Jason and Tamara Rademacher had no plans to renovate their home in Chevy Chase, Md., until an electrical fire left it uninhabitable. The living room, seen here, is illuminated by large windows with Douglas fir frames.
Jason and Tamara Rademacher had no plans to renovate their home in Chevy Chase, Md., until an electrical fire left it uninhabitable. The living room, seen here, is illuminated by large windows with Douglas fir frames. (Anice Hoachlander)

Rising from the ashes

A Chevy Chase, Md., family rebuilds after a devastating fire

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On a Monday morning in August 2018, Jason and Tamara Rademacher were jolted awake around 6 a.m.

“We heard a bump and our son screaming for us,” Jason says. “I could see smoke streaming out the sides of his bedroom door, I opened the door, smoke rolls out and my son runs right by me.” An electrical fire had started between the walls of their Chevy Chase, Md., split level in their son’s room on the lower level.

The family evacuated and called the fire department, which showed up about six minutes later. At first, things didn’t look so bad. “To us it seemed like a small fire,” says Jason, a 49-year-old attorney. As the event began to play out, reality set in. “They had to take our son away in an ambulance because he had burns on hands and feet,” says Tamara, also 49. “He spent 48 hours in the hospital with bad smoke inhalation and was delirious for a day.”

The effects of the fire and smoke damage made the house uninhabitable. An insurance adjuster met the family at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and wrote them a check on the spot. “The adjuster told me at the beginning, ‘This is a marathon not a sprint,’ ” Jason says. “That came back to me over and over again in the process.”

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The family moved to a hotel in Friendship Heights where they stayed for two weeks while looking for a rental. They bought a “temporary wardrobe” at Target. According to their policy, their temporary home had to be equivalent to what they were displaced from, but moderate-size rentals are hard to come by in Chevy Chase.

They ended up on the penthouse level of an apartment building in downtown Bethesda where they would live for nearly two years.

Designing the rebuild

The Rademachers had no plans to renovate their home before the fire. They bought it in 2013 for $623,000 after moving from Bowie, Md. To put their lives back together, they had to file a claim for their lost possessions and figure out the cost to rebuild the house.

The claim process started, the house was boarded up, the fire investigation got underway and the homeowners began looking for advice. They called Lou Balodemas, a principal at D.C.-based Balodemas Architects, whom they found on Houzz.

Part of the claim process was figuring out what was lost to the flames. “We had to do drawings of essentially what the house was,” Balodemas says. “At the same time, we were designing the new rebuild.”

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Initially, the homeowners weren’t looking to change anything. “We wanted to know what it’s going to cost to build the house back to the way it was,” Jason says. “We just wanted our old house back because we liked that house. But then we thought, doesn’t it make sense to explore the other things you can do?”

Figuring out renovation costs and who is paying for what in a fire restoration is a fluid process. Designs need to be agreed on, plans need to be finalized and bids need to be collected. To facilitate the process, the insurance company dispatched an estimator. The homeowners hired a separate contractor to get a second opinion. After the basic design plan was hatched, the bids were opened and Jason Hebeisen, the owner of Heb-N-Co Construction, based in Boyds, Md., was the winner.

“I deal with insurance companies often,” Hebeisen says. “I recognize that the insurance adjuster is doing their job, which is to keep the claim from getting out of control. So, in a total loss like this, it came down to largely, ‘Well, you’re renovating the house and making it a little bit bigger. We’re not going to pay for that.’ And they shouldn’t. But you are forced to upgrade the house to current code.”

Most insurance policies, including the Rademachers,’ have limits to what they will pay for code upgrades, which made funding the rebuild even more challenging. Late in the process the homeowners discovered a rider in the policy that boosted their cap level, which helped.

Restoration begins

The design team was also able to move renovation funds around by opting to install drywall instead of replacing plaster walls. The home originally had steel-framed windows that got swapped for wood-framed replacements — more cash savings.

The fire burned so hot it damaged part of the foundation. After crunching the numbers, it was decided that it would be cheaper to pour new footers outside the original foundation as opposed to excavating and replacing the whole slab.

“It was also an opportunity because it allowed us to make the downstairs two feet bigger,” says Veena Shahsavarian, a partner at Balodemas. “Which is not the typical addition that you would do, but we needed those two feet in the kitchen.”

As the numbers continued to be hashed out, it fell to Tamara, the family’s homemaker, to zero in on design choices. “I had a low and high version of almost everything picked out. It was like an actual job, and I haven’t had an actual job for a while. And you’re doing all this while you’re mourning the loss of your stuff.”

The entire process took 23 months, ending one month before the deadline for settling the claim. The homeowners originally asked the architect for their old house back, but a few things changed along the way.

The design team suggested moving the home’s kitchen and dining area to the lower level with access to the backyard. At one of the final design meetings, Jason asked the architects about a butterfly roof, which he’d seen on one of their other projects. Three minutes later, with some from help from a computer-aided design program, the roof butterflied on the fly.

The effect of the newly designed roof shows up at the home’s new front door. Large circular skylights carved into the high ceiling flood the space with natural light. The living room sits to the right — in its original location. The original fireplace was reworked using “wild west” green granite and honed limestone. The room is illuminated by large windows with Douglas fir frames. A custom-made lattice screen, also made from fir by Hebeisen’s crew, separates the living room from the foyer. All the floors on the first level are oak.

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In addition to the living room on the ground level, there’s a home office and mud room to the left of the front door. The home then splits up eight steps to a landing, guest bath, their granddaughter’s bedroom, another bedroom and the main suite. The primary bedroom looks out onto the backyard and shelters a teak-framed bed. The design team also collaborated on a wood-burning fireplace in the bedroom with green ceramic tile laid out in a wide hex pattern on the chimney and a limestone hearth.

The main bath has a dual-headed, curbless shower. There’s also a free-standing soaking tub and an ingenious vanity that provides a sink and a sit-down makeup area topped with quartz. More circular skylights provide natural light. The floor in the main bath is a mix of large-format quarry tile and smaller square-patterned tile with a matte finish.

The house also splits down from the main level to the kitchen, dining area and family room laid out in an open plan with expansive views to the backyard. The kitchen includes an island with a sink and seating for three. The top of the island is hickory rendered in a butcher block configuration.

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The refrigerator is a Sub-Zero, the cabinetry is a mix of open shelving and painted maple cabinets. The cooktop and wall oven are both from Blue Star. The counters are stainless steel with a lipped, marine edge. The dishwasher is a Bosch. A pantry provides more storage. The floors on the lower level are cork, and the dining room table is a custom fabrication using a slab of acacia wood as the top.

The home’s unique appearance attracts picture-takers — a phenomenon not lost on the design team. “I love the colors and the different finishes that we all came up with together,” Balodemas says. “I like that you can’t classify it. I like how it sits on the street.” Shahsavarian adds, “It’s the anti-trend. You can’t point to anything that’s like it.”

The insurance settlement ended up paying about 70 percent of the total project cost, which remains private. The homeowners paid the rest. The Rademachers are glad the long journey arrived at a mostly happy ending, but they are still reconciling the trauma of the past.

“We love the house, and we love living here but I don’t think you could build a house that would be worth what we went through to get it,” Jason says.