Correction to This Article
This article on the renovation of a D.C. rowhouse incorrectly described the power produced by the owner's passive solar system. The references to kilowatts, such as the statement that the solar panels produced about 2,400 kilowatts of energy last year, should have said "kilowatt-hours." The kilowatt is a unit of power, and kilowatt-hours measure energy use: A kilowatt-hour is the power supplied by one kilowatt for one hour.
Turning on the light: Clever remodel sets a dim D.C. rowhouse aglow

By Nancy McKeon
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 23, 2010; E01

Otto Condon's street, near the U Street corridor in Northwest, is quiet and historic, with facing rows of simple post-Civil War dwellings. Each one is about the width of one door and one window, and it's easy to imagine the dim, nestlike interiors, plus a privy out back, that once housed entire working-class families.

But there's a hint that there's a wake-up call from another century inside the two-story rowhouse owned by Condon. That hint is the front door, which has a center panel made of sleek, reeded glass.

Step over the threshold, and you see that the soft light filtering through the door and the clear glass transom above it almost meets the natural light cascading into the tiny dwelling from windows at the top of the stairwell. Condon, a 46-year-old principal for urban design with ZGF Architects in Washington, has made the house glow with natural light where once there was shadow, and saturated color where once there was beige and age. Even on a partially overcast day, Condon said, "I don't have to turn the lights on downstairs."

When Condon bought the house for $240,000 in 2002, his priorities were to give it light and livability. Part of his definition of livability was making the place healthier (better insulation and ventilation and an end to mold and rot problems) and more sustainable. He couldn't increase the house's 870 square feet of space, he said, but he could make it function better. He hired Ark Contracting of Chevy Chase to do a major renovation in November 2006, starting with the bathroom.

Seen from the sparely furnished living room right inside the front door, the whole ground floor lays itself out before you: a new, angled wall with a welcoming modern gas fireplace, then an open and airy staircase that serves as a partial room divider, followed by a dining area and a sleek U-shaped kitchen. Light-colored bamboo flooring visually expands the ground floor beyond its 11-foot interior width, extending back into the kitchen. A glass door in the kitchen leads to a 12- by 26-foot garden patch, where Condon has grown corn, tomatoes and cantaloupes.

The staircase was the key to a lot of Condon's solutions for the space. "You used to have to walk through the living room and around into the dining area to get to the stairs," Condon said. They were mostly closed in and cut the two areas off from each other, physically and visually. Instead, he reconfigured the stairs as a compact U shape, with the bottom steps open and offering additional seating in the living room.

Oddly, the house did not have a skylight at the top of the stairs the way so many traditional rowhouses do to introduce natural light into the core of what can be a narrow, dark space because the only windows are at the front and rear. Here Condon felt competing demands. He wanted the light, but he needed flat roof space to realize a long-standing pledge to himself: "When Ronald Reagan came into office," said the Minnesota-born Condon, whose major was environmental design before he studied architecture, "he pulled the solar panels off the White House. I said that when I buy a house, I'm going to put [panels] on mine."

The solution was to build what Condon calls a light monitor at the top of the stairwell. It's a flat-topped structure that rises a few feet above the roof. Some of the solar energy panels are affixed to the top of it, but the sides are trimmed out with seven windows facing south, west and east. These tilt-turn clerestory-style windows are what capture the light that floods the lower floor.

The investment in solar energy was substantial -- $11,000 after a District green-energy grant and not counting a $2,000 federal tax credit (see box) -- but now the house chugs along consuming energy it generates and sending surplus back onto the power grid.

About twice that amount of money went into outfitting a kitchen that hits all the marks for contemporary style and also scores high on Condon's livability scale, with energy-efficient appliances and countertops of PaperStone, made from recycled paper and cashew-shell oil. "I have to re-oil them, but they're holding up well," he said, " and I do cook." (He likes to cook Thai food, using peppers from his garden.) The 6-plus-footer likes the natural cherry wood horizontal-lift cabinets by Wellborn that he got through Precision Cabinets in Northwest D.C. "I can leave them open and not hit my head when I walk through the kitchen."

Upstairs, Condon swept away a warren of tiny bedrooms. First, he moved the house's single bathroom to the rear, occupying the space above the kitchen. The room is sheathed in recycled glass tile, and the shower is completely open. Next to the tub, it's simply an area with river-stone flooring where the rain-style shower head aims at the drain in the floor.

The rest of the second floor became one large bedroom and a small, open office that doubles as a guest room; the floors here are resilient cork. Like the dining area below it, the office/guest room has a cutout in its stairwell wall to allow in natural light from the light monitor high above.

Condon took off his architect hat and put on his homeowner hat when it came to storage space. With no basement and minimal attic, space was at a premium. The architect in him would have loved to have a floating staircase, just a diagonal ribbon of steps, but reality called for closing in the space under the stairs for a coat and storage closet on the ground level. (Coat hooks behind the front door get daily use, as well.) Similarly, the right-hand wall of the dining area holds a mechanical and laundry closet, as well as a built-in pantry adjacent to the kitchen. The hallway upstairs boasts a linen closet, and both bedrooms have closets.

The renovation work cost Condon a couple of hundred thousand dollars, which was more than he had envisioned spending, of course. But the house had been vacant for five years when he bought it, and there were rotted areas to be rebuilt, windows to be replaced, heating and cooling systems to update, solar panels to install, and on and on.

Soon, there will be built-ins -- bookshelves and a window seat in the office, shelves for books, stereo and CDs in the upstairs hallway. And will there be a bit more furniture in that sparely furnished living room? "I'm working on it," Condon said.

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