For McLean couple, airy, renovated home is its own work of art

April 5, 2012

Far from being homebodies, Michael Cotter and Lara Eisenberg regularly enjoy the thrill of jumping into the wild blue yonder.

The two met 15 years ago while skydiving and remain dedicated to that extreme sport. Eisenberg competes in national skydiving championships as part of the all-woman Perris Moxie, the top-ranked nonprofessional eight-person team in the country.

For these two adventurers, living close to nature was paramount when it came to buying their first home. The couple sought a secluded retreat where they could unwind after long hours at their jobs but still be within manageable commutes to work. Cotter, 51, is a communications systems engineer for Bit Systems in Sterling, while Eisenberg, 43, chairs the radiology department at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

An Internet search led them to buy a low-slung modern house on three wooded acres in McLean, and they renovated it to create contemporary living quarters as unencumbered as a free fall through space. Designed in 1989 by the Acton, Mass.-based company Deck House, the timber-framed home features exposed beams, wood ceilings and walls of mahogany-framed windows.

“We are not your traditional people, so we didn’t go for the traditional trappings of a center-hall Colonial,” says Cotter. “We like to be outside, so the openness of this house and all the windows appealed to us.”

After living in the home for about a year, the two skydivers started hankering for more unfettered surroundings and decided to reconfigure the main level. “The house felt dark and not so open,” recalls Eisenberg. “We realized that we needed more than new furniture.”

The homeowners first consulted a New York design firm that remodeled the Ohio home of Eisenberg’s parents. “We soon discovered that the designers’ style didn’t jell with ours,” says Eisenberg. “Then we got a letter announcing they were retiring and closing their office. That took the enthusiasm out of the project.”

Eventually, the radiologist and engineer decided to find a local design talent who could build on the New York firm’s initial recommendations in a fresh way. A magazine article led them to architect Benjamin Ames of the Alexandria-based Amestudio (Ames now works for the District firm Cunningham Quill Architects). “His clean-lined esthetic was much more in keeping with our tastes,” says Cotter, who describes his own design style as “sparse.”

Rather than renovate the entire house, the couple decided to concentrate their budget on updating the main living spaces and master bedroom. “The kitchen had been recently remodeled before we bought the house, so we decided that redoing that space wasn’t the best use of our money,” says Eisenberg. The walk-out basement was similarly left untouched and served as the couple’s temporary living quarters during the eight months of construction on the upper floor.

For his part, Ames approached the house with respect, leaving the exposed wooden structure, the hefty stone living-room hearth and the bathroom skylights intact. “We didn’t fight the original design but tried to enhance it,” he says. “There were nice open spaces but we felt there could be more connections between the rooms to increase your sense of the outdoors.”

Doors were removed and openings widened to clear a path through the middle of the house. Standing in the dining room at one end, you can see straight through the living room and adjacent TV lounge to the master suite on the opposite side of the home.

Even in the couple’s bedroom, openness reigns. Sleeping and bathing areas are combined into one continuous space and divided only by a bed designed by the architect. A tall headboard with built-in ledges and shelving serves as a partition between mattress and bathtub. Tall wooden posts on either side of the headboard rise to meet a ceiling beam so they appear to be part of the room’s timber structure. Twin sinks are situated opposite from the tub, on the back wall of the bedroom between built-in drawers and cabinets.

“The trade-off of having to deal with the noise of water in the sink versus having the wide-open space was worth it,” says Eisenberg. “So far, the noise hasn’t turned out to be a significant issue.” Shower and toilet are sequestered in separate chambers with their own doors.

Throughout the interiors, wood floors and ceilings are refinished in a pale color to brighten the rooms, while allowing the mahogany frames of the windows to stand out. New maple cabinets built into the walls complement the light wood finishes and supply plenty of storage space. Small, sleek track fixtures replace outdated lighting to illuminate the rooms without the need for intrusive wiring threaded through the exposed structure.

Eisenberg and Cotter hadn’t planned on renovating the outside of the home, but after construction was underway, they tapped Ames to refresh the screened porch and deck off the kitchen with new steel railings and planks of Brazilian ipe. The architect made the front entrance more welcoming by adding an aluminum canopy supported by steel cables purchased from a sailboat manufacturer in Annapolis.

Inside the foyer, carpeting was removed from the mahogany staircase leading to the living room and replaced with aluminum treads. A new metal handrail and mahogany-veneered partition create a sculptural portal to the rooms beyond.

In furnishing the house, Eisenberg and Cotter decided to jettison most of their belongings and start afresh. The two sold their beat-up Eames-style lounge chair on eBay and relegated their bedroom set to the guest room in the basement. Then they turned to Alexandria designer Catherine Hailey, who has collaborated with Ames on several residential projects, to help them choose contemporary pieces that are judiciously placed throughout the main living spaces. “They are not the kind of people who like stuff everywhere,” says Hailey of the homeowners. “They like clean lines and simplified designs but they wanted them to be practical.”

A trip with the designer to Cady’s Alley in Georgetown convinced the couple to purchase some of the more unusual furniture in their home, including two wooden chairs strung with leather cords across high backs. “We were a little skeptical at the beginning, but as soon as we sat in them, we found them to be comfortable,” says Cotter. Placed against the living room windows, the open chair backs allow the wooded yard to be seen.

Hailey didn’t have to worry about draperies or shades — the homeowners decided to leave the windows bare, but she was challenged to find the perfect coffee table for the living room. “We searched and searched for the right sculptural piece but couldn’t find anything that worked, so I ended up designing one.” The wenge top and base match the wood of the dining table, and the aluminum inlay echoes the metal of the foyer stairway.

Just like the furniture, artwork is placed sparingly for visual impact. A triptych of abstractions by Midlothian, Va., artist Paul Germain brightens the dining room with contrasting colors. In the living room, a boat-shaped metal sculpture from Girardini Design in Sykesville, Md., adds a sinuous shape to all the straight lines of the furniture.

Eisenberg says her favorite work in the couple’s collection isn’t a painting or a sculpture, but the design of her renovated home. “It’s a piece of art that you get to live with and experience all the time.”

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