Kube Architecture: Modernists in a city of tradition


The “see-through house” was named for the glass floor panels that channel sunshine from skylights right through the center of each level. Here, the master bathroom extends to the glass floor, an arrangement that some guests find disconcerting. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 15, 2013

Plastic window sheeting flapped in the cold breeze as architects Janet Bloomberg and Richard Loosle-Ortega unrolled drawings to consult with the owners of a Chevy Chase rambler, now gutted to expose rafters and floor joists.

Lawyer Patricio Grane, 39, and radiologist Alexia Egloff, 35, listened to Bloomberg’s ideas before weighing in on the placement of lighting fixtures within the open floor plan. They already had agreed to bare cinder-block walls, concrete floors and huge expanses of glass.

“We wanted something different, not the same old brick and drywall,” says Grane, who estimates that he and his wife will spend $410,000 on the construction. “We picked these architects because they specialize in contemporary design. That’s all they do.”

Bloomberg, 47, and Loosle-Ortega, 58, specialize in offering edgy alternatives to the standard residential remodeling of crown moldings and Shaker cabinets. Their eight-year-old firm, Kube Architecture, is known for transforming urban rowhouses and suburban split-levels into flowing spaces defined by bright finishes and hard-edged details.

“We call ourselves the warm modernists,” says Loosle-Ortega. “We are different from other architects who do contemporary work in our use of colors and textures.”

During a tour of Kube’s most recent renovations, the architects pointed out a tangerine acrylic countertop, red cement-board paneling, cork floors and multi-hued mood lighting to prove that minimalist design need not be cold or austere. They use such vivid elements to animate clean-lined interiors as open as lofts.

Few people strolling past their remodeled rowhouses would guess that behind the historic facades are sleek spaces in which most everything is new.

“They take very traditional housing and slice it up in ways to create a different experience inside,” says Stanley Hallet, professor emeritus and former dean of Catholic University’s architecture school, where Bloomberg and Loosle-Ortega have taught. “Both of them come out of an academic tradition, and it’s been interesting to see them apply ideas about materials and transparency to their work.”

Glass floor panels in a remodeled Foggy Bottom rowhouse channel sunshine from roof skylights right through the center of each level. The three main floors, each completely open from front to back, are connected by a skeletal staircase set against a blue wall.

The architects call their design the“see-through house.”

“The whole concept was bringing light into every space,” says Gaines Mimms, 64, a neonatologist, who with wife Brigitte remodeled the home last year.

On the top floor, the master bathroom extends to the glass floor as an integral part of the bedroom. “You can look up from the living room and see someone taking a shower,” says Mimms, adding that some guests are uncomfortable with the arrangement.

The homeowners cite the architects’ balance of ingenuity and practicality as key to their ability to sell contemporary design in a traditionalist city. “They complement each other,” says Brigitte Mimms, 60, a retired dentist. “Richard is more of a dreamer, Janet is more realistic. She brings him back to earth at times.”

Kube not only stands out in Washington for its unconventional designs, but nationally as a firm headed by one architect who is female and the other who is of Mexican descent. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, only 25 percent of all architects are women and 7 percent are Hispanic.

“Construction is still a man’s world,” Bloomberg says. “It can be hard for a woman. You sometimes have to be tough to get a contractor to listen to you.”

Her pragmatism, say Falls Church homeowners Layle and Joe Nelson, spurred them to select Kube in 2008 to renovate and expand their 1960s split-level. “Janet didn’t dictate the design but gave us options to maximize our budget,” says Layle Nelson, 45, a communications strategist.

The Nelsons spent about $500,000 to enlarge their master bedroom, add a powder room and insert large windows overlooking the back yard. Their kitchen and dining and living areas were combined to share a big, open space at the heart of the house. “Our top priority was brightening up the interior and creating a better flow,” says Joe Nelson, 47, an attorney.“From the outside, it looked like a box and we wanted to improve the curb appeal.”

Now the brick home looks contemporary with a cedar-slatted garage door and a matching screen shielding a landscaped courtyard at the front.

Kube’s collaborative approach led Lenny Ilkovich, 40, a software developer, to hire the firm in 2009 to renovate his townhouse near U Street. “Most of the architects I interviewed just told me about their vision. Rich was willing to work with my ideas,” says Ilkovich, who supervised the construction.

He suggested Loosle-Ortega move the refrigerator to create a straight shot through the main level, from a sitting area at the front to a TV lounge at the rear. The central open kitchen focuses on what the homeowner calls the “apple martini” island.

“The architects had never done that green color before, but it became the whole focus of the room,” Ilkovich says.

Nearer Logan Circle, banker Keith Stiles, 41, is working with Kube to remodel his 1800s Italianate rowhouse. Standing in the empty shell, Stiles discussed paint colors with Bloomberg and Loosle-Ortega, who eventually agreed to his choice of “Adriatic Sea” for the foyer. A new steel beam and exposed brick walls will remain unpainted.

“What I like about Janet and Rich is that they are down-to-earth people who almost embrace your home as if it was their own,” Stiles says.

The architects pride themselves on maintaining such cordial homeowner relationships. After completing a project, they often throw a party at the remodeled house as a way of thanking the owners and marketing their services to potential clients.

“Developing friendships with our clients is an important part of what we do,” says Loosle-Ortega. “A lot of people think architects have big egos and don’t listen. Our intent is to change that perception.”

Bloomberg recalls how several clients attended her 2005 wedding to Sean Brady, the curator of bees and wasps at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The couple lives in Wheaton with young son Ian in a remodeled 1950s house originally designed by mid-century modernist Charles Goodman.

Bloomberg jokingly refers to Loosle-Ortega, who is single, as “my second husband” because the two started their firm the same year as her marriage. The architects decided on the name “Kube” based on its association with pure geometry.

“We wanted a simple name that people would remember,” says Loosle-Ortega. “It allows our staff to feel a sense of ownership in the firm.” Currently, the partners employ two architect-interns, Andrew Baldwin and Jonathan Culp, in their tiny office off Dupont Circle.

Kube’s fees are typically based on 15 percent of construction costs, which have ranged from $30,000 for a bathroom renovation to nearly $1 million for a four-
level addition in Great Falls.

So far, the architects have yet to realize their dream of designing a house from the ground up. “Every architect hopes to create a complete, unified work of art from start to finish, without the constraints of an existing structure,” says Bloomberg. “It’s like being able to paint a full canvas or complete a sculpture.”

The possibility of such a creative opportunity arose last month when the architects met with Tyler Kuhn, 29, and his fiancee, Camille Chang, 28. The couple is looking to buy a tear-down in McLean or Arlington and replace it with a contemporary dwelling.

“Most architects around here seem to be appealing to traditional housing stock. It’s been pretty difficult to find one who does modern work,” says Kuhn, who works for an energy trading company. “We really clicked with Kube.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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