Home and Design: In South Bethany, a modern beach house

Stand here and look at the living space around you: chalk-white walls; open kitchen; high, sloped ceiling. It could be a smart-looking city loft or an airy contemporary house in a tony suburb. But look out the living room window, and, over there, between a couple of houses, you see the ocean, steely silver or sun-dappled, depending on the day.

The house was built in South Bethany by the husband-and-wife team behind the Washington branding and marketing firm Greenfield/Belser “to discover if ‘modern’ and ‘beach house’ could live in the same sentence,” as husband and graphic artist Burkey Belser puts it.

Another goal, according to Belser, was: “Can we say ‘beach’ in the art without a seashell lamp or a ship in a bottle?”

The questions make sense coming from a design guru with a streamlined sensibility. Greenfield/Belser is the firm that created the stark, bright-yellow EnergyGuide label that tells us how many kilowatt hours per year new household appliances use. Belser, the art end of the firm, also devised the Nutrition Facts label that’s on the back of every packaged food in the supermarket, a label that was lauded for its elegance and clarity by no less a modern-design god than Massimo Vignelli.

So, no beach house with duck decoys and seashell mirrors for Belser and wife Donna Greenfield. Instead, the house evokes the oceanside atmosphere without resorting to the literal. For example, one living room wall is dotted with a grid of half a dozen vellum panels, six repeats of the same image of pool water, cool and blue. “It’s our tip of the hat to David Hockney,” says a smiling Greenfield, a lawyer.

The Belser-Greenfield house didn’t start out as a personal, carefully art-directed statement. Half a dozen years ago, Belser told Greenfield that he wanted to invest in a rental property at the beach. For $1.1 million, they bought a 1970s gable-roofed three-bedroom frame home one house away from the ocean — in a “beer and barbecue” neighborhood, as Belser calls it — and rented it out for a season. Soon, though, they were tearing it down, dissatisfied because the house remained outdated and because it and its deck were oriented to the street to the north, not the water to the east.

Truthfully, Belser and Greenfield might be called serial remodelers, never so happy as when they’re putting their stamp on a piece of real estate. They have remodeled a townhouse in Northwest Washington’s Logan Circle, a Cape Cod in Cleveland Park and a tiny English cottage in Westmoreland Hills in Bethesda, but this time the couple were building from the ground up, in a clean, contemporary mode.

Even from the beginning of the design and building process, “I never thought they would rent it out,” says Joseph Gorman, the Washington architect the couple hired to design the new, 2,850-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath house. He got that idea in part because Belser was so gung-ho about weighing in on the design, insisting, for instance, on “the perfect upper roof deck” for open ocean views, and because Greenfield got into the spirit when it came time to shop for kitchen and bath fittings. Besides, Gorman had done other projects with the couple, such as the remodeled Bethesda cottage, which was featured in the April 22, 2007, edition of The Washington Post Magazine, and had come to read the couple fairly well.

Belser and Greenfield’s goal, a contemporary house, something they hadn’t had before, wasn’t going to be difficult, but certain restrictions on beachside building made some decisions for them, Gorman says. No living space is allowed at ground level, so the house, like its neighbors, is on pilings. Then there’s the local height limit of 32 feet. And if you want the living areas to have the water views, the living/kitchen/dining areas should be on the top floor, with the bedrooms below.

Lot-occupancy restrictions dictated the footprint of the house. The lot is 70 by 70 feet, Gorman says; setback requirements and a desire to leave room for vegetation and parking in front meant a simple rectangle. Combining minimum roof-slope requirements and a wish to maximize the light led to a shed roof. Belser’s wish for a rooftop deck meant that a square tower was attached to the main rectangle. Gorman makes what they wound up with seem so straightforward: a single-slope rectangle with a box in front.

A strict construction budget of $570,000 guided other decisions. No to a fourth bedroom but yes to a den. No to wood-veneer doors but yes to real wood floors. No to a complete clapboard exterior but yes to Hardie cement-fiber panels on three of the outside walls. Saving here and there left money — about $25,000, Gorman and Greenfield recall — for an elevator, a godsend when groceries have to be taken two flights up.

“Part of the thrill was bringing it in on a strict budget,” Greenfield says.

Gorman and Greenfield have nothing but praise for the team at Delaware’s Zonko Builders. Between them, Greenfield says, she and her husband went down to the house only twice during construction — though, yes, there were daily early-morning phone confabs.

For demolition of the old house, the couple hired Second Chance, a nonprofit group that teaches homeless, unskilled workers the building trades. Belser and Greenfield paid for the demolition work but were able to take a tax deduction for whatever salvageable materials Second Chance took away to sell at its Baltimore warehouses. The couple aren’t sure that using the nonprofit saved them any money, but it did give struggling people jobs, and the tax deduction for the couple helped on the other end.

Budget made Greenfield a relentless Internet shopper: She had furniture sent directly to the builders on site, though eventually she and Belser made six trips in a rental truck for the final touches. But budget didn’t restrict the playfulness of the decorating.

In one cool and restful bedroom, a metal headboard — made of strands of curving aluminum mimicking ocean waves — is backdrop to a lime green quilt with marine blue pillow shams. Another bedroom is drenched in bright color — a vivid crazy quilt on the bed, classic game boards on the wall above, evoking rainy-day activities in a childhood vacation house. Over the bed in the master bedroom, beach themes are echoed in three framed New Yorker covers.

Belser says he and Greenfield were after “a huge level of wit, something to make you smile.” There’s lots of that, mostly created by him.

Greenfield points out a bathroom wall, where the business end of an old push broom is mounted, looking like a line of dune grasses. Weighted fishing lines — fishing rods would be too literal — hang plumb in a grid along one bedroom wall; the owners call the piece “Hook, Line and Sinker.” A 2,000-year-old Palestinian amphora is wall-mounted in the living room; above it dangle five blown-glass and neon jellyfish bought a few years ago in New Orleans.

The couple’s fourth season in the house is approaching, and they are looking forward to the usual waves of weekend guests, friends who bring food for Belser to cook and Greenfield to serve at a glass-and-aluminum table that seats 10.

Belser, a great-great-grandson of the Old South, remains the greater beach enthusiast. “He comes down here almost every weekend, just to chill,” Greenfield says. She drives the three hours from their Bethesda home every few weeks, less frequently in the off-season. But the whole beach experience is winning her over, as well. “As I get older, as I slow down, I feel I have time to do this more.”

As for succeeding in building a non-beachy beach house, the fact that the couple couldn’t bear to rent out the place out after it was built certainly suggests they met their own challenge.

Nancy McKeon writes regularly for The Post’s Real Estate section. She can be reached at mckeonn@washpost.com .

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