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Designing Additions That Don't Cause Division

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bethesda architect Stephen Muse has spent the past 25 years performing what he calls corrective surgery on some of the most beautiful old homes around Washington. His firm, Muse Architects, also has designed upscale custom houses known for their elegant lines and their neighborliness, whether they sit in Chevy Chase Village, Rock Creek Park or on the banks of the South River near Annapolis.

In December, Muse traveled to Charleston, S.C., to receive the Firm of the Year National Award from Residential Architect magazine. "I am especially proud of this award," he says, "because although we have received more than 100 design awards for individual projects, this award is for the body of work the firm has created."

Muse's houses are not glitzy, overblown trophy homes replete with massive bathrooms or flashy kitchens nobody cooks in. The firm's mission, Muse says, is to respect the history of a house while making it more efficient and comfortable. The goal is to create buildings that are compatible with their surroundings. "A lot of what we do is undo," Muse says.

Some architects design additions to match a house exactly and make it a lot bigger. Others purposely aim for stylistically distinct additions to accentuate the difference between old and new. Muse, 57, says either approach can leave an owner with two separate parts of a house, rather than a unified whole. "Our work is often described as looking like it has always been there," Muse says. "But I like to add the phrase: 'but it actually wasn't.' "

The architect, a native Washingtonian, graduated from the University of Maryland and has a master's of architecture in urban design from Cornell University. Before starting his firm in 1983, he worked for Hartman-Cox Architects in Washington. The firm currently has 20 employees and a client list heavy with the capital's media elite and power players, among them Queen Noor of Jordan; historian Michael Beschloss; and philanthropist Sidney Harman and his wife, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

Right now his firm is working on a 7,000-square-foot addition and renovation to an Art Moderne house in Northwest Washington, an environmentally conscious house on a Montana ranch, a custom home in Great Falls and boathouses for Georgetown University and St. Mary's College.

I interviewed Muse and his wife, Farideh, then newlyweds, in 1984, about the redo of their one-bedroom co-op at the Broadmoor on Connecticut Avenue in "an era of skyrocketing real estate prices." A lot has changed. Last week, I sat down with Muse in his Bethesda office.

How would you define the Washington dream house, and how do you determine what that is for each client?

We tend to be the firm that gets the phone call from the person who likes their house, but it's just not working for them. What we do is to look for a list of spaces that the owner needs, and talk to them about images of houses they like. We ask them to show us photos of about 10 rooms.

A major thing they want is a lot of natural light; many windows in old houses are too small and rooms too dark. Owners want comfortable houses that are timeless in their take. The back of old houses was all about preparing food and then mysteriously making it appear in the dining room. People don't live like that anymore. The kitchen is the center of the house right now. We bring family life into the 21st century and open up backs of houses to the garden. We always ask where people are from and to share memories of houses in their past that are either positive or negative.

What do clients ask for today vs. 25 years ago?

In the early 1980s, much of the renovation work focused around adding kitchens and master bedrooms to old houses: You put up a sheet of plastic, add on, and do nothing to the existing house. About 15 years ago we started doing whole-house redos. Not only additions but total renovations. People started getting concerned about energy, heating and cooling systems that were not efficient. People wanted complete lighting and sound systems. Today, the additions we put on create more basement space. We use the space down there to put in small home theaters, exercise rooms and wine cellars.

The awareness of the environment is also a major change. We have to make houses sound, environmentally. The worst you can do to a historic house is tear it down and take the house to a land dump. We keep them and try to work with them to make them more efficient. We use reclaimed materials. I'm doing a Montana house of almost totally reclaimed materials, like floors, wood siding, corrugated metal roofs and stone from the site.

What does the sputtering economy mean for your remodeling work and new construction?

Housing starts are down, but not at our firm. When money is good, people work on their houses. When money is not good, people say investing in a house is the best investment.

You are known for high-end projects, but what do you advise those with smaller projects and smaller budgets?

Storage is very important. Closets with older houses are always a problem. There are two ways to do it. If the owners are willing to share, I like to make a larger, nicer closet which functions as a joint dressing room. If one person is sloppier than the other, then they usually want their own separate closets. We measure everything from clothing to shoes and ask what other things they would like to incorporate.

There should be a family communications center, whether in a mudroom or in a home office.

The worst thing you can do is just do a lot of little things all around the house, things that don't really have a large-scale impact. You can spend a lot of money, but it doesn't really help. Come up with a plan to do one room at a time, solving the problems there.

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