Leanne MacDougall and Jeremy Strauss have lived all over the world. They had no desire to live in a split-level home, but they did want to live in Somerset, the storied 180-acre neighborhood adjacent to Chevy Chase, Md.
“We were overseas for a long time,” says MacDougall, 47, who works as a communications specialist for Cape Fox, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We moved to Washington in January 2015 and stayed in a nearby apartment while we were doing the house-hunt. We didn’t want our [two] kids to switch schools again; we wanted them to stay at Somerset.”
The family had visited friends in the neighborhood while still living out of the country and became smitten with its charms. In spring 2015, MacDougall spotted a listing for a split-level home in the neighborhood that was in their price range and arranged a walk-through that did not initially pan out.
“I said there would be no way I would buy the house. It was poorly laid out, and I didn’t like the configuration of the floor plan — it just seemed very quirky,” MacDougall said.
The layout was quirky, even by split-level standards, as the house appears to be a ranch but is actually divided horizontally, front to back. The front door opens directly into the living room, where you are greeted by two half-staircases — one goes up to the bedrooms, and the other goes down to the kitchen level. The house was quickly cast into the reject pile, as the couple resumed the search but found nothing.
A year later, things were getting desperate.
“We spent another year in the apartment building with ridiculous rents, including a rent increase of 30 percent,” MacDougall said. “We were just aching to get out of there and felt like we were wasting money.”
The house they previously rejected had been taken off the market, but now it was back on, with an even higher asking price. A second look was arranged, this time including Strauss.
Strauss, 48, who works for the World Bank, had a moment of deja vu while walking through the house. “Apart from the strange hemispheric division of space, it’s very similar to the house I grew up in,” he said. “The number one aspect was the neighborhood, and, financially, this was the only way we were going to get into the neighborhood.”
The possibilities offered by a transformative renovation danced through the couple’s heads. Their real estate agent recommended a consult with Lou Balodemas of Balodemas Architects, based in the District. The designer had experience working on other houses in the neighborhood. He walked through with his prospective clients, noted which way the floorboards ran in the lower level, and proposed removing the interior walls and adding sliding-glass doors that would open onto the back yard and bring in more natural light. The family also contemplated adding a cathedral ceiling in the living room or adding a foyer, and the idea of an open-plan kitchen, dining room, mud room and laundry room helped allay their concerns about the house.
Split-levels, also sometimes called “tri-levels,” are an architectural dead end that were built in abundance from the 1930s to the 1970s. Balodemas said real estate developers saw them as a way to make more money on less house, and promoted subdivisions full of them.
“A regular house is a basement and two levels,” Balodemas said. “By doing a split-level, you eliminate the basement, take the other two floors and split them, and now you have a four-level house that’s two-thirds the square footage of what they would have been building. I think, on a square-footage basis, it was probably cheaper to build.”
The couple made an offer on the home as escalating clauses kicked in, and they ended up closing for $1,027,000 in July 2016. They now owned a 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath design anomaly in Somerset.
Renovation plans were drawn up, and demolition began in December. The family, which includes two daughters, ages 9 and 11, decided to shelter in place as the project began. Most meals were eaten out, as the living room assumed the role of temporary kitchen.
All the interior walls on the kitchen level were removed along with mismatched doors and windows on the back wall. Sliding-glass doors took their place. Although the existing kitchen appeared to be in pretty good shape, moisture damage and termites had made it unsalvageable. Originally, there were two half-staircases leading down from the kitchen level to the basement of the home. The design team sealed off one staircase and used the captured space for the new full bath.
But, as the space evolved, unforeseen challenges presented themselves.
“Picking the finishes was the hardest thing, especially the tile,” Balodemas said.
The design scheme called for a kitchen island with a generous overhang in the front that would turn the space into a casual dining area. The couple had seen encaustic tiles during their travels in France and spotted more examples on Houzz that they wanted to emulate on the front of the island and the backsplash. But making the final decision became painful.
“I just couldn’t decide — to me, it was like the biggest decision I made in my life,” MacDougall said. “I felt like I was marrying somebody, because I was going to be looking at it every day for years. I wanted to love the tile and be comfortable staring at it for 10 years. We went to a lot of different places and spent a lot of money on tile samples.”
Strauss added: “It was worse then marrying somebody. It delayed the project, basically.”
A tile design from a West Coast supplier was finally selected, and tile that was supposed to take 12 weeks for delivery ended up taking 14. The initial shipment was then short, and more had to be shipped in by plane.
The couple found two chandeliers from Ochre they liked, but they were too expensive, until the lighting company offered two floor models at a substantial discount. The only catch was the delivery charges of $350 — each. Strauss drove to New York and picked them up himself.
Years ago, Strauss was given a cappuccino machine as a birthday present while the family was stationed in Geneva. The machine runs on 220-volt electric current and needs a voltage regulator to work properly.
To hide the voltage regulator, the design team proposed an appliance garage — an idea that was accepted, but the garage door proved to be problematic. One type of door didn’t go up high enough. The cabinet company offered to build a custom door for $2,500, which seemed excessive, so the compromise was an $800 aluminum roll-up door.
The project lasted six months and cost a little more than $150,000, but the downstairs level flows, feels and functions in a completely different way. The original flooring was replaced by a combination of engineered oak in the kitchen bordered by glazed porcelain tile colored “Brazil Black.”
Kitchen cabinetry came from Kitchen Craft and is faced in “Prosecco” and gloss white-colored thermafoil, an inexpensive and easy-to-clean surface choice. The sought-after patterned tiles for the island face and backsplash are handmade Moroccan cement tiles in a Barcelona pattern from Cle’.
For lighting in the kitchen, the team selected long-lasting LED strip lights from RAB Lighting. The Jenn Air refrigerator came with the house. The new cooktop, oven and dishwasher are all from Bosch.
Just past the kitchen are a few more surprises waiting, as the back corner of the space hosts a laundry center, complete with an ironing board hidden in a cabinet. More storage was supplied, including a space custom designed for Strauss’s bike, which he rides to work.
“Jeremy said he had to have a place to hang his bike,” Balodemas said. “They don’t have a garage; they have a carport and a shed, but the shed isn’t really secure. He wanted something where he could come right in and hang it on the wall.”
Just beyond the bike storage is the home’s new compact full bathroom, featuring a vanity-sink combination unit from Porcelanosa. The room is bordered by a pocket door and hexagonal patterned wall tile also from Cle’.
The challenges were many on the project, but everybody on the team agrees it was worth the effort. Many lessons were learned along the way, including the high cost of just about everything in custom design.
MacDougall has, for the time being, made peace with her family home in Somerset. Speaking of the newly configured kitchen level, she said, “I love the whole vibe, the light, the windows, and I think there’s warmth to the room. I love entertaining in there.”