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A tree falls, a rebuild begins

Alex Veltman, right, and Yvonne Castillo relax on their front patio in the house they remodeled after it was crushed by a falling tree. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Trees play a big part in Yvonne Castillo and Alex Veltman’s house history. The married couple and their children, now 14 and 12, bought their house in Bethesda, Md., in part because of the canopy of trees around the house.

“We fell in love with the Japanese maple at the front of the house and the location because we can walk to downtown Bethesda and to both the NIH [National Institutes of Health] and Bethesda Metro stations,” says Castillo. “We liked the scale of the house, which is not too large, and planned someday when we could afford it to remodel it into a more contemporary style.”

Castillo, a risk management consultant for architects and formerly a lobbyist for the American Institute of Architects, had a list of architects they planned to consider for a future remodel. She and Veltman, an attorney, admired the design philosophy of Sarah Susanka, author of “The Not So Big House,” which emphasizes quality over quantity, smart design and attention to detail.

Their interest in architecture turned out to be prescient. They bought the house in 2017 and eight months after they moved in, a tree on the side of their property fell through the main bedroom, across the house and crushed their car. Thankfully, no one was home at the time. Castillo had hired someone to inspect the trees before they moved in, but the excessive rain in spring 2018 saturated the ground.

“All we were able to salvage from the original house were a few glass doorknobs,” says Veltman. “We considered fixing the property instead of tearing it down, but it was a lost cause.”

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Castillo and Veltman hired Jim Rill, principal of Rill Architects in Bethesda, and Kay Kim, an architect with Rill, to design a new residence that fit the small lot and their dream of creating a comfortable, contemporary not-so-big house of their own.

“The whole property is about outdoor living,” says Rill. “We designed an outdoor living room around the Japanese maple tree in front that connects with glass walls to the indoor living room straight through to the screened porch at the back of the house.”

Wood ceilings, floors and built-in wood screens enhance the effect of indoor-outdoor living throughout the house, which has about 3,100 finished square feet including the basement level. The house covers as much of the lot as zoning rules allowed, with decks, patios and porches rather than a lawn providing outdoor living space.

“I like to call this style of home ‘naturesque’ because of the way they live outdoors like they’re inside and inside like they’re outside,” says Rill.

Design on a budget

Castillo and Veltman received some insurance reimbursement for the tree damage, but the coverage was only enough to replace everything to a basic level.

“The insurance money was a kick-starter for our new home, not a windfall,” says Castillo. “It was basically the down payment on the construction loan.”

The home is still a work in progress as the couple waits to save more money for built-in shelving, a banquette and dining table in the dining area, a hot tub and more landscaping for the back of the house. The couple declined to disclose the cost of their new home except to say that they spent less on it than the value of other renovated homes in their neighborhood.

“Needing to stick to a budget inspired us to be more creative,” says Veltman. “There were lots of interesting concepts that we might have tried if we had more money to spend, but we were able to compromise on some things and delay others.”

For example, the living and dining area and the bedrooms have pine ceilings rather than a more costly wood. “We used more expensive wood for the screens in the living room and the bench by the front door because they’re more like architecture as art,” says Rill. “Yvonne and Alex’s attention to quality over size will bring great value to this house. If they ever decide to sell it, it will go for more than some of the larger McMansion renovations in the neighborhood.”

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Castillo and Veltman are also saving money with sustainability features.

“We used recycled materials everywhere we could,” says Rill. “We designed the house to be passive solar with overhangs to protect the house from the sun and wind and used spray foam insulation for increased energy efficiency. All the appliances and systems are energy efficient, too.”

The couple buys power for their all-electric house from a solar microgrid.

“We almost never need air conditioning because we get cross breezes throughout the house,” says Castillo. “Ninety percent of the windows are operable.”

Zen and the art of sanctuary

Rill and Kim collaborated with Castillo and Veltman to achieve the couple’s desire to incorporate natural materials, a Japanese aesthetic, pampering elements and plenty of smart storage throughout the home.

“One thing I really like about Jim’s work is that all the houses look different, there’s no set look to them,” says Castillo.

Rill says that his company’s goal is to have clients participate in every aspect of the design. Both Castillo and Veltman worked with the architects to create the open floor plan they desired. Privacy is enhanced with wood overhangs on the front and back of the house, along with plants that Veltman chose with the help of Susanna Farm Nursery in Boyds, Md.

“We want to feel like we’re living in a garden but we’re also careful not to make the plants overwhelming,” says Veltman.

The screened porch at the back of the house includes a wood-beamed ceiling and a wood-burning fireplace. The adjacent deck has an outdoor shower.

At the front of the house, a wood fence provides privacy around the courtyard, which includes a dining area and sitting area on a wood deck off the indoor living room. A stone patio extends beyond the wood deck.

“The idea is to create rooms outside around the Japanese maple tree,” says Rill. “The stone patio has a fire pit and garden for a second sitting room.”

The family eats most of their meals outside. Castillo says they carefully left an open pathway from the kitchen to the glass doors at the front of the house for easy transitions at mealtimes.

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The front door, adjacent to the enclosed outdoor living area, opens onto a small foyer with a built-in wood screen that allows for a glimpse into the house. To the left is a mudroom with a stone floor and a pocket door to a pantry that has a second pocket door directly into the kitchen.

“We like the Japanese concept of an entrance that provides a slow transition from the outside world to a more relaxed interior,” says Veltman. “The built-in bench deliberately matches the screen above it and the screen on the main staircase that you can see on the other side of the living room.”

The living room has a wood-burning fireplace and is open to the kitchen and dining area, which has a wall of windows facing the backyard and glass doors to the screened porch.

“I chose to have open shelving in the kitchen instead of big top cabinets,” says Castillo. “I like the look and they’re extremely functional, plus Jim and Kay did a great job designing tons of drawers and storage space. They designed a coffee station on one side of the kitchen and even built a little shelf on one end of the island where we can keep the dog dishes available but out of sight.”

Another convenient feature is a vertical dumbwaiter built into a cabinet to easily transport groceries from the garage on the lower level to the kitchen on the main level. The device sits just inside the house next to the interior garage door and opens into the kitchen upstairs — and looks just like a kitchen cabinet from the outside.

The kitchen features dramatic blue-black cabinets and a blue-black center island with a stainless-steel range hood overhead.

Just beyond the kitchen is Castillo’s office that they call an “away” room since it’s near the kitchen but separate for privacy. The room includes a built-in Murphy bed for guests and has an adjacent full bathroom. On the other side of the dining area a hall with a glass door to the rear deck also leads to a powder room with a large linen closet. This area was designed to be functional when the hot tub is installed.

“Almost every door in the house is a pocket door so the doors don’t take up any space when they’re open,” says Castillo.

Open wood stairs lead to the upper level, where each of the three bedrooms includes a gently sloping wood ceiling that extends outside for a shaded overhang. The bedrooms all have tall casement windows that open out for the breeze and transom windows for extra natural light. Each bedroom has its own bathroom.

“The wood ceilings are part of the architecture as art in this house,” says Rill. “The sloped ceilings and windows mean there aren’t any rooms that are just four walls and a flat ceiling.”

High windows make the upper-level hallway look wider than it is and add natural light to the main staircase. The laundry room off the hall also includes windows and storage.

“The upper hall is shaped like a barbell with a knuckle at each end, one for the stairs and one for the primary bedroom,” says Rill. “That makes the hallway more interesting and seems to extend it.”

The main bedroom has windows that open into trees as well as windows that frame a view of the downtown Bethesda skyline. The bed is set into a nook with niches on either side for books, with sconces for reading.

“The bed niche was a happy accident,” says Rill. “We had to bump out the walls a bit for the HVAC system and we decided to maximize the space for the bed and add the niches.”

Both Castillo and Veltman love the simple yet sybaritic primary bathroom, which includes a black-and-white color scheme with multiple windows set high in the trees for privacy and fresh air. An elegant white free-standing tub sits in the main section of the bathroom surrounded by dark tile with an adjacent steam shower with a bench.

“We saved money on the bathroom by installing radiant heat just under the section of tile flooring in front of the vanity,” says Castillo.

Adding the steam room function required choosing special tiles, windows and doors, but Veltman says that did not add much to the cost of the shower.

The lower level of the house features practical luxury vinyl-plank flooring that looks like wood.

“The ductwork you have to have in the basement was made to look like architecture and to create some minor separation between the game area and the living area,” says Rill. “We also installed storage in every possible location on this level.”

Rill and his team dug out a Japanese rain garden next to the garage to allow for natural light in the basement level, which, in addition to the game area and the living area, has an exercise room with an adjacent full bathroom so the space can function as a guest room. The exercise room has sliding barn doors that reveal a closet that will eventually be fitted with built-in storage shelves. The entrance off the garage will have built-in storage for sports equipment. The garage already includes storage overhead and on the walls, plus a built-in dog bath in one corner.

“The biggest challenge of this project was fitting as much as we could on the site,” says Rill. “We also needed to stick to the budget, but that made it better and encouraged us to focus on simplicity.”

For the Castillo-Veltman family, simplicity and serenity are exactly what they appreciate about their home.