Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg and her husband Arturo Brillembourg created a modern, open and sunny vacation home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland from a small and dated bungalow. (By Alan Karchmer and Sandra Benedum)

Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg wanted a crystal cube in the woods.

One day she was walking through a forest on the Eastern Shore of Maryland when she saw a mid-century rambler, in the woods.

If the owners ever wanted to sell, she told them, she was interested in buying it for a weekend home.

Indeed, at the end of a gravel road was a house in a mesmerizing setting that begged to be renovated. So when the owners decided to move to Florida, Ochoa-Brillembourg and her husband, Arturo E. Brillembourg, were ready to buy.

“It’s a place for contemplation, meditation, writing and reflection,” said Ochoa-Brillembourg, whose first home is in the District. “To find these woods on the Eastern Shore was very magical.”

The rambler had “all kinds of little rooms,” Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “The main living area was partitioned into all kinds of little rooms” as well.

“I figured at some point it could be renovated,” and she knew just the architect who could transform the space into a weekend retreat where family and friends could get away from the hectic pace of the Beltway.

“It was as far away from a glass cube, a crystal cube” as could be, but Ochoa-Brillembourg, a portfolio manager, saw its potential, and so did family friend, architect Salo Levinas, a partner with Shinberg Levinas in the District.

“We eliminated the walls and the original ceiling” in the main living space, Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “It’s the concept of a family room. There’s not a single space in the house where you’re not in contact with nature.”

Levinas worked with the needs of the owners in mind: They requested a place where their family could gather and spend time together, and they wanted to bring the outdoors into their living space. “We wanted to allow the house to merge into the woods,” Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “That’s the magic of it. It’s a little bit like discovering what a person is like on the inside. And the exterior is actually pretty now” as well. It had to be a place “where people could commune with one another and still have space for themselves.”

Levinas, who considers himself a minimalist architect, said he aims for practicality. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible, to keep as much as possible of the integrity of the original house,” he said. “We kept 80 percent of the house — the exterior walls and the roof are the same. We added very little square footage — a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, a garage and two bathrooms.”

The main living area of the 3,100-square-foot home essentially became one big room — a combination living room, dining room, family room and kitchen. “This is an island floating in nature. It’s not about being big,” he said.

The key to the transformation was to utilize as much natural light as possible. “We wanted to change the house from night to day,” Levinas said.

The most striking features of the house are the new ceiling in the main living area and the skylight situated above the 20-foot-long island.

Though the exterior of the roof remains the same, Levinas’s design opened the ceiling up to the inside of the roof, raising it nine inches, to 14 feet.

“We restructured the interior of the roof,” he said.

Creating the skylight was central to the redesign of the house. The purpose of it is not to see the sky but “to bring a shower of light at the core of the house,” Levinas said.


The most striking features of the house are the new ceiling in the main living area and the skylight situated above the 20-foot-long island. (By Alan Karchmer and Sandra Benedum)

The key to the transformation was to utilize as much natural light as possible. (By Alan Karchmer and Sandra Benedum)

Light also flows into the main living space from the sliding glass doors and windows across the back of the house and at the corners of the main living space. When you enter the house from the front door, you feel like you are walking outdoors because of the light and view of the forest at the back of the house. The house appears to be floating. At the front is a boardwalk leading to the house and a pond; at the back is a deck and pergola where Levinas designed a wooden table and bench. The house’s original red-brick exterior was painted white to blend with the contemporary design within.

For project architect Maria Gorodetskaya, the biggest challenge was “how to transform the dark Colonial house into a modern, light-filled structure,” she said. “By removing portions of the exterior wall, a strategic connection was made between the indoor and outdoor spaces, bringing the landscape inside.”

The main living space includes four areas: the kitchen, seating areas at either end of the house that extend to the corners where the glass windows and doors are placed, and a space between the two seating areas dominated by a dining table and six chairs.

The two seating areas are defined by custom-cut sienna rugs and lavender contemporary crescent-shaped seating. At either end of the main space, open storage units display decorative arts and books.

“At some point, there will be less decoration and more books,” Ochoa-Brillembourg said. The seating area to the far right when you enter the house has a television for those who want to watch while others can read or play games in the adjacent areas.


Architect Salo Levinas designed a wooden table for the backyard pergola. (By Alan Karchmer and Sandra Benedum)

Floors throughout the house are light gray ceramic, which is easy to clean. The house is designed to be “child-proof” and “adolescent-proof,” she said.

The island subtly separates the kitchen from the living and dining areas, and has four seats to encourage gathering around the island while meal preparation is in progress. Drawers were designed with varying depths and lengths to store kitchen equipment; a walk-in pantry provides additional storage.

“It’s nice to have an uncluttered space,” Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “It allows more freedom to interact with others. You’re less distracted. It’s easy to put things away.”

The house accommodates eight people comfortably, she said, including any combination of grown children, grandchildren and friends. Sometimes, the three generations gather together; other times, the children use the house by themselves.

The three original bedrooms remain small, but two bathrooms and a laundry room were added at the other end of the house.

“We didn’t want to make it a gigantic space,” Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “It’s a very contemporary glass shed.”