WASHINGTON residential architecture is in the midst of a quiet revolution as brick Colonials are slowly giving ground to contemporary wooden architecture. The red brick Colonial is not dead, but there's a new exciting alternative emerging.
The influence of California-style design, the economic facts of life and a certain nostaligia for natural surfaces have come together and suddenly wooden houses are sprouting up all over the place -- in tract subdivisions as well as on custom-built lots. About the only areas not included in the trend are those where building regulations do not permit new-house wood construction: the more densely populatee sections of the District and Old Town in Alexandria.
The five young architects whose work is pictured on these pages design in wood. Their reasons range from the potentially lower construction costs to the flexibility in design offered by wood.
"All the homes I've designed I've done in wood," says Reston architect Richard A. Compton, a carpenter's son. "I use wood primarily because I'm more comfortable with it, and because labor tends to be cheaper in wood. To design a home in brick that is as interesting as the houses I've done in Great Falls, Va., would be much more expensive because of the added structural supports I'd need."
Compton's cedar-clad atrium house, built with partners John Colby and Ned Ahmed, is not exactly a budget special with its $289,000 price tag. It cost around $40 a square foot to build, says the architect. Construction costs for custom homes in the Washington area run anywhere from $40 to $50 a square foot.
Set in the woods on a 2.3-acre plot, the house's most distinctive feature is a 16 feet x 18 feet atrium dining room. At each of the four corners of the two-story skylit space is a 12-foot-high Ficus benjamina tree, growing in a triangular planter set flush with the floor. "The dining room is really just a 13 feet x 18 feet planter with a floor floating above the ground," explains the 32-year-old architect-developer.There is no foundation under that part of the house; otherwise the roots wouldn't have enough room to expand." The rest of the home's public spaces are equally grand -- an 18 feet X 25 feet living room with a ceiling that soars to 27 feet on one side of the dramatic atrium and on the other side, a 16 feet X 16 feet kitchen. Upstairs four less spacious bedrooms connected by a sort of cantilevered walkway surround the dining area.
All told, the house offers 3700 square feet of living space with a lot of careful detailing in solid oak on the interior.
To ensure quality craftsmanship on the job, Compton hired father to serve as superintendent. It's not the first time the two have worked together, but it was the first time father worked for his son. "We've worked our most of our differences on other jobs," says the architect. "At least now he doesn't ask me in that Central Virginia drawl of his, 'Boy, are y' sure you know what you're doin'?'"
Unlike Compton's palatial extravaganza in wood, architect Tom Manion's home, "Karen's Cottage," built this past summe, is an exercise in creating the illusion of spaciousness out of just 1400 square feet. The two-bedroom home looks more complex on the exterior than its easy-to-understand interior.
A two-story living room, with a 17-foot ceiling punctuated by a giant 27-foot high light scoop or clerestory provides a dramatic focal point for the house. Built for $28 a square foot, with his wife as his client (hence the name, "Karenhs Cottage"), Manion was on such a tight budget that in order to dig a full basement instead of just a crawl space, the couple had to sell their second car.
"We had a $50,000 loan from the bank and we couldn't afford to go over it," recalls Manion, "but when it looked like we could get two more rooms out of the basement if we just dug down a little more, we sold the car to get them."
To overcome the small spaces, Manion pierces almost every interior wall with cutouts so that you can see through to the next room. "The neighborhood kids call it the peek-a-boo house." says the 34-year-old architect. The master bedroom has a curout window overlooking the living room.
Downstairs, the kitchen has several openings to allow you to look through to the dining room with a somewhat incongruous inherited set of heavy German Victorian furniture. "I designed the dining room around the furniture," says Manion. "The average Victorian ceiling is around 9 1/2 to 10 feet high, so this one is 9 1/2 feet."
To add interest to the inside of the four-room house, bright accent colors create visual surprises as you round corners or open closet doors. An almost garish deep orange covers the slanted ceilings in the two light scoops in the two light scoops in the house, making a special kind of magic inside."The sunllight splashes on the orange and throws a kind of warm glow down into the house so that we have a colorful sunset every night in our own living room -- even when there isn't one," grins Manion as if he had just pulled a rabbit our of a hat.
The narrow clapboard triangle sitting on Massachusetts Avenue NW near American University is in stark contrast to the complexity of "Karen's Cottage." Squeezed onto a 40 feet x 100 feet lot is some 2500 square feet of living space with a series of decks and skylights carved into a roofline which comes close to the ground. The house is a kind of contemporaty salt box.
Designed and built by Washington architects Sam Dunn and Bruce Preston of Dunn & Preston, the $195,000 house cost around $30 a square foot to build. They estimate the same house in brick would easily run $2 mire a squarefoot.
"It's much easier to be our own clients," says Preston. "We don't have to fight with the wife over the kitchen and we don't feel that our design ideas are being compromised by a client's taste or pocketbook."
Both Preston and Dunn work in brick as well as wood, but point our some of the benefits of wooden architectural design. "It's easy to do detailed framing and to create soaring spaces without the same kind of internal supports you need if you worked in a material like brick," says Preston. "You can do exciting things in wood by exposing beams in a way that can almost be sculptural."
When Joe and Lois Levy first came to University of Maryland architectural professor William Bechhoefer to talk about building a new house for thrir "empty-nest" years, they thought they wanted a brick house, recalls the architect.
"But I pointed out to them that some of the oldest homes in Maerica were made of wood andsuggested they think about a wooden house," says the red-haired professor, who designs houses exclusively in wood. In the end, their budget precluded using any other material, and for $38 a square foot a three-bedroom home was built with a series of intimate interior spaces and a virtually maintenance-free exterior.
"We're both absolutely delighted with the house," says Lois Levy.
According to the architect, the house is a kind of contemporary nod in the direction of the Italian Renaissance architect Palladio. It has a large semi-circular window lighting a two-story stairwell. Bechhoefer insists the court in the rear of the house created by the extension of the living room and kitchen is reminiscent of the Iralian's approach. Like Dunn and Prestorn's Massachusetts Avenue house with its built-in decks, Bech-hoefer has designed an interior deck and a backyard providing privacy.
Thetained cedar shingles, the baked enamel metal window frames, even the naturally finished handmade door by architect/furniture disigner Paul Tankel, make the house virtually maintenance-free. "All they have to do is paint the garage door every once in a while," says Bechhoefer with pride.
Architect Sanford Silverman took a similar approach to maintenance when he designed his family's Bethesda home four year ago. The board-and-batten exterior is bleached so that it will weather gray and blend in with the trees on the one-acre lot. Silverman, who designs houses and commercial structures for the Silver Spring firm Cohen and Haft, Holtz Kerxton + Associates, likes working in wood but admits that his main motivation in using the material for his own house was cost. The exterior is plain, the interior spacious and straightforward. It's clear that the architect devoted his dollars and energy to designing the house from the inside out.
"We sacrificed finishes for space -- and believe me, after living in a Southwest high-rise apartment when the kids, [twin boys Josh and Andy] were just infants, we needed space," recalls Silverman.
"Sandy would work on the plans at night, and every morning I'd take out my ruler and complain that he'd lopped off a foot from my dining room or made the kitchen too small," his wife Barbara remembers. "He'd just throw up his hands and say, 'Look, do you want a house or not....'"
In the end, the couple built a house of about 2500 square feet designed for future expansion. Silverman managed to keep the price down to $26 a square foot at a time when custom houses were running around $30 a square foot by selecting playwood rather than hardwood floors and covering the floors with coir carpeting, avoiding labor-intensive detailing that would jack up the price and choosing standard size, readily available materials.
The house boasts a dramatic twostory space for the dining room with a large play area overlooking it from the second stroy. The kitchen on one side of the dining room is large enough to double as a family room and the living room on the other side of the dining area was designed to open into what someday will be a family room addition.
"It's worked out pretty well," says Silverman. "When the twins were small, we wanted them in the kitchen so we could keep an eye on them. Now that they're a little older, we'd like them out of our hair and in a family room."
Upstairs the boys share a bedroom, there is a guest room and a master bedroom. A fourth room, adjacent to the master bedroom, serves as a kind of architect's den -- books plus a drafting table to work out the details of the next addition to the house. CAPTION: Pictures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1. Architects Sam Dunn (on the balcony) and Bruce Preston (at the front door) shoehorned this contemporary salt box on to a narrow Massachusetts Avenue lot. 2. Said architect William Bechoefer of this low-maintenance Maryland house he designed: "All they have to do is paint the garage door every once in a whild." 3. Architect Richard Compton's cedar-clad house in Great Falls, Va., is far from a budget special, with its price tag marked $289,000.4. Twins Josh and Andy Silverman's play area overlooks the two-story high dining room in the Bethesda house their architect father Sanford Silverman designed. 5. Architect Tom Manion's "Karen's Cottage," designed for his wife Karen, offers the illusion of spaciousness in an area of only 1400 square feet. Photographs by Bill Snead