Merging the New With the Old

Architect Mark McInturff:
Architect Mark McInturff: "I try to get people to build less and build better." (By Julia Heine)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

In the land of the center-hall Colonial, local architect Mark McInturff is a modernist, committed to soaring open spaces, clean lines, large expanses of glass and buildings that fit into -- rather than fight with -- the land around them. In some cases, that means marrying a traditional home to a contemporary addition.

Linda Gates feared it might not be so seamless when she hired McInturff to design a two-story addition to her Bethesda Colonial. But she couldn't be happier. "We cook in this modern kitchen and eat in this traditional dining room, which all feels right," she says. "My husband and I didn't want to 'move' from our current house into a 'new' house."

With the recent publication of "In Residence," his second hardcover (Images Publishing Group, $49.50), McInturff offers a look at 27 projects created by his seven-person Bethesda firm. Nearly all of those featured in the book are local, and, except for Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, all are residential.

We caught up with McInturff recently to ask a few questions.

You put a lot of modern additions on traditional homes. How do you make them work?

You have to pay attention to the qualities of the old house, make them better, not laugh at them. You might enter through a traditional front door into a foyer; the new space is more modern and all glass, so you are pulled all the way into the garden. The way to ruin an old room is to build a new one behind it that cuts off the traditional part from light and space. I don't like it where the old house has been abandoned, where you live in the added family room and never use the old living room and dining room.

Is modernism gaining a foothold here?

It's much more desirable and accepted than it was five or 10 years ago. People want contemporary, but they say, "We don't want cold." In magazines and newspapers, they now see it can be warm and soaring, light and airy, in so many directions that they embrace it. Modernism has become much more varied and user-friendly.

What are your tried-and-true design elements, your common denominators ?

The importance of natural light and the importance of detail, so that when you get up close to the building, there is something to touch; it feels like someone cares about it: the right doorknob, the right kitchen cabinets, the way a stair is made so everything looks integrated. Stairs can either be nothing or something. They are something with a beautiful railing, glass treads or open risers that let light through.

You use a lot of glass. How energy-efficient are those large windows?

There are projects where you are working with a whole wall of glass, but we don't do a Mies van der Rohe, which is glass in every direction. We know north, east, south and west, where the sun comes from and where it will blast you and how to control it.

Are there other window advances?

More and more we use shading systems, computer-controlled louvered systems to keep summer heat off the glass in the first place. In winter, the louvers are opened to let in as much sun as possible. They are all over Europe but just creeping into the American market.

Using an architect can be daunting. What advice can you give homeowners?

If they can talk to you like real people, address your needs and seem to listen, you have someone you can work with. That's how you learn about how clients live: by what they tell you, the pictures they show you.

You do some very expensive projects. Are there jobs too small for you to consider?

I do houses with Ikea kitchens and houses with high-end German kitchens, which differ in cost by a factor of 10. When I talk to someone on the phone, before I see them, I ask about scope and budget. Sometimes they are so unrealistic. If you want to do a mansion for $100,000, I can't; no one can. But I covered one exterior with asphalt roofing shingles, put in an Ikea kitchen and used $12 exterior spotlights indoors.

What are other economical design choices?

I try to get people to build less and build better. Rather than four bedrooms and two studies, I suggest making the guest room double as a study, or put both studies in one room, though then the people have to get along, of course.

Describe your own home.

In 1978, I bought four abandoned shacks on a wooded hillside just past the D.C. Palisades in Bethesda, for $25,000. That's less than you'd spend on a car today, and I've been working on it for 30 years. I demolished one, have two buildings for the office and one for the house, plus a pool and a garden. As an architect, I should do something new for myself. If I did it today, I would build a smaller house.

Why smaller?

My kids are grown and gone. I do have a lot of books, so it couldn't be too small.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company