The Washington Post

Vacation homes in the region being reimagined with urban sophistication, comforts

The desire to connect with the great outdoors drove Capitol Hill homeowners Janis Goodman and Dennis Weller to buy a weekend getaway in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. “I wanted a place in the landscape that would serve as a source of research for my paintings,” says Goodman, an artist known for abstract scenes of nature.

Given her busy schedule as an arts reviewer on WETA Around Town and associate professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, she didn’t want the vacation home to be too far away from Washington. “It had to be in a place that was an easy drive from the city so I could go back and forth on the same day if I needed to.”

Weller, 60, has a much longer commute. He is the curator of Northern European art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and frequently spends weekends in Washington or at the West Virginia retreat.

The couple paid about $125,000 in 2009 for the tiny dwelling on a ridge overlooking the Potomac River. The purchase was based more on the property’s dramatic view of the river valley than on the design of the house.

“It wasn’t a lovely old cabin. The inside was funky and dark, and the windows didn’t work,” Goodman recalls.

Opportunity struck in 2011 when the empty house caught fire and a large portion of it burned to the ground.

The need to rebuild led the owners to raze the remaining structure and spend $150,000 to build a house more to their liking. “We didn’t want rustic or cute but something contemporary,” says Goodman, who declined to disclose her age.

With its angular shapes of wood and metal, the couple’s new cabin exemplifies the stylish ways in which vacation homes in the region are being reimagined. Most retreats provide an escape in the natural world, but increasingly, many are designed to reflect the sophistication of urban dwellings.

Forget about roughing it. All the comforts of a primary home, from great rooms to glass-enclosed showers, are part of pricier getaways to accommodate long stays, possible renting of the property and full-time retirement in the future. They are becoming more important as the improving real estate market drives second-home sales upward.

Vacation home sales nationwide rose 10.1 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to a survey conducted in March by the National Association of Realtors. They accounted for 11 percent of all transactions last year, unchanged from 2011.

The median price of a vacation home also increased, from $121,300 in 2011 to $150,000 in 2012, as reported by the association.

Like Goodman and Weller, some buyers of second homes will be faced with remodeling and expanding the property. The process can be complicated, given that the work is undertaken from a distance and homeowners have to make an extra effort to monitor the progress in construction. “You need to have an idea of what you want from the beginning and then get a contractor you can trust,” Weller says.

He and Goodman turned to a local builder, No Worries Carpentry of Great Cacapon, W.Va., to construct their vacation house based on a design by GriD Architects, a fledgling firm that rents space in Goodman’s Mount Rainier studio. A compact floor plan and low-priced components kept costs in check.

Kitchen cabinets are from Ikea, steel columns were made by a local metalworker, floors are raw concrete and framing lumber, windows and lighting were bought at Lowe’s.

The resulting cabin achieves what the owners wanted in the first place: a sunny, open living area offering river views through huge windows. “We gave them the same square footage of what they had before but made it more spacious by combining the living and dining rooms and kitchen into one large space,” says architect Brian Grieb, who designed the interior to be multi-functional. “Janis’s studio could become a second bedroom or a home office, and Dennis’s reading area could be used as a guest room.”

Insulating the structure from extreme temperatures to save energy was another priority. “Instead of the typical five inches of insulation, we used 7.5 inches to create a robust, thermal envelope,” Grieb says. Heated floors keep the rooms toasty during winter months.

Like Goodman and Weller, homeowners Bill Karas, 78, and Judy Kelly, 68, both of whom work in real estate, bought a vacation house based on its close proximity to D.C. and then renovated it after the home sustained damage. “We bought in Shady Side, Maryland, because it’s an hour from the city and we don’t have time to go to the Eastern Shore,” Kelly says.

Karas and Kelly paid $394,000 in 2001 for the 1940s cottage, attracted to its frontage on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. When a pipe broke and flooded the house in 2009, they remodeled the kitchen and, with the help of local builder Chesapeake Carpentry, planned a more ambitious renovation of the structure.

But a consultation with D.C. architect Reena Racki about adding a fireplace and reconfiguring a staircase took the couple in a different direction.

Racki encouraged them to transform the cramped interior into a modern loft. She turned a screened porch into a two-story living space framed by tall windows overlooking the bay. “My goal was to design a simple, tranquil retreat where harried urban dwellers could chill out and be enveloped and soothed by the amazing water views,” she says. Much like the couple’s Logan Circle condo, the living area opens to the kitchen and its silvery cabinets and stainless-steel appliances.

The rest of the 2,280-square-foot house was renovated to provide a ground-level master suite and, on the upper floor, a loft-sitting area overlooking the living room and a skylighted guest suite.

“So many people build a vacation house with extra space to accommodate a lot of people, but we built for how we use it most of the time,” says Karas, noting that extra guests have slept on the couple’s sailboat.

Upkeep of the house is minimized through durable, low-maintenance materials. Fiber-cement panels covering the exterior don’t require painting. Windows are framed in rot-resistant fiberglass rather than wood. The roof is covered with coated sheet steel instead of shingles. Decking at the rear is made of a composite material combining reclaimed wood and plastic.

Building on Maryland’s waterfront has its challenges, not only in terms of winds, storms and shoreline erosion, but also legal restrictions imposed on land that is within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and wetlands.

“The building permit process can be long, arduous and complicated,” says Bethesda architect Jim Rill.

About six months passed before Rill secured the go-ahead to expand and remodel the Ocean City, Md., home of John Vassos, 51, an office equipment company executive, and wife Joan, 50, a philanthropist. As part of the agreement, the architect had to enclose the new back porch with a trellis rather than a roof because of limits imposed on impervious surfaces near the bay.

The Vassoses, who bought the house in 2009 for $1.4 million, spent about $450,000 on improving it with additional bedrooms, porches and an enlarged foyer. On the ground floor, they opened the kitchen to the living room to create better flow from the front to the back of the house.

“The house didn’t have any relationship to the water in terms of the view,” Joan Vassos says. “We moved a fireplace from the windows overlooking the bay to other side of the house so now you look right at the water.”

Rill worked with the Tyler Building Co. of Marion Station, Md., to ensure that the structure could withstand gale-force winds. Walls are connected to the roofs with metal hurricane straps. Exterior walls are recovered in fiber-cement boards to withstand salty sea air. New porthole windows and blue paint create a nautical look.

Maintaining the carefree spirit of a vacation house, Rill says, partly depends on built-in spaces for belongings. “If you don’t design a place for a towel, it’s going to end up on a railing blocking your view.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.


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