone could imagine.”

Ranch Re-envisioned

In Somerset, Maryland, McGraw Bagnoli Architects turned a drab four-bedroom brick ranch house into a sleek, modern beauty. The major renovation involved gutting the 5,000-square-foot 1955 home to create an open plan with integrated terraces—a radical reenvisioning of a house type as mundane as they come.

The slope of the site, which exposes the bottom floor of the house only on the backside, allowed for the inclusion of terraces, large windows and a walkout basement to link the indoor space with the wooded back yard. The entryway—a box of cedar wood and glass—adds a modern twist to the familiar textures of the original brick and locally quarried stone.

Inside, sweeping white oak floors extend across a vast living space interrupted only by an open staircase with cable railings, a kitchen island and a freestanding fireplace. The sleek, modern kitchen along one wall; the clean lines of the open-plan design; and sparse décor accentuate the expansiveness of the uncluttered space and draw the eye to the giant windows along the back wall.

“One of the most important considerations was how to transform the house into a modern home while maintaining enough of the original character to understand the original structure,” said architect Adam McGraw.

His favorite part of the design is the wood box additions on the front and rear, which both connect the interior and exterior. In the home’s front addition, he noted, “large windows create a sense of openness,” while on the rear, “open and closed rail walls on the decks create privacy while opening to the view of the adjacent wooded park.” But the trees outside are not the only green in this newly imagined residence. The renovation brought eco-friendly elements into the home, introducing LED recessed lighting, EcoStar appliances, Icynene spray foam insulation and natural gas.

Even a ranch house, it turns out, can be reinvented.

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