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A major renovation yields a multigenerational home on Capitol Hill

The kitchen island holds the sink and offers seating for casual dining. It’s topped with cultured stone. (Jenn Verrier)
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A family on Capitol Hill beat the odds by renovating a townhouse during the pandemic while keeping children and grandparents safe and healthy.

Naomi and Ed Griffin’s first home purchase was a three-level Victorian-era townhouse that they bought in 2004 for $762,000. Naomi, 47, is an economist. Ed is 46 and an attorney. At the time, the home was divided into two separate residences. An iron gate opened to two exterior doors, one leading to a ground-level apartment and the second door to a two-level living space upstairs.

Initially, the family lived in the downstairs unit and rented out the upper floors. As children were born and finances stabilized, they reversed the arrangement and rented out the ground floor while occupying the second and third floors. The family now has two daughters, and Naomi’s mother frequently shares a bedroom with the kids. In 2018, Ed’s parents began occupying the downstairs apartment on a part-time basis and the house sprung a leak.

“The new bedroom upstairs used to be a deck and we had a leak under the deck,” says Ed. “First, we looked at redoing the deck. When we saw the price tag, we thought maybe we could turn that into a bedroom for about the same amount of money.” The house also had a rodent problem on the first floor that defied extermination efforts. More brown spots were appearing on the ceiling and raising concerns.

“More importantly, we needed space,” says Naomi. Their oldest daughter, Anna, was a teenager sharing a bedroom with two other people.

Resurrecting a neglected neighborhood property

Ed’s parents suggested investigating a major renovation. Naomi found Fowlkes Studio, a husband-and-wife architectural firm based in D.C., on the Houzz website. The images on the website and an initial in-person meeting with the husband, VW Fowlkes, revealed a shared appreciation for modern minimalism.

“The house was very tight, and they had two kids, so tight I wondered if it would be appropriate to just get a bigger house,” says VW. “They had lots of stuff, camping equipment, multiple bikes, so right from the beginning we knew that storage was going to be a big part of the project. They also talked about his interest in Japanese spaces, including the Japanese soaking tubs. He also mentioned his parents might be moving in.”

The deal was struck, a $600,000 budget was allocated, plans were drawn up and demolition began in January 2020 with crews from Fajen & Brown, based in D.C., wielding the hammers. The family, including Naomi’s mother, moved to a nearby temporary two-bedroom apartment. As the walls came down, new problems were revealed. The house had caught on fire sometime in the 1990s and then sat vacant for years. A fast and cheap renovation was performed.

As the layers were peeled off, the design team discovered that the first floor was built on dirt as opposed to a concrete slab and the floor joists were rotten. The ceiling joists on the second floor had been replaced but installed the wrong way, making the roof suspect. “The builder wasn’t comfortable with it, so we reframed the roof,” says Martin Locraft, who served as the project architect. “Those were two major structural elements that were not part of the design or scope.”

The budget was now officially busted, but the project moved forward.

Supply chain issues attributed to wildfires in California delayed material shipments. Masonry repairs had to be made to the walls on the first level. All the plumbing and the wiring had to be replaced. Designs for the home’s stairs — a key element in a multi-level building — pushed the budget higher before being brought back under control with design tweaks.

The front entrance was redesigned as the iron gate was replaced by one exterior door that opens to the apartment on the left and stairs up to the main living area. The legal, separate apartment became an in-law suite. Approvals for change to the front entrance fell under the purview of the L’Enfant Trust and the Capitol Hill Historic District, both of which eventually signed off.

The one-bedroom, one-bath living space on the ground level was updated with a new washer and dryer, office space and an entire wall of built-in cabinets for storage. Universal design elements, including a wide bathroom door and a bench in the shower, were added for aging in place.

Upstairs, the design team was exploring new possibilities from the top down. “In this case we looked at the project with a blank slate and with all rowhouses, the hottest commodity is light,” says Catherine Fowlkes, the co-owner of the firm. “When you can add a skylight over a stair, in a rowhouse it acts as a light well.”

The new roof permitted skylights. A bowed window in the front of the house looks out to park space and offers another major source of natural light. The home was originally built with the living room in the front of the house and the kitchen in the back. The design team had some other ideas, including flipping the kitchen to the front and moving the living room to the back.

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“We were in shock,” says Naomi. “I was so used to it after so many years. It took us awhile even though we were really attracted to it. I wasn’t sure. We gradually grew into it.”

The flip included an island in the middle of the kitchen big enough to serve as a breakfast bar/flex workspace. A dining area sits in between the kitchen and the living room. The scheme included a bank of kitchen cabinets under the windows. But bringing the cabinets up to the counter height (34 to 36 inches) blocked the bottoms of the windows.

“We were close to the finish line and then saw shelves were blocking the windows and I almost had a heart attack,” says Naomi. “I was very depressed.” The angst was quickly solved by carpenters lopping off the top layer of shelving to reveal the windows in full and a slightly lower countertop under them.

Flooring on all three levels is white oak finished in a natural shade that matches the kitchen cabinetry. The countertop is cultured stone. The backsplash, range hood and curved walls are wrapped with glass tile made from recycled TVs and computer monitors. The range is Fisher & Paykel, the dishwasher and refrigerator are from Bosch.

Beyond the living room, heading toward the back of the house is a powder room, more built-in storage and a home office.

Ascending the cantilevered, no-riser and naturally lit stairway leads to the third floor that includes a powder room, two bedrooms for the children, one of which is shared with Naomi’s mother. The deck was eliminated. The main suite is in the front of the house.

The family shares the main bath, which includes a dual-station vanity also made from white oak and topped with cultured stone. The floor is quarry tile. The last item on the wish list was a Japanese-style cypress soaking tub that was procured from Zen Bathworks.

There’s also a shower and the wet side of the room features a sloping floor that negates the need for a door or curtain. Naomi is the tub’s most frequent visitor.

The family moved in just before Thanksgiving in 2020 and were happy to reoccupy their new home.

“While it was going on our friends asked us, ‘Why go through the pain, just buy a new house,’ ” says Naomi. “But if I’m living in D.C. I want to be here, facing the park and connected to the neighborhood.”