Living solo in a Connecticut Avenue apartment in Northwest Washington, Ellen Ruina yearned for a country home where she could garden and enjoy the outdoors. “But as a single person, I didn’t want to live in a remote area where I would feel isolated,” says the 67-year-old retired public health researcher.
Ruina considered several cohousing developments where residents collaboratively participate in community activities, such as shared meals, homeowner association meetings and workdays. She narrowed her search to the 160-acre Catoctin Creek Village in Loudoun County, Va., about 15 miles north of Leesburg. Homeowners in the village collectively own 120 acres preserved by a conservation easement, and some come together once a month to maintain the property.
One of about 165 such established communities in the nation, according to the Durham, N.C.-based Cohousing Association of the United States, the village is modeled on the idea of private homes clustered around shared spaces and resources. Residents are encouraged to work and play together “to create neighborliness,” says community co-founder and developer Lauranne Oliveau.
Over the past dozen years, Oliveau says, 10 single-family houses have been built at Catoctin Creek Village and five lots remain to be sold, priced from $81,000 to $104,000.
Ruina rented rooms in the village before deciding to buy a parcel of nearly an acre for about $100,000 and build a custom house. Since completing the two-story dwelling in 2014, she now spends most of the week in the rural Virginia hamlet.
“I feel safe and comfortable here, because of the proximity to the neighbors,” she says on a tour of her new home. “I was fortunate to be able to buy a beautiful piece of property with views of fields and mountains.”
Located next to a cluster of rambling neo-Victorians, Ruina’s house stands out for its compact, modern architecture. The streamlined, gabled dwelling with large windows is designed by Wiedemann Architects of Bethesda to be only one room wide.
“The thinness of the house allows for cross ventilation and orientation to both the meadow and mountains,” says architect Greg Wiedemann.
Design inspiration, he says, came from the white clapboard farmhouses and red barns typical of rural areas. That vernacular is suggested by the new home’s pale fiber-cement siding, fieldstone walls and a standing seam metal roof, and the painted shed of the free-standing garage.
Built into a hillside, the house is arranged on two levels — one for Ruina and the other for guests or a rental tenant — that take advantage of the slope and views. “I wanted to live on one floor but be able to have bedrooms and spaces for family and friends,” says the homeowner, who declined to comment on the construction price. “I didn’t want to build more house than I needed.”
The upper floor resembles a loft with the living area open to a dining nook and kitchen set within a long bay at the front of the house. Flanking the 11-foot-tall living space is a screened porch at one end and main bedroom suite at the other. “The porch serves as a second living room, and the big fan keeps it cool on even the hottest days,” says Ruina.
Visible through windows on both sides of the space are unencumbered expanses of hillsides, without other houses obstructing the views. The front porch faces a street that is rarely traveled except by homeowners who live nearby.
Living room furnishings are arranged on stained oak floors next to a baby grand piano. Among the more unusual pieces are a reproduction of a midcentury modern rocking chair and a live-edge walnut table crafted by furniture maker and builder Jon Duvall of Millwood, Va.
Given the compact size of Ruina’s living quarters, ample storage was built into the nooks and crannies of the spaces. Anchoring one end of the living space is a mahogany-paneled wall surrounding the wood-burning fireplace that incorporates cabinets and a TV, which can rise and then vanish when not in use. Matching wood cabinetry in the kitchen provides hidden places for small appliances, dishes and glassware.
Dividing the living space and bedroom is a staircase descending past a purple-painted wall to the lower level.
One end of this walkout basement is designed as an independent living unit with a bedroom suite and a sitting area open to a kitchen. The apartment opens to a carport and rear flagstone patio.
“The floor plan is flexible enough for the space to be used as a rental apartment, family room or guest suite,” says project architect Felix Gonzalez.
Two bedrooms and a bathroom are at the opposite end of the lower level past the staircase, so if Ruina decides to rent out part of the lower floor, she still has access to guest quarters for visitors.
A large mechanical closet at the foot of the stairs houses equipment for an energy-saving geothermal heating and cooling system.
Additional “green” design features include high-performance, argon-filled insulated glass in the windows and 10-inch-thick, super-insulated walls. The cupola extending from the roof serves to exhaust air from the interior via a fan within a ceiling shaft.
Over the past few years, Ruina has planted native shrubs and vegetables to realize her gardening dream. “I’m the only person here with no lawn,” she says.
From the rear yard, a path winds down the hillside to a small lake around which are common facilities shared by community residents.
An old red barn near the waterfront is used to store tools, a tractor and mowers for residents, and it also hosts bluegrass dances and parties. Next to it, a stone common house, with some rooms built in the 1700s, provides meeting spaces and guest quarters. According to village co-founder Oliveau, the historic dwelling will be turned into a single-family house and sold to pay for a smaller common space in the barn overlooking the lake.
Within Catoctin Creek Village, 120 acres are deeded to the homeowners association as common property and protected by a conservation easement. “There’s a mile of creek frontage,” Ruina says. “I don’t have to manage it, but it feels like mine.” Houses and lots are clustered next to the protected open space to preserve the rural character of the village.
Ruina and some of her neighbors spend four hours a month on maintenance and upkeep of the acreage. In return, they get to subtract $40 from the monthly HOA fee of $180. “We don’t socialize a lot, but we are here to help each other.”
Ruina says she’s familiar with working with an architect and a builder, having a constructed a custom house in Chapel Hill, N.C., with her late husband.
“I like thinking about house design,” she says. “The options in newly constructed housing are so limited. Modernism as seen in places like Hollins Hills [in Alexandria, Va.], built in the 1950s and ’60s, appears to be history — but why?”
Her house-building experience isn’t over. In 2013, Ruina purchased a second lot in Catoctin Creek Village for $44,000 with the idea of building a spec house to sell.
“I want to design and construct a modest-sized and -priced house with good finishes that complement the community and specific site,” she says. “Construction plans are on hold because the builder I was working with is no longer available. I haven’t given up on the project but haven’t yet found a design solution that isn’t prohibitively expensive. I’m still examining options.”