Architect finds challenge in designing his own getaway with a rooftop pool

From Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica bungalow, the houses erected by architects for themselves often become laboratories for design experiments. The contemporary home created by Bethesda architect Mark McInturff as his weekend getaway on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is no exception in tapping his powers of invention.

This three-story “tower” is held up by steel columns and beams, rather than by conventional timber framing, to support the weight of a swimming pool on the roof. “This is a very aggressive structural idea that I had not tried before,” McInturff says. On a tour of the house, he points to cross-braced metal frames in the living spaces that are designed to withstand 100-mph winds in a hurricane.

Strict regulations aimed at protecting the Chesapeake Bay drove the design of the house, which is on a quiet cove in Neavitt. The property lies within the bay’s “critical area,” land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and wetlands, which limits building on the lot. This constraint challenged McInturff to find creative solutions to configuring his home’s living spaces within a narrow footprint, which he compares to a boat.

“It was like designing a modern ark,” the architect says. “There was always a fight for space. Everything on the site, including the pool, had to be piled into the house.”

On the exterior, porthole windows and staircases resembling gangplanks supply nautical elements to recall a ship. Cedar shingles and siding are inspired by the local vernacular of a waterman’s cottage.

As is often the case when an architect designs a dwelling for personal use, the two-bedroom house took a long time — about a decade — to complete, with many changes along the way. “I designed it three times,” says McInturff, who put the house’s design on the back burner while he worked on commissions including the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Penn Quarter and house renovations for Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).

That intensive work came to be the impetus for McInturff to get serious about building a second residence. His Bethesda home is only steps from his office, and he says the Eastern Shore house provides “a place to decompress,” where he can kayak, cycle and cook with friends and family.

In 2001, McInturff spotted the land for the getaway while spending the Christmas holidays in Neavitt at the vacation home of his sister Joan Wetmore, director of development at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens.

“We took a walk in the village after dinner, and I saw a gap in the houses along the main street,” says McInturff, who is divorced and the father of two grown children. “The lot faced Duck Cove, and my sister said it was on the market.”

Without looking at any other property, McInturff bought the fifth of an acre for $125,000. “It was a quick, impulsive decision,” he says. “I loved the position of the lot on the water.”

Before the contract was signed, McInturff consulted Talbot County officials to make sure he could build on the small piece of land and obtained the necessary permits for digging a well and septic system.

Typically, new homes within the Chesapeake Bay critical area must be at least 100 feet from the shoreline to create an environmentally protective buffer zone between water and building. But since a house was once on the property, McInturff was allowed to build within that demolished structure’s boundaries — if he could prove their exact location.

To determine the outlines of the old house, McInturff enlisted one of his staff architects, Chris Boyd, to excavate the ruins on the property like an archaeologist. Once unearthed, the original foundation walls were measured by a surveyor to pinpoint the exact dimensions that served as the basis of the new 25- by-40-foot house.

“Everything we added to the site had to be within this footprint,” McInturff says. “So the only way to build a pool was to put it on the roof. That one decision drove everything.”

Size limitations led him to purchase a 7-by-14-foot basin from Endless Pools in Aston, Pa., that allows him to swim in place against a current. Once filled with water, the pool weighs about 21,000 pounds, “the equivalent of six Toyota Priuses,” McInturff says.

This heavy load required a structure robust enough to support it, plus a bedroom, an adjoining bathroom and outdoor terraces on each of the upper two levels. Another challenge was potential flooding, so the house was raised seven feet off the tidal cove’s mean high-water line and supported on a concrete-block foundation.

By the time McInturff had finalized his 1,664-square-foot design, five years had passed since he had purchased the property. To expedite the building process, he assigned Boyd to supervise the project full time in 2009 as the general contractor. Construction began in mid-2010 and was completed in fall 2011.

McInturff won’t divulge the construction costs, but he says “we saved a lot by being our own builder” and bringing in steel workers, cabinetmakers, floor finishers and others from Washington who regularly work on his residential projects.

As one would expect from the architect’s portfolio of contemporary designs, the main level of his waterfront home is treated like an airy loft. This entire level faces water views through floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors that, when open, are meant to turn the interior into a porch.

Pairs of steel columns braced by diagonal tension rods divide the long, expansive room into three separate spaces: a living area with skylights and a gas fireplace, a central setting for dining, and a sitting nook open to the kitchen.

The industrial feeling of the exposed steel structure is accentuated by the circular plates to which the cross-braces are pinned. At the ends of the room, these plates sit within the porthole windows to be visible from the outside.

Proud of the home’s spatial efficiency, McInturff points out the powder room tucked into a corner of the living area. Sliding doors at the back of the tiny room open to reveal the furnace, hot-water heater and water-filtration equipment packed into an even-smaller space.

Just off the front door, a staircase leads to McInturff’s bedroom and bathroom on the second level and then winds up to the tower room. This aerie, used as a guest suite, has its own deck, where narrow stairs lead to the rooftop pool and a perch for watching boaters in the cove.

After staying in the house for the first time, McInturff says his biggest surprise was the “luminosity of the rooms.” Bright sunlight is intensified by all-white finishes, including Corian kitchen countertops, bleached oak floors on the living level and light-colored carpeting in the bedrooms.

Set within this pale container are designer furnishings from Cady’s Alley in Georgetown and less costly pieces from stores such as West Elm and Room & Board. Artificial illumination is mostly supplied by simple porcelain sockets on the ceilings that are fitted with half-silver bulbs to direct the light upward.

While McInturff says he sees the house as an escape from his job, he didn’t completely banish work from the getaway. A built-in desk is tucked into a nook off the second-floor landing to overlook the lower level and a vista of the water. “I prefer to do creative, not office-related work, there,” he says. “Then it is a treat.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

 
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