Few people ever live in the house of their dreams.
But longtime Washingtonians Victor and Sophie Reuther soon will be moving to their dream home--a house that the Reuthers helped to design before its major components were built in a factory, hauled by truck to Northwest Washington and hoisted into place by a crane.
The sunny, four-level, house is in Northwest Washington, right next door to the Reuthers' old home, a three-story brick traditional they have lived in for three decades. It will use passive solar heating, that is, a system to collect and hold in heat from sunshine that uses no mechanical devices such as pumps.
The new house provides both private spaces for their diverse hobbies and flowing, wide-open living, dining and kitchen spaces that create a spectacular entertainment environment.
The Reuthers, both in their early 70s, have been active participants in the creation of this unusual "retirement" house with Pre-Engineered Housing Inc., a McLean consulting firm. Now they have a customized home, not just another version of a standard model labeled as "custom."
Kent Natirbov, the consultant working with the project, said his role--and that of other similar design consulting firms opening up around the country as the demand for custom, but affordable, housing grows--is to help with concepts and designs as well as site management and the host of other normal construction problems.
He works to transform his clients' ideas and desires into plans and drawings for a structure within their budget. Natirbov represents a number of companies in the pre-engineered, or factory-built, housing industry, and he says what his clients want usually fits with what one of those companies can create.
The designs and drawings for the Reuthers' house were sent to Techbuilt, a Massachusetts company, whose architects drew the plans. Once the Reuthers and the architects agreed on all details in the plans, the house's components were manufactured in New England and delivered here by truck.
Meanwhile, the Reuthers had arranged for the preparation of the foundation.
"With a crew of five and a crane, the basic structure was up in three weeks," Natirbov said.
That's when the Reuthers became their own contractors--finding the craftsmen, electricians and plumbers to complete the house. Victor Reuther did a lot of the detail work himself but he calls Sophie "the general contractor" for completing the house in a style that enhances their flair for Scandinavian furniture and Japanese artistry.
Victor Reuther considers the house unique, but not because of anything structural. "It's 'unique' because its 4,200 square feet of living space built on a standard city lot," he said. The average home size on a standard city lot is between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet. He's proud of the house in spite of some complaints about the processes of getting all the necessary permits.
"The whole house is keyed to passive solar heating," Natirboy said. The Reuthers said they "were stubborn about wanting passive solar" once they made the decision to build.
Fireplaces on the lower and main levels share a common dark brick chimney system that serves as a heat collector.
"The basement is projected out beyond the main wall of the house and raised out of the ground four feet to get the angle for skylight glazing on the south side, which lets the sun heat the basement," Natirbov explained.
"Basically, I have four heating "There's passive solar, wood-burning fireplaces, radiation from the sun's heat absorbed by the dark brick and a back-up heating system."
The visual centerpieces of the interior are the natural oak spiral staircases built for the house by Architecture Woodworking Co., a small Maine company.
"Come look at this view," Victor Reuther said as he led a visitor to the bottom of the spiral. "Look right up there." The wooden steps above look "like an open Japanese fan."
Floors throughout the house are teak (except for the ceramic workroom). New teak tiles were used on the main level. Tiles recycled from a friend's condominium near Philadelphia cover the other floors. Reuther explained how to clean the old ones as if he's been doing it all his life. He also installed some of the floor and made and installed the teak floor moldings.
Teak touches are everywhere. There's even a Reuther-made teak mail box. "They use teak on battleships, you know," he said.
Every craftsperson who has worked on the house has been asked to autograph his work. Reuther told an 82-year-old man who poured some of the concrete to put his name in the wet mortar so "my children and my grandchildren and your grandchildren and their grandchildren will know." Sophie Reuther said that the first party in the house will be for the workmen and their families.
Victor Reuther's respect for the individual skilled craft worker goes back to his childhood. "My father was a real do-it-yourselfer. He taught us all how to use hand tools," he said. His father was Valentine Reuther, a West Virginia trade union official whose sons Walter, Roy and Victor would have a dramatic impact on this nation's industrial history with their combative and vigorous unionization of automotive industry workers in the 1930s and 1940s. Both Walter and Victor Reuther were injured by gunshots in the late '40s. The assailants were never caught.
After 35 years in the labor movement, Victor Reuther retired in February 1972 as director of international affairs for the United Auto Workers union. Walter Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970.
Victor Reuther completed a history of his family's involvement in the automotive union movement in 1976.
The cedar exterior of the house is a contrast with other homes on the street in materials as well as style. But extra care was taken to blend the roofline with those of the older houses.
People driving by just stop and stare, Natirbov said.
During construction, people have "just walked right on in. They don't bother knocking," Victor Reuther said.
"When young folks come in the kitchen and say 'this is just what I want,' I tell them 'when you've been married 47 years, you're entitled.' "
The kitchen is in the center of the main level of the house. It features a bright red, restaurant-deep corner sink and another two-section sink in the food preparation center island, the top of which was made of more teak by Victor Reuther himself.
The kitchen, dining and living rooms blend together so that Victor Reuther can work in the kitchen and talk to guests at the same time. "See, there's room at the island for them to sit down and chop the vegetables," he said.
Also on the main level are a guest bedroom and bath, a powder room, a large laundry room and a soaring entrance foyer.
Up the spiral staircase, the master bedroom and bath, closets and a large overlook fill the third level. The master bath is a showcase of the latest Kohler plumbing fixtures--including pedestal sinks and a Jacuzzi tub.
Victor Reuther remarks about being involved in the longest strike in labor history with Kohler. "Now they advertize in our (labor) publications." He buys their plumbing fixtures.
He said the loft area looking out over the living room is "a sleeping loft for my grandchildren. There will be three mattresses covered in brightly-colored fabrics stacked over there. It's a lot cheaper than three beds."
A narrow spiral staircase in the master bedroom leads to a fourth level loft. "That's my sewing and junk room. When you stand up in there, you can see the tops of trees," said Sophie Reuther. The idea obviously pleases her.
The basement includes a garage, a large ceramics work room, a dark room, a workshop, family room space with a fireplace and a room that can be used as either an office or bedroom. A large desk used by Victor's brother Walter while he was president of the UAW dominates the room. As Victor Reuther shows off Sophie's ceramics work area, he points to where the kiln will go and to the dark, deep sink--"an old photographer's sink that I got from the junk yard for $2." He made a teak countertop to hold the sink.
More teak surrounds the wet side sink in the darkroom where he plans to develop the eight to ten thousand negatives he has from trips all over the world. There's another big sink in his shop where piles of sawdust and wood shavings attest to the work he's done on the house.
"There are more damn sinks in this house. I hope the taxes are not based on the number of sinks," he said.
Sophie Reuther too has been a public person. As a District delegate to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, she boycotted the final session. She was quoted in the Aug. 30, 1968 edition of The Washington Post saying the boycott was to protest "the lack of civil liberties in the convention hall and outside."
The Reuthers do some good-natured harrassing of one another while the Techbuilt representative smiles. You can see that Natirbov has gotten to know the pair quite well.
There's only been one major dispute between the Reuthers over where anything should be placed. She lost on the dishwasher. It's right across from the refrigerator. If both doors are open there's less than an inch between. But Victor Reuther said, "I wanted the sink to be where I could work at it and talk to company" so the dishwasher had to go at the other end of the island.
"That's about three times a year at the sink with company. That leaves 362 days with the dishwasher there," Sophie Reuther teased him.
Victor Reuther laughs as he recalls what happened when he retired. He said he told Sophie how nice it was to be retired. She told him she'd like to feel that way too but since he "retired" she was working harder than ever in the kitchen.
He said he told her they could work something out. "You mean you'll cook one day a week," he reported her saying.
"After all those years around collective bargaining and you'll settle for just that," he replied.
Now each cooks three days a week and they either "sponge off other people" or eat out on Sundays.
Why did they decide to build a house when they were both approaching 70?
They said their six-bedroom home next door is just too big. They gave some thought to turning it into a two-family dwelling but that didn't seem to work. They worked with Baltimore architect Carol Moore on plans to build but those plans were getting too costly. That's when they turned to Pre-Engineered Housing for help. Moore has helped along the way, Sophie Reuther added.
''What appears to be a dry river bed with occasional flat stones will create a landscaped Japanese garden between the new house and the old one, which is now up for sale, Victor Reuther explained.
The new house is designed so that, should the need arise, the couple would live on the main level and still enjoy the bright living, dining, cooking and sleeping spaces they have designed.
"If either of us becomes incapacitated, we could live on any floor and still have great privacy even with others living here too," Victor Reuther said.
They joke about moving their furniture "10 or 20 times" before finding the proper spot in the new house. The Reuthers hope to have a yard sale before they really move in. Some of their contemporary furniture is already in place, in areas so perfectly planned that the pieces appear built-in.
Pre-Engineered Housing Inc.-Techbuilt recently held an open house at the Reuthers to give the general public a chance to see the house before the move.
The Techbuilt components included all the walls, the flooring (up to the sub floor), interior partitions, select cedar siding, the roof, white cedar shingles for the roof and consulting help throughout construction.
During the recent open house, Victor Reuther told one visitor he wasn't yet quite sure the total cost of the house because he hasn't paid all the bills yet.