D.C. architect Larysa Kurylas typically begins her residential projects by asking the homeowners to think hard about the rooms they will really inhabit. “I press people on the issue of doing away with formal living and dining spaces,” she says. “Building spaces you don’t use seems extremely wasteful to me.”
Heeding her own advice, Kurylas, 55, pared down the dwelling she shares with husband Steve Lann, 60, from the more-is-more design of new homes in the area.
Call it empty-nester economy: The couple’s contemporary house in Kensington has no grand entrance hall, no family room, no breakfast area in the kitchen, no mud room or a finished basement.
Instead, the main level is simply treated as a big open room for living, dining and cooking. “One of my favorite things about it is being able to stand in the kitchen and see the fireplace in the opposite corner 40 feet away,” Kurylas says.
Upstairs are three bedrooms, with one of them now serving as an office. Another is used as a guest room for visiting friends and relatives, including Lann’s sons, Ben, 32, and Nathan, 26, from a previous marriage. The couple considered adding a fourth bedroom for resale but decided to enlarge the master suite instead.
“We didn’t want a McMansion,” says Lann, co-owner of Stroba, a contracting and cabinetry business in Hyattsville. “We wanted a nice, open space where we could live and entertain, a small house that met our needs.”
In fact, the homeowners initially considered remodeling the tiny Cape Cod house on the property. They bought the fixer-upper in 2000 for $177,000 and turned one of the two ground-floor bedrooms into the dining room and opened it to the kitchen.
But the 1930s house felt confining, and the two soon began planning a major overhaul. “The sizes of the rooms were limited and not as open as we wanted them to be,” Kurylas says.
Over the next two years, she penciled sketch after sketch for a new home. Dutch gables, pitched roofs and dormer windows were considered, only to be rejected as too traditional. “I was a very demanding client,” she says. “I wanted to push the envelope more.”
Such willingness to explore new territory led the architect to win her most prestigious commission, the Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine, which will be erected next year near Union Station. The sculptural bronze wall, depicting wheat gradually receding from one side to the other to symbolize the loss of food, will commemorate the millions of Ukrainians who were systematically starved to death by the Soviet Union from 1932 to 1933.
For her house, Kurylas eventually arrived at a similarly simple design resembling two overlapping cubes — one representing the original footprint of the house and the other comprising an expansion to the side and rear. Adding 5.5 feet to the back was no problem, but extending the house 5.5 feet to the side required a zoning variance from Montgomery County and approval from the neighbors.
To make way for the contemporary home, the 1930s cottage wasn’t entirely demolished. Its basement, foundation and ground-level floor joists were incorporated into the new structure, along with the original chimney, which was made taller by about six feet to comply with local building codes.
Out of respect for the neighborhood, Kurylas chose siding resembling the clapboard of the house next door to clad the front. Shingles cover the side and rear. Both types of sheathing are made of fiber cement.
The variation in the materials and subdued paint colors make the house appear less boxy and more compatible with the nearby neo-Victorians and Cape Cods.
But some of the neighbors are puzzled about the flat-top design of the new home.
“Some of them still ask us, ‘When are you going to put on the roof?’ ” Lann says. The idea of a gabled roofline was rejected, he says, so the new building would match the height of the surrounding two-story homes. While the roof appears flat from the exterior, it slopes gently downward to the back of the house, where rainwater is collected and drained by a lone gutter.
At the front, the house is symmetrically arranged around a center bay of windows, but the front door is recessed within the side wing to minimize the amount of space necessary for a foyer. By being pushed back, the entrance leads into the core of the interior, right between the kitchen and living room.
While building the 1,800-square-foot house, the couple lived in a rental property two doors away, allowing them to act as general contractors and supervise the construction on a daily basis. “We had advantages other people don’t have in having access to subcontractors to do the roofing, wiring, plumbing, siding and drywall,” says Lann, who estimates that he and Kurylas saved about $100,000 in design, contractor and labor costs by doing the work themselves.
The couple spent about $250,000 on the new construction but didn’t complete every element of the interior right away. “Part of the luxury was adding some of the details while we were living in the house,” Kurylas says. “Each space became less compartmentalized after we were living here for a while.”
After moving in during 2004, the homeowners completed the kitchen, living space and deck. They initially considered a tall cabinet to separate the kitchen from the adjacent spaces but decided to build a lower peninsula that still blocks the view of dirty dishes from the dining and living areas. “Just 10 inches above the typical counter surface of 36 inches is all you need to hide the mess,” Kurylas notes.
Above the marble countertops, the homeowners added a backsplash of painted, textured glass, and instead of cutting holes into it to allow for electrical outlets, they extended a plug-in molding at the top under the cabinets.
Built-in cabinetry in stained cherry, all crafted by Lann, was installed throughout the main level, from the kitchen cabinets to bookcases, drawers and the fireplace mantel in the living area. It even extends to a vanity in the powder room off the front entryway. The consistent woodwork helps to create a unified look among the different areas within the open plan.
Pale maple floors and floor-to-ceiling glass wrapping the dining area lighten the interior. The large panes bring in ample daylight and direct the view to the back deck, which is reached from a sliding door.
Lann and son Ben built the ipe deck in 2008 and erected its wooden railings the following year based on a rhythmic pattern developed by Kurylas. “I learned from one of my residential jobs to vary the width of the balusters so it doesn’t look repetitive,” she says.
Upstairs, the architect made the master bedroom at the front of the house appear taller and more expansive by creating what she calls “reverse dormers.”
Instead of projecting outward onto a gabled roof, the “dormers” are formed by roof trusses extending inward that allow for three tall windows along the front of the house.
“It was a last-minute idea,” Kurylas says. “The trusses had been ordered and were sitting in a factory in West Virginia while I was still tinkering with the design. But changing them was worth it to make the room feel bigger.”
Other unusual touches include sealed cork floors in the bathrooms, a design idea inspired by a trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. In the dining and living areas, window draperies are mounted on hospital curtain track.
But some key design elements in the house are still missing. Temporary wooden railings now enclose the staircase leading to the second floor, awaiting the installation of aluminum and cherry balustrades.
“It feels good that we are able to appreciate the product of our labors on a daily basis,” Kurylas says. Except for the guest bedroom, she says, “we use every space in the house every day.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.