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A riverfront retreat, built with the long view

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.

Dominating the kitchen space is a handsome farm table. Normally this arrangement would read as an eat-in kitchen, but given the absence of visible appliances and the warm cork floor, it looks more like a dining room, an example of interior legerdemain.

The dark wood of the farm table contrasts with the kitchen's fir cabinets. Collins said she got hooked on a fir kitchen "in my endless foray into shelter magazines - the wood just glowed."

The choice of fir surprised a third member of the design team, Joe Champion of Champion Brothers, in Chambersburg, Pa., which did the construction and all the finish woodwork in the house. "Fir isn't a particularly hard wood," says Champion. "I generally choose a harder wood for cabinets." But he agrees that the wood has warmth and a distinct personality, adding that there won't be little children "riding scooters" around the kitchen, so the wood is not so likely to get banged up.

The four-level house is joined top to bottom by two elements, one visible, the other not. An elevator - hidden behind a fir-paneled door, of course - lets Collins hoist groceries from the garage beneath the house to the kitchen level. It also allowed her to leave the laundry room in the basement, since the elevator makes it easy to get all the linens and clean clothes up to the bedroom level.

Not hidden is the hefty fieldstone fireplace chimney, which lends warmth and character to the living room and to the hallway behind, where the rising chimney punctuates the wall. From there, the chimney also forms part of the hallway on the bedroom level, then soars up into a space that Shutler calls a "roof on top of the roof" and Champion calls a third-story porch.

Whatever you call it, the idea sprang from Shutler and was embraced by Collins: At the bedroom level, a flight of stairs leads up to what seems to be a long skylight. But the skylight is, in fact, a motorized sliding glass roof access. Climb the stairs and you're even higher above the Severn, with a view to both sides of the spit of land on which the house perches - Round Bay and the river in front, Little Round Bay behind.

There are no walls up here, just chunky rafters and a roof overhead (one rafter is inscribed with "2007," the year the truss system was built). Two all-weather-wicker chaises face each other under the main gable. Even on still summer days, breezes can be found up there. But Champion points out that stronger weather comes through as well, "so I had to make sure we weren't building a wind sail up there, that everything could stand up to high winds."

Shutler repeats an old architect's cliche that there are no good architects, just good clients - meaning clients who allow a project to become the best it can be. And he credits Collins with being that good client.

In the Collins-Shutler collaboration, there was give-and-take and genuine respect, both say. Shutler had a "bolder palette" in mind for the interior paint, but Collins wanted, and got, softer seafoams and other colors that related to the water.

For her part, Collins points out how Shutler guided her into some things. "I originally wanted the inside window trim painted white," she says. "Rob would gently suggest that they could always be painted but they could not be unpainted, 'so let's try it with a clear finish and see.' " She now has no plans to paint any of the interior trim.

"If the house has a substantial, well-finished feel, it's not by accident," Shutler says. "We could have built the house for less, but each time I presented options, Chris chose the longer-term value. Stained sapele [for the exterior trim] costs twice what painted pine costs, but she chose it for its longevity and ease of care. The copper roof cost four times what a respectable standing-seam aluminum roof costs, but the copper will last for decades and doesn't have to be painted. These were all conscious decisions."

What Shutler calls "intimidating up-front costs" extended to the heating system. There was too much shade from the trees on the property to go with solar-powered heat, but the house is now heated by six deep geothermal wells. Little wonder Collins jokes about how, often, her "wallet winds up panting." But Shutler points out that there are few moving parts to go wrong with geothermal. She may have to replace a pump someday, but that's about it, he says. The roof on top of the roof helps cool the house; no sun ever hits the real roof, so Collins has rarely had to use the air conditioner.

Details such as the round-top inset handrails along the stairs and the grid-like wooden details on the stairway balusters are more visible evidence of the attention to detail that went into giving the house a sense of solidity and style.

Of course such detail added to the cost. "You could easily have built that house for, say, 30 percent less without the finish work," Champion says.

But, as Shutler says, "You want another architect's cliche? 'The quality lasts long after the cost is forgotten.' "

McKeon is a special contributor.

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