A riverfront retreat, built with the long view

When the time came to take the construction plunge, Chris Collins was pretty clear in talking with her architect about what she wanted her new house to be like.
By Nancy McKeon
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, October 22, 2010; 9:22 AM

Chris Collins had lived with her family in the patched-together weekend house on Maryland's Severn River for several years. The place seemed to be a collection of materials left over from the former owner's construction jobs. "Nothing matched," she says. But it had a to-die-for view of the water and the potential to be an ideal retirement home.

When the time came to take the construction plunge, Collins, a former editor at USA Today, was pretty clear in talking with her architect about what she wanted the new house to be like. Part of an e-mail written in June 2005, at the "idea stage," reads:

"No huge bathrooms or bedrooms (none of us spend much non-sleep time in our bedrooms). No two-story-high spaces. Wide doorways, no thresholds, universal access features if not industrial looking. . . . No glitz. Whole house should be casual, easy-care, light/bright, durable, water/outdoors-oriented. . . . No skimpy columns/details; oversize, hefty."

Collins also had functional requirements for the Annapolis-area house: She wanted built-in space for paper and bottle recycling, a generator ("We lose electricity a lot here," she explains), an elevator and a central vacuum system.

As specific as some of those ideas were, they could be interpreted in myriad ways. To figure out how the house should actually look, Collins turned to Arlington architect Robert Shutler.

Shutler works in traditional styles, not copying them, but tweaking. For this 3,500-square-foot project, he imagined "a kind of Craftsman look, some sense of the nautical - nothing literal." It would also have the flavor of a New England shingle-style house.

It's been five years since Collins's e-mail that launched the design process, and it took three years to complete construction, but now the new house, perched 30 feet above Round Bay, looks as if it has stood sentry over the river forever, like a stately boathouse serving an upscale rowing club. The materials are honest - chunky, exposed roof trusses shaping the copper-roofed gables, fieldstone foundation, stained cedar-shingle siding and exterior trim stained a deep, woodsy green.

The living room floor is slate, purchased from Serra Stone masonry in Bethesda. Its walls are V-groove board wainscoting two-thirds of the way up to the ceiling. The room looks out on a shallow level area and then down to the river, where Collins is having the dock rebuilt with an actual boathouse that will echo the look of the main house above.

The house is casual and easy to care for, as Collins wanted. The living room alone has three comfy sofas long enough for serious napping (and overnight stays by teenage children's friends). But the room has an elegance and a permanence that derive from the many decisions she and Shutler made along the way.

"You'll notice there's no dining room," says Shutler. Well, no, it isn't that obvious. "If you make the kitchen nice enough, you don't need one," he explains.

The kitchen is indeed nice. Collins didn't want stainless-steel trophy appliances, so the big Bosch refrigerator and a large oven are tucked behind wood doors and panels. Even the coffee maker with piped-in water is hidden by a door. The cooktop is black glass, an induction unit that almost disappears into the black soapstone of the countertop.

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