From a distance, the simple gabled roofs and plain brick and lapped siding of the three Line K models offered by K. Hovnanian Homes at Willowsford in Loudoun County appear to be standard fare for a new home community in the Washington area.
Then you get closer, and differences emerge.
The brick is not the red Virginia clay you see almost everywhere — it’s tan, and one house doesn’t have brick at all. The facade incorporates charcoal-colored, cast stone that looks like granite. The windows have unusual proportions — they’re tall and thin. There are no shutters, and the flat roof and oversized square columns of the front porch give them a boxy look. One house has large, stylized brackets to support the roof overhang.
That’s the warm-up.
Once inside, the differences are so pronounced you realize that these houses are unlike anything currently (and probably ever) offered by a production home builder in the Washington market. Ranging in size from 4,050 to 5,450 square feet with a base price of $1.2 million to $1.29 million that includes a finished basement, the houses were designed by the Piet Boon Group, a Dutch firm, which accounts in part for their very different look. The design team was led by Piet Boon and Karin Meyn, Boon’s business and design partner for nearly 30 years. Each model has a Dutch name: Noorderwind, Oostenwind and Zuiderwind.
The interiors are unabashedly modern in style, with a level of workmanship and quality of materials that typify high-end, one-of-a-kind, custom-built houses, not production ones. All the “traditional” Colonial Georgian styled details that have been mainstays of the new home market in this area for decades — the three- and four-piece crown moldings, the dark wood stair rails with white balusters, the “authentic Colonial era” wall colors, the six-paneled doors, the double-hung windows with real or fake dividers — are completely absent.
Instead all the walls are white, the floors are black, the trim is minimal, the windows are eight or 10 feet high (depending on the model) and run down to the floor line, and the doors are as high as the windows. Multiple windows across the entire back bring nature inside while creating a comfortable and surprising degree of coziness in these big houses with big rooms. The spare and simple interior produces a calming, almost Zen-like ambience that is completely unexpected, but a Boon-Meyn signature. As the designers have often said of their work, “What you see is not design, but feeling.”
In all three houses, the layout of the main living area is essentially the same; the difference is the location of the master suite (first or second floor), the location of the other bedrooms (first or second floor) and the number of bedrooms (three or four). Unlike most furnished model homes, these are not loaded with options. What you see, for the most part, is what you get in the base price.
In keeping with today’s informal lifestyle, the heart of the Line K houses is the great room, but the one here is not what Washington-area buyers have come to expect. It has been reimagined by the Dutch design team.
In most production-built houses of this size and price, the kitchen has a large central island surrounded by additional counters and cabinets that line the walls. This kitchen is smaller, the counters have been consolidated into two areas on either side of the range and one large island. When viewed from the great room sitting area, the island appears to be entirely encased in marble and looks like a piece of sculpture. Two banks of cabinets, along with the refrigerator and wall ovens, are recessed into large niches in the walls of this L-shaped kitchen area.
The breakfast area adjacent to the kitchen, which is likely to be the most heavily used space in the house, has floor-to-ceiling windows on two or three sides, depending on the model; from a cozy inside perch, you feel like you’re eating outdoors.
Unlike most great room sitting areas, this one has two focal points, a fireplace wall and a window wall with a view out the back through three eight- or 10-foot-high French doors or an optional eight-foot-high-by-15-foot-long array of “disappearing” sliding glass doors. When fully opened, these neatly fit into a large pocket. In two of the models, the sitting area is two stories high.
The fireplace wall has no massive stone chimney that projects into the space; instead the fireplace is recessed into the wall and concealed behind a sleek, low slung, 12-foot-long-by-18-inches-high piece of blackened glass. The central six-foot portion is the actual gas-fired fireplace.
The master bedroom of the Noorderwind model will make every visitor rethink what they have now. Rather than the usual placement of bed against one wall with a large flat-screen TV mounted on the opposite wall, the freestanding bed is placed in front of a large 10-by-10-foot bank of windows that go to the floor. In creating this arrangement, Meyn said, “It is everybody’s dream to wake up and look into a landscape.”
Almost all the furnishings were designed by Boon and Meyn, whose firm designs furniture as well as houses. Model home visitors are usually not encouraged to try out the furniture, but they should in this case; it’s surprisingly comfortable and, the designers said, meant to be sat in.
How did one of the nation’s largest home building firms decide to build houses that break most of the rules in Washington’s tradition-bound housing market?
It all started in 2004 with a book, “Piet Boon 1,” that Ara Hovnanian, the president of K. Hovnanian Homes, chanced upon in New York City where he lives.
Hovnanian, whose personal taste runs to a modern, contemporary look, was captivated by the Dutch designers’ houses. On a whim, he phoned Boon, and seven days later the two were sitting in Hovnanian’s Fifth Avenue co-op, discussing the renovation of his home.
An easy rapport between the Dutchman and the American quickly developed because, as Boon, who began his career building houses, put it, “He’s a builder, I’m a builder and we speak the same language.”
As the design evolved, it became more and more monochromatic — similar to what is in the Line K houses. Hovnanian said it was not at all what he had originally envisioned, but he’s found the look so remarkably calming that he now says, “I can’t imagine living with anything else. The white produces a serenity that I cherish.”
Hovnanian assumed that the work with Boon and Meyn would not extend beyond his own home, but it elicited such a positive response from family, friends and colleagues, he began to consider wider possibilities.
For decades, production home builders have insisted that houses with a sleek, modern flair won’t sell, but Hovnanian, observing the public’s embrace of what he characterized as “the simplicity and elegance” of Apple’s iPhone, iPad and MacBook laptops, decided to test the waters in Scottsdale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. Creating an entirely new Line K product for the housing market there, the Dutch team’s high-end modern-styled houses were so successful that Hovnanian decided to bring the concept to the Washington market.
Creating the modern, contemporary look of the Line K houses was no easy matter, Hovnanian said. The calming effect of the houses, he explained, is not created by simply slapping white paint on the walls. It comes from the cumulative effect of a balance and symmetry in the floor plan, and an exacting consistency in detail so that, for example, all the doors and windows and even the top line of the kitchen cabinetry line up. The result is subtle, but nearly every visitor senses the difference, said David Yockers, a member of the Line K sales staff.
Creating the contemporary look was costly, Hovnanian said. “Many things with a modern aesthetic are expensive. A simple doorstop in a Washington area house that sells for $700,000 to $800,000 is 98 cents; they were $15 in the Line K house,” he said. “The fireplace was 10 times more expensive than a typical fireplace in a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar house.”
Creating the contemporary look was also time consuming. “We had to relook at every component of the house. Everything is different, even the air grilles,” Hovnanian said. To get exactly the right look, Hovnanian and Boon personally selected every product that went in the house, a vetting process that took a year, said Line K project manager Larry Gorman, who assembled hundreds of samples for their review.
Typically, the product selection process “takes no time at all because we select one of five preprogrammed specification levels,” Gorman said. But here, he explained, “Normal products was not the look they wanted.”
The freestanding, egg-shaped tubs in the master baths were made in England. The tall, narrow European-styled windows were manufactured by Andersen Windows specifically for this job. Even more prosaic items such as doors were custom-made to get ones that are exactly eight or 10 feet high.
Some of their choices were surprising. The dark flooring in all the models is not wood — it’s six-inch-wide laminate planking that looks like wood but costs less and performs better, Gorman said. Boon preferred the laminate to wood because, Gorman said, “he occasionally finds that the fake product looks more real than the real one.”
Does Hovnanian plan to expand the Line K idea to lower-priced segments of Washington’s market? He said he’s already considering townhouses that might sell for $500,000 and more affordable $700,000 single-family houses.
How should prospective buyers evaluate the very different Line K houses offered by K. Hovnanian Homes at Willowsford in Loudoun County?
They will surely compare them to houses of similar square footage and lot size that are offered by other production builders in the Grant quadrant of the Willowsford development. The Line K base price includes a finished basement, and some of the others do not. When this option is added in, buyers will note that the base prices of the Line K houses — $1.2 million to $1.29 million — are about $100,000 to $359,000 more than the others.
In determining value, this is a logical comparison, but not the one that buyers should be making because the other houses are not remotely like the Line K ones, said Great Falls architect, land developer and former banker John Colby. In the Washington area, the only houses like these are one-of-a-kind, custom-built ones. To get one, you have to buy a lot, hire an architect to design it and a builder to construct it. The whole process takes at least two years, and it would cost twice as much as the Line K houses and probably a lot more. When you make this comparison, Colby said, “The Line K houses are a steal.”
Equally important, Colby said, by lowering the price of a carefully crafted contemporary-style house, Hovnanian has greatly expanded the pool of potential buyers both initially and for resale who want this style of house but can’t afford a custom-built home.
The market response so far seems to bear this out — the sales pace has been twice what the company expected, Ara Hovnanian said.
Even more surprising to observers of Washington’s home building industry is where the buyers now live. They are all coming from nearby communities and live in conventional, “traditional” styled homes, said Larry Gorman, Hovnanian’s project manager for Line K.
The buyers chose Loudoun County for its location and bought what was then available, but, clearly, Gorman said, “People in Ashburn have design sensibilities to homes that are much different from what they are living in.”
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at email@example.com or www.katherinesalant.com.