Behold the Ranchburger, dismissive architect-speak for any low-slung, mid-century tract house whose postwar builders paid scant heed to such modernist masters as Frank Lloyd Wright when creating one dumbed-down subdivision after another.

Renovating one of these pedestrian edifices might not top the to-do lists of most architects. Yet when the owners of a 1951 Silver Spring brick 'burger asked Robert Cole and his wife, Sophie Prevost, to pop out a second level and update the main floor, the Washington architectural couple eagerly undertook their most extensive ranch remake to date. True, they broke their rule against working for friends. But Michelle Higgins, 46, and John Cohan, 45, who both trained as graphic designers, knew enough about space, light and their own aesthetic to convince the architects that all would be well.

"They are clear, quite gifted and very strongly interested in color, so it was a piece of cake," says Cole. "These are fun people."

Eight months and $380,000 later, this Ranchburger has ascended to filet-mignon status inside and out, owing to a 50-foot-wide wall of translucent fiberglass set in a metal grid across the top front of the building. By day it resembles an enormous shoji screen; by night, lit from within, it glows like a Japanese lantern. The addition also boasts a pair of soaring, light-filled bedrooms and a shared "Jack and Jill" bathroom tiled in bright blue glass, its deep soaking tub and walk-through shower flanked by sinks and toilets. Artfully placed windows in both bedrooms, some at pillow level, others near the ceiling, offer soothing treetop views for the couple and their son, Finbar, 8.

As housing prices climb and architectural character is sacrificed for affordability, more people, like the Cohans, are choosing to make their cookie-cutter homes stand out in the crowd rather than move. Once the sawdust is swept away and the faux-finished walls dry, that once-mundane ranch or colonial or townhouse often emerges as something dramatically and delightfully different.

"This works so well, we are just happy, happy, happy," burbles Higgins, who saw the house in December 1993 just as the owner was putting up a "For Sale" sign. Set on a corner lot across from Sligo Creek Park and a quick drive to downtown Silver Spring, the house, its massive trees and tended garden proved irresistible. Without going inside, she ticked off her requirements: hardwood floors, a fireplace, three bedrooms, two baths and no termites. The seller nodded affirmatively to each one, and "we figured we could work with everything else," Higgins says.

For $201,000 they got a house whose front half contained a living room, small dining room, smaller kitchen, Florida room and dark hallway; the back half had three small bedrooms and two baths. They also got a partially finished basement, and, in time, a good case of claustrophobia. A similar, less-renovated ranch across the street sold recently for about $500,000, says Higgins; she figures that means their own swell dwelling -- which all told cost about $600,000 to buy, renovate and decorate -- is smartly positioned on the real estate escalator.

"The first thing we did was take out the wall between the kitchen -- which was dark and tiny and awful -- and the Florida room. We replaced the jalousies with a bow window and built the deck," says Higgins, who now runs her graphic design business in what used to be a bedroom.

By 2002, they were ready to treat themselves to a new kitchen, where they often whip up casual meals for a dozen relatives and friends. But Cohan, marketing director for a property management firm, rejected a piecemeal approach, saying, if they were going to spend $35,000 on a kitchen, "let's do it all now."

They approached the Washington firm ColePrevost, run by widely publicized modernists whom they knew socially. All four agreed they wanted to remove most of the walls dividing the 1,250-square-foot main level, and create an additional 700 square feet of space overhead. Much of the weight of the second floor is carried by concealed horizontal beams, eliminating the need for visible, vertical supports.

"My brother is an architect and looked at the drawings and said we could get more space for less money" by using a visible support beam, Cohan recalls. "But that is not us. We got the big, open spaces without having to have a center post going up the middle of the bedroom."

The original front door, which spilled directly into the living room, was shifted left to open onto a new foyer. Through the foyer's translucent rear wall, the silhouette of a new staircase can be seen. To further define the area, a drop ceiling, painted deep purple, was installed. Built-in cabinets that mimic those in the adjoining kitchen provide storage for coats, gloves and scarves.

The living room is to the foyer's right, its old oak floor ebonized a rich sable, its colonial-style brick fireplace transformed with a limestone interior and a wide hot-rolled steel surround. The attic floor was removed to lift the living room ceiling, and the walls were painted pale green (one of four greens throughout the house). Visual drama comes from an orange sofa and two chairs -- a $12,000 suite slashed to $3,100 at BoConcept in Georgetown -- and a lime green Ikea rug. "Things here are either high-end or they come from Ikea, which is okay for now because, although they're cheap, they have design integrity," says Higgins.

A "wall" of leafless branches -- sprouting from wooden blocks and metal pipes that the ColePrevost firm had used in a designer show house -- defines the TV room, where the business of leisure is conducted on a slouchy red couch and a bright patterned rug.

To the left of the foyer -- in the new social heart of the house -- lie the kitchen and dining room, all floored in pale bamboo. Light pours through windows on two walls, and sliding-glass doors just beyond the kitchen island lead to a deck made of teaklike Brazilian ipe wood. This is where Cohan the Grillmaster often reigns (even in winter), though on a lazy summer Sunday, Finbar and his father happily assembled model warships on the kitchen island while Mom surfed the 'Net on a computer several feet away.

That scene was a far cry from their New Year's Eve fete, when some 25 adults and kids, most wearing tuxedos or fancy dresses, ate raw oysters and cheesecake and had their fortunes told by a hired seer. "He said he'd never been at an event with so many people whose potential will be huge and happen later in life," Higgins says, clearly pleased.

Since Higgins hates curtains, Prevost affixed sliding fabric panels to metal tracks running along the top of two perpendicular walls at the far end of the kitchen/dining room. Some countertops are untreated zinc, others upscale gray Italian laminate, alternatives to far costlier cement. The kitchen island houses an oven, cooktop and more storage. Near the dining table are green couches and upholstered blue nesting tables from (surprise) Ikea. Unhappy with their original hues, Higgins dyed all the slipcovers in the washing machine.

The family so loves strong color that Finbar's bedroom floor is black-and-white, red, yellow and blue vinyl. On a recent tour of his sanctuary, he went straight for the white plastic wicker swing that hangs from the ceiling, vigorously spinning himself around while declaring it his second-favorite thing. The first? "My Lego war station."

The master bedroom is the most subdued space in the house, a pale Zen retreat whose neutrality is pleasantly violated by a crimson bedspread.

The couple concedes that sharing a double bathroom with their son, screened only by curtains because glass was too costly, might not appeal to others. "But it works for us. I grew up in a family that was not modest," Higgins says.

A two-tier ambiance is clearly at work: intimate family space above, wide-open gallery, hearth and lounge areas below, connected by a soaring stairway. Paintings by Finbar and various artist friends abound, including several large works by impressionist figural and gardenscape painter Scott Sedar. Today the couple will welcome as many as 100 guests to an exhibit of his work, and can already anticipate their reaction to the space.

"When people visit they stop, stand there and don't say anything for a while because there are so many things you don't expect . . . They see the twigs and say, 'What a great idea,' and they look up at this purple ceiling," she says. "Our house is not for everybody. A lot of people don't like modern, and I don't really care."

"We really wanted the house to reflect our taste," says Cohan, "and we think we've done it."


For artist, do-it-yourselfer and information technology consultant Michelle Allen, 41, a great weekend often means retiling a bathroom, faux-finishing walls, remaking a couch or otherwise personalizing the three-bedroom Reston townhouse she bought for $177,250 in 1995.

She estimates spending $50,000 so far -- and perhaps that much again in sweat equity -- on "what basically is a box. It had no architectural integrity, but I loved the open layout and floor-to-ceiling windows. I could see what it could become."

She immediately began transforming the 2,000 square feet of someone else's design choices, ripping out "awful" vertical blinds and "horrible" dirty beige carpeting in the living room, "hideous" wallpaper throughout the house and "dated" white laminate cabinets and almond appliances in the kitchen.

She started on the main level, which contains a large living space with tall windows at one end and a dining area at the other, beyond which lie a generous kitchen and adjoining family room. Oak flooring quickly replaced the dingy carpeting, and Allen soon set about marrying vibrant wall color in the living room with a kitchen of pale earth tones. She mixed Afro-centric works by local artists with her own paintings and drawings. Antiques she'd found in Amsterdam during the 1990s when she worked with the European Space Agency were easily teamed with inexpensive glass accent pieces found here and abroad.

Upstairs, however, she toned down the visuals, making the master bedroom and bath, guest room and painting studio "more subtle, a peaceful, restful space."

She freely acknowledges negotiating a serious decorating learning curve.

"My first experiment was with a yellow wash on the living rooms walls, and it was a comedy of errors," she says. "I mixed my own paint. It was a disaster, so bright you needed sunglasses." Today the room evokes the palette of a van Gogh or a Matisse: scarlet curtains and club chair, yellow walls and sofa, blue accents everywhere.

Another early project involved widening and framing the breakfast bar, which she topped with ceramic tile cut like flagstone. Last year, after contractors put in new maple cabinets, stainless steel appliances and Silestone counters, Allen added a backsplash of iridescent amber glass tile. This summer came the greenhouse window with its mini-herb garden because Italian cooking is a passion; and she is finishing the broad sill with leftover tiles.

"One of my favorite things to do is have friends over for dinner, sit around and enjoy it with a bottle of wine. I have also had a few big, buffet-style parties where food is served on the dining room table," says Allen. "Even though this is a small space, there is a circular flow around. You can be in the kitchen, and people can sit at the breakfast bar and talk to you."

It has been four years since she first tackled tile, retopping the master-bath vanity counter. "I bought a pair of nippers and a book about mastic. It was trial and error." Ditto for teaching herself how to quickly apply a terra cotta-colored wash to her bedroom walls so all the surfaces were evenly pigmented. An ornate iron bed provides cold contrast to the warm walls, which she'll ultimately adorn with black-and-white photos of Greek ruins she shot years ago.

These days she is turning the bright front bedroom into a painting studio and the basement into a study that includes a desk, drafting table and computer.

It is here that Allen, who holds a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Virginia, will do her homework for an associate's degree in interior design from the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Her cherished home-decor laboratory proved so inspiring that last month, after much soul-searching, she requested a one-year leave of absence from her job to finish course work begun more than two years ago in night classes.

"I wanted to go beyond the weekend warrior to learning about design, feeling I had a natural instinct for it. It's been a fantastic discovery," she says. "I love to work with my hands, painting, tiling. Most women want jewelry. I want power tools."

Be Yourself | Ideas for adding individuality to your cookie-cutter home:

{sstar} Cruise your neighborhood and similar-vintage communities to see what others have done to set their homes apart. Ask everyone you know if you can scope out their renovations.

{sstar} Read. Magazines are filled with great ideas -- decorative and structural. Good magazines include This Old House, Inspired House, Atomic Ranch, Real Simple and Metropolitan Home. Start a file with pictures of appealing rooms, paint colors, furniture and appliances.

{sstar} Painting is the simplest, least expensive way to create visual impact and personalize a space. A single accent wall or even a ceiling offers great possibility. Experiment with glazes, washes, stripes and other finishes.

{sstar} Inject style with window treatments. Choose draperies or simple swags in your favorite fabrics. Hang a new or vintage stained-glass panel in a window.

{sstar} Invest in a custom-made door.

{sstar} Display collections of treasured objects: family photos, Granny's china plates, framed prints, martini shakers, art glass. These can be grouped on walls, tabletops or shelves.

{sstar} Pay attention to surfaces, especially flooring. Replace tired countertops with jazzy laminates; resurface floors with unexpected materials such as cork, faux wood or linoleum in uncommon colors. Invest in handwoven rugs.

-- A.G.

Annie Groer is staff writer for The Post's Home section.