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Into the Wild: A Home Renovation Inspired by Nature

In renovating their house in the woods, a Virginia family used simple, linear design to bring the outside in.

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By Alexa Yablonski
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Like so many homeowners before them, Elena Sterlin and David Harris believed renovating their house would be a snap. "We thought rather innocently that we could have a builder measure up some bigger windows and that it could be done in two weeks after we closed," remembers Harris, who is from England.

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Instead, it took about three years and two architects to produce a house radically different from what they had envisioned -- in a good way.

Credit Alexandria-based architect David Jameson for helping them make the leap -- and create the mod wood-and-glass box in the woods that they and their 7-year-old daughter, Abbigail, call home. After their experience with an architect who delivered only big bills and promises, the couple was relieved to work with someone they found not just accommodating but also trustworthy -- a must, since they would be out of the country for most of the construction. Both travel extensively for the their jobs at a D.C.-based international finance organization. There were, however, some shocks during the construction, which began in 2004. "The first was when David showed us the model," Harris says. "And the second was when we got an e-mail saying that demolition was complete. In the picture, all that was left was a chimney stack."

Jameson, not surprisingly, thinks his approach was far less extreme. He says he simply took off the roof and knocked down some drywall, noting that there's no new concrete or masonry, and that the ground-floor joists and plumbing are original.

Though the bones of the house were sound, the existing problems necessitated a dramatic reorganization. "It was this busy, voiceless house," Jameson says. Harris and Sterlin complained about the "poor flow" and wanted an extra bedroom for visiting family members.

They also disliked how the house was divorced from its site, which is precipitously steep but absolutely stunning. Situated on a wooded bluff near the Spout Run ravine in Arlington, the house affords the kind of views members of the Audubon Society dream of. Alas, most of the living spaces were oriented toward a dull hillside instead of the breathtaking canopy of trees.

Reconnecting the house to nature and simplifying its form were paramount. The house's facade is now composed of an L-shaped stucco structure that feels anchored to the landscape. The rear is rectilinear, clad in cedar shiplap siding, with plenty of window openings and a cantilevered roof. The material "is of the woodland but treated in a manner that is very planar, very linear," Jameson says. "It's a counterpoint to the wild, undulating landscape."

Inside, Jameson took down walls to create the large volumes and flowing spaces that Harris and Sterlin craved. "We wanted it to be the kind of house where they could take off their shoes and change from the suit-and-tie life to a fluid, flexible one," Jameson says.

Directly off the entryway, a gallery space funnels into the double-height kitchen/eating area, which opens onto the double-height family room downstairs. Thanks to this unfolding, overlapping plan, the house always feels energized and the hum of activity can be heard everywhere. (Only the master bedroom, a treetop sanctuary, is isolated.)

"There's a focal point in the kitchen where you can see what's going on in the family room," Harris says. "You can look down on that space from upstairs and see who's around and what's going on. You can see into the garden and be in the garden all very easily and quickly."

Outside, imposing restraint was key. "There was way too much going on. [The landscaping] had nothing to do with the topography," Jameson says. The pool, which was an overdesigned eyesore with a hot tub, needed to be simplified. The architect's solution: to coat the bottom with a black Pebble Tec finish and transform the former Jacuzzi into a circular "pond" with river stones. Corten steel planters and ornamental grasses in contrasting shades of green complete the minimalist garden.

Serving as an ideal backdrop to view the carefully curated landscape are the interior's stark white rooms, which also set off the couple's art and sculpture collections. The standouts are the pre-revolutionary antiques from Russia, which is Sterlin's homeland, along with the tribal pieces from Africa, where Harris often travels for work. "Our approach to flea markets and street galleries really changed when we knew we had such big walls to fill," Harris says with a laugh.

Five-foot-tall snakes -- actually, West African headdresses -- mingle with Turkish rugs and wicker chairs by Poul Kjaerholm in the family room (which has an ochre-colored accent wall). But perhaps the most inspired furniture choice is a Hans Wegner Ox chair, which occupies one corner and fits in perfectly with the piece's muscular geometry.

"What's great about this project is that it evolved," says Jameson, who helped select many of the furnishings. "It's not like the furniture was here since Day One." The family lived in the house for a bit and discovered their needs in an organic way. Harris describes their approach to decorating as "patient, indecisive and room by room."

Only the dining room and spacious second-floor deck adjacent to the master bedroom await their attention. But even after the dining chairs are bought and the big potted plants placed, the house won't be finished, per se. "We see the house as a work in progress," Harris says. " 'Done houses' are in danger of being in museums or exhibits in coffee-table books."

Alexa Yablonski is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


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