Solution for a growing family: Make two townhouses into one home

The goal was to make one seamless home from two -- to ‘create something that looks like it was always like this’

A steel and wood staircase winds to the second and third levels
A steel and wood staircase winds to the second and third levels (Alan Karchmer/Sandra Benedum)

Sharon Russ, who has been living in the District’s Logan Circle neighborhood for 20 years, had a vision for how she and her husband, David Rubin, could take two adjacent townhouses and make them into one home for their family.

Rubin and Russ were walking in the neighborhood in 2006 when they saw an open house for a three-level townhouse. Intrigued, the couple ventured inside. The townhouse, dating to approximately 1880, had been renovated and was move-in ready. At the time, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment just two blocks away.

“We were having a baby, and needed a little bit more room,” said Rubin, a managing director with Deloitte. “We ended up buying the house.”

A few years later with a growing family — two sons now 15 and 14 — the couple realized they needed more space, and particularly wanted more closet space and a dining room. Most of the closets in the townhouse had been removed by the previous owner.

“And we needed places where we could all be together,” Russ said.

They also wanted an outdoor grill on the back deck, a bigger living room, an office for Rubin and a larger kitchen.

“I like to cook,” said Russ, a consultant.

After buying the rowhouse next door in 2014, they began thinking about how they could combine the two.

“I was the one who wanted to do it, as daunting as it was,” she said.

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Before they closed on the second townhouse, they showed it to architect Salo Levinas, a principal with Shinberg Levinas Architects. They spent a year working with the city on permits and compliance to building codes. In addition to meeting the building codes, there were historic requirements and budget considerations.

“It’s historic so we couldn’t change the facade,” Rubin said. The stone and brick exterior of both townhouses was restored.

The couple wanted to create space where their family would be able to spend time together, especially around meals.

“How will they congregate as a family, how will they be together, and spend a lot of time together, and not be isolated,” Levinas said. “That was very important to them.”

Before he started designing the space, Levinas had a long conversation with the homeowners.

“I try to understand the way that they live, their relationship with their kids, entertaining,” he said. “Then, you start proposing things.”

Levinas challenged Russ to think about how the family would use the new space. He asked her, “What do you want here? What do you envision there?”

“We met all the time,” she said of their collaboration. “We had a lot of meetings.”

Whenever challenges arose with building and fire codes and how to configure the spaces, Levinas had the answers.

“He’s a problem-solver,” Russ said.

The two side-by-side structures were in different states. One had been renovated some years before, while the other was “in very bad shape,” Levinas said. The goal was to join the houses seamlessly.

“To create something that looks like it was always like this,” he said. “When you are inside to forget that you are in two townhouses.”

Levinas designed the new combined space of 6,500 square feet so that the couple would have the option to sell one of them, if they chose in the future. The townhouses are separately deeded properties so the adaptation had to include two staircases to meet the fire code.

“We wanted the ability to put Humpty Dumpty back together again and have two separate houses,” Russ said.

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“The flow is continuous,” Levinas said. “You can go from one place to another easily. You can walk and continue walking and not feel trapped in one corner.”

A dining room can seat 10 and the island in the kitchen accommodates the family of four and their entertaining needs. Two skylights and sliding-glass doors at the back of the home bring in natural light.

“When you start working, when you open the structure and the walls, you discover what you really have,” Levinas said.

The floors on the first level were not uniform and had to be leveled. Two-thirds of a load-bearing wall was removed on the first level, necessitating the addition of a steel beam to maintain structural integrity.

Aiming to stay within a client’s budget is an essential part of any project. Russ and Rubin declined to say how much they spent combining the townhouses.

“To me, it’s extremely important to respect the budget,” Levinas said.

Choosing where to spend more money and where to spend less was essential to the project, such as less expensive bathroom tiles but splurging on the flooring in the main living area. Closet interiors were finished with a less expensive material.

“The construction took 10 months,” Levinas said. “And they moved out for a year.”

Living in the house is the reward for the time and effort it took to complete.

“It’s a really big project,” Russ said. “You have to really love where you are to engage in the entire project.”

Rubin added: “It just is very calming. Sharon had a vision and they got to a shared vision.”

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