Does a furnished model home live up to its promise?

In most cases you have to buy the house and move in to find out. But sometimes, you can try it out without having to sign on the dotted line. Late last year, I had just such an opportunity. I stayed with my family in Miller and Smith’s $624,990, 2,700-square-foot Greenwich model at the developer’s Downtown Collection in One Loudoun, a new-home community in Loudoun County.

What did I learn?

As more seating options are introduced into a kitchen/dining area, there’s less need for a separate living room or family room sitting area, especially in smaller, move-down empty-nester households. And always ask a sales agent about whether a floor plan has unusual features that are not installed in the builder’s furnished model.

The feature that led me to stay in this house was unexpected. Outside, the Greenwich looks like a conventional new house in the Washington suburbs. It’s one in a row of long, narrow, two-story houses on long, narrow lots. The only unusual thing an astute observer might notice is the Chicago-inspired design of the exterior and the bigger basement windows on the front.

Once inside, the differences are immediately evident. In typical long, narrow houses, the spaces in the middle of the dwelling get no sun. But in this house, the kitchen/dining area in the center of the house is flooded with daylight from three huge windows and an unusually large pair of sliding glass doors that open onto an adjoining deck.

To give you an idea of why this space makes such a strong impression, nearly half of the walls with the big windows and sliding glass doors are glass. This is about twice as much glass as you would have if typically sized windows and sliding glass doors had been used, said Washington architect Randy Creaser of Creaser/O’Brien, who designed the house.

The kitchen and dining area is shown. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Sean Kennedy and John Gaylor, who each own a Greenwich, said that when they experienced this kitchen/dining/great room space for the first time, they “fell in love with the house” on the spot.

I can see why.

With all the sunlight pouring in, the 15-by-18-foot L-shaped kitchen area felt right when I sat by myself at the island reading the morning paper over several cups of coffee. When the rest of my family eventually came down and joined me, the space was still a good fit and the island was a great spot where we could plan our visit to One Loudoun.

For the main event — a dinner party — we discovered that the unusually long 11-foot island is actually a practical size. It was big enough for three people to be working on the dinner (one guest was making a salad, one was fixing an appetizer and I was working on the main dish) and still have plenty of room for the other six diners to stand around it socializing, drinking wine and noshing on cheese and crackers. We could have had at least six or seven more people milling around this area.

The adjacent dining area was large enough to accommodate a table and eight chairs. The ninth diner at one end of the table sat on an optional built-in seat that is 10 feet long — enough for an adult to comfortably lean back on pillows, put his or her feet up, sip a glass of wine and chat about the events of the day with the person who is fixing dinner. The built-in seat can also be a cozy spot where one and even two middle-schoolers do homework while a meal is being prepared. And four-legged family members may also find it the perfect spot for watching all the household activities on the first floor.

Katherine Salant, center, listens to her guests at the dinner party she held at the home. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

From left to right, Dale Henderson, Nanine Meiklejohn, Michael Fields and Margo Silberstein were guests at the dinner party. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Because I entertain informally, I was not bothered that the mess of meal preparation was in full view of everyone at the table. The very idea can distress some people, but, as one of our dinner guests, Dale Henderson, discovered, the reality of this arrangement was less troubling than he anticipated. “I am skeptical of the dining room and kitchen all joined up in one space, but it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would,” he said.

If I lived there, my household would likely spend most of our family time in the kitchen/dining area with its multiple sitting options and level of comfort — dining chairs, bar stools at the island counter or sprawled out on the built-in seat in the dining area. When we entertained dinner guests, we would be in this area as well.

The sitting area around the corner in the great room went unused during our stay, even when we were socializing. Had the cable TV been hooked up, we might have spent time there, but this did lead me to think that when enough seating options are included in a kitchen/dining area (most people would also want a sofa in such a space), a great room may become unnecessary just as a formal living room has for many homeowners.

The kitchen/dining area with the big windows is such a wonderful space I was astonished to learn after our stay that it was not the impetus for the design. The impetus was not the interior space at all; it was the large private outdoor space that adjoins the kitchen/dining area, Creaser said.

The deck projects from the side of the house and overlooks a large park across the street. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

It’s not surprising that I missed this central idea. It’s not in the furnished model where we stayed.

But in a typical Greenwich floor plan, the 15-by-24-foot outdoor space is sandwiched between houses that are only 10 feet apart. It’s a patio, not a deck, and because it’s protected from the wind, it can be used for nine months of the year. The patio also functions as a “sun trap” and brings light into the house, Creaser said.

This unusual concept was proposed by North America Sekisui House (NASH), Miller and Smith’s investment partner for One Loudoun. The NASH team saw a similarity between the site conditions of One Loudoun and those of their projects in Japan, where Sekisui House is based. To make their narrow houses in dense urban areas in Japan feel more comfortable with more daylight, the firm’s designers often add a side patio.

To get the unusually large patio that NASH wanted for a typical interior unit, Creaser carved an 8-by-24-foot area from the basic footprint of the house and combined this with the 10-foot area between the two houses. He was able to include the portion of this area that belonged to the house next door because the builder created an easement that legally allows it.

Accepting a space reduction inside to get a larger space outside is not a choice that most buyers of new houses would knowingly elect. But in this case, most prospective buyers will not notice the missing square footage because the big windows and outdoor patio make the interior area feel bigger.

To enhance the illusion of a larger interior space, the finish level of the patio is about eight inches below the adjacent interior space, as it is in the model. To accomplish this, Creaser had to raise the grade level under the patio by about five feet (from both the street and the rear alley you can see that the side yards slope upward).

A patio instead of a deck was another design input from the NASH partners. “They wanted this area to be connected to the earth and easily landscaped and you wouldn’t get the same effect with a deck,” Creaser said.

Steve Salant sits at a desk in the front room of the house. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

By manipulating roof lines and overhangs, all the patios get direct sun in winter when the sun is low and shade in the summer when the sun is high, Creaser said.

How do the patio and surrounding interior spaces feel in a typical Greenwich with neighbors on both sides? Kennedy said that compared to the furnished model with the deck that overlooks a heavily used park, his self-contained patio area is a quieter and more contemplative space. His house faces east and he gets enough sun and reflected light from the gray siding of his neighbor’s house that he doesn’t need to turn on the lights until dusk.

The outdoor space is so private, Gaylor said, that “you don’t need to have drapes for the windows.”

As for the rest of the house, the plan is more flexible than even the builder could imagine. For example, the front room on the main floor in the model was furnished as an office and my husband immediately set up shop in it. The sales brochure suggests that it can also be used as a formal dining room. But Kennedy and his wife, Sandy, use this room in their home for reading and displaying a portion of the art they have collected over a lifetime. Gaylor and his wife use this space as a coffee room where they start their day.

On the second floor, an open loft space separates three bedrooms and two bathrooms from the master suite, a configuration that will suit a wide range of households, including families with young kids and a live-in au pair, families with older children and teenagers, step families with his and her kids, and families with returning adult children. Gaynor said that when his college-graduate daughter lived with them for a year, she used the loft area to socialize with her friends.

This arrangement will also suit households with grandparents who come to stay for several months every year. The visitors can stay in the bedroom with its own bath and be close to their grandchildren. Or, if they want more privacy, they can stay in a basement bedroom and cook their own food if the basement bar area is outfitted with small kitchen appliances.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at or .