T im and Susan Newell thought they wanted a screened-in porch. They wound up instead with a new kitchen, family room and laundry room — without having to add on to the house. ¶ When they bought the neo-Colonial on a cul-de-sac in Chevy Chase, it was their dream house. For several years, they had watched a “difficult seller” put it on the market and take it off again and then turn it into a rental property. When it was listed for sale again in 1999, they pounced. According to public records, the Newells paid $585,000 for four bedrooms, including a main-floor master bedroom, separate living and dining rooms, an ample kitchen, a study, a laundry room and a full basement — 3,200 square feet on the main and upper levels and 1,700 square feet in the basement. ¶ They knew they had gotten a great deal, and that was confirmed a year later when another house in their cluster sold for $230,000 more.
After moving in, the Newells brought in a contractor to finish the basement. That gave Tim, an IT contractor for the federal government, his own office; Susan, who also works for the government, had a separate space for crafts and projects. With two children, then in middle school, the big new media room downstairs was a plus.
What would make the place perfect, the couple thought, was a porch on the back of the house. And an update for the 1980s kitchen.
So they sat down with architect Bruce Wentworth of the Wentworth design/build firm, who came up with a master plan and put some numbers to their ideas.
“Adding a porch was more expensive than we expected,” Tim said in an e-mail. “So we decided that it made more sense to make our existing space (which we use all the time) more useful rather than add yet another room which we would use less frequently.”
Besides, Wentworth, whose soup-to-nuts firm would build the project and even help select paint colors, came up with a compelling design for the kitchen. Part of it involved a small room just inside the front door. Entered from the wide main hall, it was separate from the rest of the main floor, perfect for a quiet study or library removed from family traffic. Not so perfect for an informal living space adjacent to the kitchen area, the current gold standard in American houses.
The Newells jokingly called the space their “red TV room.” Wentworth called it “a study or something, isolated from the rest of the house.” The new kitchen/family room plan centered on getting rid of that room.
So they did. Also, “we were able to incorporate wasted space in the hallway, wasted closets,” Wentworth said. So without adding anything to the footprint of the house — “We don’t need any more space,” Tim said — the front of the house was poised to become a lively family center.
The combined kitchen and family room hinged on installing floor-to-ceiling cabinets that would separate the areas. Wentworth calls the installation a “room divider”; the Newells refer to it as “the edifice.”
On the kitchen side are richly stained alderwood cabinets, to make up for a pantry that was eliminated, and a wine refrigerator. On the family room side are just two columns of beautiful wood panels and a wooden “bridge” across the top.
“It’s very functional,” Wentworth said. “It provides a backdrop for the sofa [in the family room], and people can look through it” from one space to the other.
But when the edifice was just an idea on paper, the Newells had a hard time gauging whether they would like it. So once the kitchen and study had been gutted, Wentworth had his carpenters rough out a life-size replica, right on the spot. The couple trusted the mock-up and Wentworth’s design sense, and the project went on to become a 2010 finalist in the residential interiors category of the Capital Contractor of the Year awards, given by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
The room divider isn’t the only storage in the new space. Two family-room walls are faced with fresh white floor-to-ceiling shelves and lower cabinets. The wall opposite the sofa has an empty space in the middle to accommodate a large flat-screen TV, the empty space echoing the one in the divider. “They have more storage now than they did before,” Wentworth said.
On the kitchen side is an island that allows counter seating and a light-filled corner for a small table and chairs. The creamy beige island countertop is made of recycled glass and concrete, and the richly colored backsplash — all golds and browns and tans — is a mosaic of tiny, partly recycled glass tiles.
The Wentworth team made suggestions for materials and appliances, but the Newells did their own research as well, traveling to the Fretz showroom in Columbia to try out the 36-inch Wolf range they wanted before buying.
They seem proudest of an appliance trick they learned from the HGTV show “Designed to Sell.” Rather than plunk down serious, serious money on a trophy refrigerator such as a Sub-Zero, they bought two 32-inch-wide Electrolux units, one a 161 / 2-cubic-foot refrigerator, the other a 17-cubic-foot freezer, and married them into one enormous built-in unit with a stainless-steel double-louvered trim kit from the manufacturer. Total cost: $3,800. That’s not inexpensive, but it’s less than $9,000.
Now that their son has finished college and their daughter has just started, there are extra rooms in the house. With the master bedroom on the main floor, Susan Newell says days will pass when she doesn’t even go upstairs — and she loves that. Those rooms, plus a 14-kilowatt standby generator fueled by natural gas mean the Newells can welcome friends deprived of heat and lights during Pepco’s periodic power failures.
The only ones whining now are the kids, as in, “How come you waited till now to fix up the house?” And the kids may have to adjust to more empty-nest home improvements. Some landscaping work is coming up, and Tim Newell says they may look into adding that porch at some point.