Graphic designers Don and Lynne Komai need only look around their geometric home to get their creative juices flowing. The husband-and-wife team works on a mezzanine perched above a two-story, living-dining area where the walls and windows are shifted at different angles from their office.
“We are inspired daily by the crisp and linear lines of the space,” says Don Komai, 65. “To us, the house is an artwork.”
The Komais’ striking contemporary house stands out in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood where Craftsman bungalows are the norm. Not only are its stripped-down facades of stucco and glass radically different from the surrounding houses, but so is its triangular shape.
The house is three-sided to fit on the lot and tapers to a sharp point.
This edgy architecture fulfills the Komais’ long-held dream of creating an unconventional home from scratch. The designers found the right site for the house — a vacant corner parcel used as a dog park — while walking their pooch, Blender. “The lot was close to our daughter and grandkids, and we wanted to stay in the area,” says Don.
As empty nesters, the couple sought to downsize from their three-bedroom home just a few blocks away. “One of the reasons to build a new house was to have our bedroom on the main living floor,” says Don. “And we didn’t want a lot of maintenance.”
The Komais bought the lot in 2008 for $340,000 and then sold their 1930s Colonial in 2010 for about $1 million to pay for the new house. (They declined to say how much it cost to build the new house.) Their search for an architect led them to District-based Robert Gurney whose designs are clean-lined and spare.
“We admired how Bob turned a McLean split-level into a fantastic home,” says Lynne, 62. “We liked how he imagined volumes of space and a new and different way of creating elements like a fireplace. We were totally in tune with his philosophy of contemporary design.”
For Gurney, the empty nesters’ request for a two-bedroom house was smaller than his typical assignment — and many single-family houses being built today. “Bob has such a great portfolio so we weren’t sure he would want to work with us because our house was so modest,” Don says.
Among the architect’s designs are houses for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and former Redskins running back John Riggins.
Gurney says he agreed to create the house for the Komais because it offered “the opportunity to work with open-minded, design-savvy clients who were familiar with my work and desired a modern house on a challenging lot.”
The triangular piece of land certainly presented difficulties in its narrow dimensions and corner location, bounded by a heavily trafficked street and a quieter residential avenue. According to the Komais, the previous owner of the property, an architect-developer, had plans to build on the lot but chose instead to sell it to them.
Gurney typically hatches a residential design from an analysis of its location — “the site drives everything,” he says — and was undeterred by the awkwardness of the Komais’ lot.
He initially envisioned their house as two cottages: a small pavilion for living, dining and kitchen near the busy street, and a larger, two-story wing for bedrooms and home office facing the quieter avenue. Sloping roofs and a chimney were added so the new house would blend into the neighborhood of traditional homes.
After developing this design, Gurney submitted the drawings to Alexandria’s planning and zoning department for review. He wanted to ensure the proposed plans complied with the setback requirements for the parcel before applying for a building permit. “At this point, we were informed that more restrictive setbacks were required,” Gurney says.
So the architect returned to his drawing board to develop a smaller footprint, allowing for more space between the house and lot boundaries. He consolidated all the rooms of the house into a compact, two-story structure that mirrors the parcel’s triangular shape. The home’s sharp-edged prow near the driveway is sheathed in slats of mahogany to mark the entrance.
From the foyer, a hallway leads to the kitchen and open, two-story living and dining area at the heart of the house. An oak-veneered wall separates this central space from the master suite at the west end. It slants to mirror the angle of the bedroom’s perimeter wall along the street, making evident the unusual geometry of the house.
Even on an overcast morning, daylight fills the lofty living-dining area from skylights in the flat roof and tall windows facing the residential street. On the side nearest the dining area, translucent fiberglass panels supply more light while screening the neighboring house from view.
Overhead, a steel bridge crosses the double-height living area like ship’s gangway. The walkway connects the second-level spaces, spanning between the designers’ office and a guest suite with a triangular shower stall in the bathroom.
The Komais say such playful elements and material contrasts keep the pared-down house from feeling too sterile. “Bob specializes in the imaginative use of materials, such as frosted glass doors to make hallways look lighter and wood to break up monotony of white space,” Lynne says. “We have artwork we haven’t even hung because he has created beautiful vignettes everywhere.”
One of the few pieces on display is the large letter “K,” salvaged from a sign once belonging to a roller skating rink in Alexandria.
Designer touches throughout the house turn out to be practical as well as eye-catching. An oak cabinet set into the steel railing around the second-floor office provides file storage. A sliding wood panel within the fireplace wall hides the TV.
Among the few pieces of furniture in the house are sculptural, modern designs. Frenchman Pierre Paulin’s “Orange Slice” chair brightens the living area. A beautifully crafted table and chairs designed by the late Japanese-American woodworker George Nakashima anchor the dining area. A streamlined, 1940s plywood chair created by Don’s uncle, Ray Komai, provides a resting spot in the home office.
This work area, with its large storage room and balcony, turned out to be so commodious that, after living in the house for about a year, the Komais decided to close their Old Town Alexandria office and run their firm, Watermark Design, from home.
As designers, the Komais say they appreciated Gurney’s creative process and requested only a few changes in the house before the construction was completed in 2012. The dining room was enlarged with a bay window and a closet turned into an open pantry with a window supplying light to the kitchen.
“Every time we presented a problem,” says Don. “Bob came up with another solution.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.