Developer Alan Kanner renovated and expanded his midcentury modern home in Takoma Park, Md., transforming it into a cube house. (By Julia Heine/McInturff Architects)

It’s a dab of color on a wooded lot in Takoma Park, Md. — a two-story house that brings the outdoors inside yet creates privacy.

Before, it was a one-story midcentury house with no distinguishing features.

The lot was what appealed to Alan Kanner, a lawyer turned builder who envisioned its potential.

After going through a divorce, Kanner was looking for a playful house.

When his business partner told him about one for sale not far from where he was living, Kanner jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a great piece of property,” Kanner said of the wooded lot where the unremarkable one-story house stood. “You feel like you’re almost by yourself,” he said, adding that he did not need a big house.

He made an offer on it in 2010 before it went on the market.

Next, Kanner, who co-owns construction firm Added Dimensions, turned to architect Mark McInturff, with whom he had worked on several projects, for ideas. “It was Mark who saw the possibilities,” Kanner said.


Alan Kanner, sitting in his living room, was looking for a playful house. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

McInturff, who designs houses as well as renovations, imaged a “sort of magic box” where Kanner and his children, Jenna, now a 20-year-old college student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Raphael, now 17, could live.

“I wanted something I could afford, and then there was this heavily forested site,” Kanner said. He discussed his requirements with McInturff: He needed a “fair amount of public space” — places where his kids could do homework. In addition, he said, “I want the house to have sort of a playful feel to it.” And he wanted to stay within a reasonable budget.

McInturff showed Kanner two designs — “one that went up and one that went out” — and Kanner chose the first.

“By putting another box on top of a box,” McInturff doubled the size of the original 900-square-foot house plus a basement. “What had been a one-story modern box on a walkout basement is now a two-story modern box on a walkout basement,” the architect said.

The renovation was a dramatic transformation of the structure, with large windows for inhabitants to take in the views while allowing privacy in the Takoma Park neighborhood, where houses are relatively close together.

“It was less expensive to build a second story than to build an addition,” Kanner said. “One of the things I wanted was this open feeling, not a chopped-up house.”

In addition to maximizing the natural landscape, including a huge oak tree at the back of the house, McInturff used color, inspired by one of artist Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings, to create whimsy.

“Takoma Park is known for colors,” McInturff said. “It seemed like a neighborhood where you could do that.” Originally, there were to be nine colors, at which Kanner balked. “Initially, I panicked,” he said. So they agreed on six colors: two shades of blue, white, yellow, turquoise and red-orange. A rectangular color block on the front of the house hints at splashes of brightness inside.

“It’s one of the things I love most about it,” Kanner said.

“The colors are token,” McInturff said. Yet they add whimsy to the otherwise neutral tones inside — black, gray, white — and the industrial feel with a raw steel staircase at the center of the house.

“It’s the original stairwell, and it’s in the middle of the house, and everything kind of pivots around it,” McInturff said. Made of unpainted steel with wood stairs and a steel grid as accents, it connects the two “boxes,” the public spaces on the first floor and the private spaces on the second.


The kitchen before . . . (By Julia Heine/McInturff Architects)

and after the renovation. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Bits of color from the exterior at the front of the house echo throughout the interior, creating interest rather than dominating the neutral interior. “There are a lot of color recalls,” said McInturff, who started the design for the house, then turned it over to project architect Colleen Healey.

“It’s the playful and the industrial and how those two come together in a sophisticated way,” Healey said.

The first level includes the dining area, living area and kitchen, while the second has three bedrooms — one for each of Kanner’s children and one for Kanner. The first level, where the bedrooms once were, was reconfigured to create an open plan.

The terrain partly dictated the direction of the project. Takoma Park’s topography — specifically, a ravine — suggested building up to allow the second floor to capitalize on the greenery outside.

“I’m looking out this window, and I do not see another house,” McInturff said. “This room seems to be about that tree,” he said, pointing to the huge oak. “It was like designing a boat. Everything has to work.”

The original house had a flat roof, and the house was “fairly uniformly distributed,” said Kanner, allowing a second floor to be added. Kanner turned to his staff to build the house. “We stayed with the existing footprint,” he said. Construction began in November 2011, and by July 2012, Kanner had moved in, even though there was more work to be done.

“I moved in without a kitchen sink,” he said. Kanner estimated the cost of the construction for the second-floor addition at about $200 a square foot — or roughly $200,000. Kanner served as contractor for the project.

Double-paned glass with argon gas in between was used throughout the house for energy efficiency. Spray-foam insulation was used, as well.

“Utility bills are very low,” Kanner said.

Turning a midcentury house into a “magic box” was the challenge, and the results are based on the synergy between architects and builder. “Some of it wasn’t worked out until it was under construction,” Kanner said. But because they had worked together before, they understood where the project was going and the importance of attention to detail.

“It’s being able to work magic with less,” McInturff said.

“You get a lot of magic without having to spend a whole lot of money. Colors almost cost nothing.”