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Fall Home & Design Issue

A Dash of Spice

Two recipes for making a cookie-cutter home more delectable

By Annie Groer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page W32

Behold the Ranchburger, dismissive architect-speak for any low-slung, mid-century tract house whose postwar builders paid scant heed to such modernist masters as Frank Lloyd Wright when creating one dumbed-down subdivision after another.

Renovating one of these pedestrian edifices might not top the to-do lists of most architects . Yet when the owners of a 1951 Silver Spring brick 'burger asked Robert Cole and his wife, Sophie Prevost, to pop out a second level and update the main floor, the Washington architectural couple eagerly undertook their most extensive ranch remake to date. True, they broke their rule against working for friends. But Michelle Higgins, 46, and John Cohan, 45, who both trained as graphic designers, knew enough about space, light and their own aesthetic to convince the architects that all would be well.

The ceiling in the living room was raised to add light and space, and the colonial fireplace was remade with a modern facade. Vivid furnishings and colors throughout add drama. (Gross & Daley)

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Making a Cookie-Cutter Home More Delectable

"They are clear, quite gifted and very strongly interested in color, so it was a piece of cake," says Cole. "These are fun people."

Eight months and $380,000 later, this Ranchburger has ascended to filet-mignon status inside and out, owing to a 50-foot-wide wall of translucent fiberglass set in a metal grid across the top front of the building. By day it resembles an enormous shoji screen; by night, lit from within, it glows like a Japanese lantern. The addition also boasts a pair of soaring, light-filled bedrooms and a shared "Jack and Jill" bathroom tiled in bright blue glass, its deep soaking tub and walk-through shower flanked by sinks and toilets. Artfully placed windows in both bedrooms, some at pillow level, others near the ceiling, offer soothing treetop views for the couple and their son, Finbar, 8.

As housing prices climb and architectural character is sacrificed for affordability, more people, like the Cohans, are choosing to make their cookie-cutter homes stand out in the crowd rather than move. Once the sawdust is swept away and the faux-finished walls dry, that once-mundane ranch or colonial or townhouse often emerges as something dramatically and delightfully different.

"This works so well, we are just happy, happy, happy," burbles Higgins, who saw the house in December 1993 just as the owner was putting up a "For Sale" sign. Set on a corner lot across from Sligo Creek Park and a quick drive to downtown Silver Spring, the house, its massive trees and tended garden proved irresistible. Without going inside, she ticked off her requirements: hardwood floors, a fireplace, three bedrooms, two baths and no termites. The seller nodded affirmatively to each one, and "we figured we could work with everything else," Higgins says.

For $201,000 they got a house whose front half contained a living room, small dining room, smaller kitchen, Florida room and dark hallway; the back half had three small bedrooms and two baths. They also got a partially finished basement, and, in time, a good case of claustrophobia. A similar, less-renovated ranch across the street sold recently for about $500,000, says Higgins; she figures that means their own swell dwelling -- which all told cost about $600,000 to buy, renovate and decorate -- is smartly positioned on the real estate escalator.

"The first thing we did was take out the wall between the kitchen -- which was dark and tiny and awful -- and the Florida room. We replaced the jalousies with a bow window and built the deck," says Higgins, who now runs her graphic design business in what used to be a bedroom.

By 2002, they were ready to treat themselves to a new kitchen, where they often whip up casual meals for a dozen relatives and friends. But Cohan, marketing director for a property management firm, rejected a piecemeal approach, saying, if they were going to spend $35,000 on a kitchen, "let's do it all now."

They approached the Washington firm ColePrevost, run by widely publicized modernists whom they knew socially. All four agreed they wanted to remove most of the walls dividing the 1,250-square-foot main level, and create an additional 700 square feet of space overhead. Much of the weight of the second floor is carried by concealed horizontal beams, eliminating the need for visible, vertical supports.

"My brother is an architect and looked at the drawings and said we could get more space for less money" by using a visible support beam, Cohan recalls. "But that is not us. We got the big, open spaces without having to have a center post going up the middle of the bedroom."

The original front door, which spilled directly into the living room, was shifted left to open onto a new foyer. Through the foyer's translucent rear wall, the silhouette of a new staircase can be seen. To further define the area, a drop ceiling, painted deep purple, was installed. Built-in cabinets that mimic those in the adjoining kitchen provide storage for coats, gloves and scarves.

The living room is to the foyer's right, its old oak floor ebonized a rich sable, its colonial-style brick fireplace transformed with a limestone interior and a wide hot-rolled steel surround. The attic floor was removed to lift the living room ceiling, and the walls were painted pale green (one of four greens throughout the house). Visual drama comes from an orange sofa and two chairs -- a $12,000 suite slashed to $3,100 at BoConcept in Georgetown -- and a lime green Ikea rug. "Things here are either high-end or they come from Ikea, which is okay for now because, although they're cheap, they have design integrity," says Higgins.

A "wall" of leafless branches -- sprouting from wooden blocks and metal pipes that the ColePrevost firm had used in a designer show house -- defines the TV room, where the business of leisure is conducted on a slouchy red couch and a bright patterned rug.

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