The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To add warmth to a home, bring more of the great outdoors indoors

Jim and Jennifer Sergent renovated their bathroom, incorporating natural elements into the design. The Sergents’ instinct to add natural elements is reflected in a growing trend among homeowners to bring more wood and stone into their interior spaces. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

When Jim and Jennifer Sergent bought their home in Arlington two years ago, they appreciated its modern look — the exposed wood beams and the nature trail that passes in front of it. But the master bathroom left a lot to be desired.

“This is a 1990s Deck House, so it’s got an open post-and-beam structure that feels like an atrium, and that feeling extends right into our bedroom,” said Jim, a graphics editor at USA Today. “But when you opened the door to the master bathroom, it just felt different. The design aesthetic just stopped at the bathroom door.”

The mostly white bathroom looked cold and had the added discomfort of a small shower. Jim, who’s 6-foot-4, either bumped his head or stubbed his toe nearly every day.

“We wanted our bathroom to respond to the rest of the house, not only the wood, but also the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace in the family room,” said Jennifer, a freelance design writer. “It was Jim’s idea to build a shower with a natural stone wall that echoes the fireplace. We know design fashions come and go, but stone and wood will never go away.”

The Sergents’ instinct to bring natural elements into their bathroom is reflected in a growing trend among homeowners to incorporate more wood and stone into their interior spaces, sometimes in unexpected places.

“It makes people feel good when we bring in natural elements,” said Leigh Spicher, director of design studios for Ashton Woods, an Atlanta-based builder with communities in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida. “Using wood on walls or the ceiling of a bathroom fits in with the trend toward using wood for trim and entire walls in all kinds of homes, from modern to traditional styles.”

Wood and stone can be necessary to warm up a space, particularly in a modern house, said Jessica Parker, an interior designer and senior project manager with GTM Architects in Bethesda.

The other housing crisis: Cities where home prices are low because people have left

“In a modern house, you can add a stone wall around the fireplace or rustic wood beams to the ceiling to add warmth and texture,” Parker said. “We use stone and wood consistently, especially in homes with an all-white kitchen or high ceilings. In a more traditional home, we install polished wood beams for a more refined look.”

The Sergents’ desire to use natural wood and stone in their bathroom was twofold.

“We wanted to match the rest of the house, and we wanted to match what’s happening outside,” Jim said. “We can see trees through the arched window in our bathroom.”

Incorporating natural elements into the bathroom

When Jim and Jennifer Sergent bought their home in Arlington two years ago, they appreciated its modern look — the exposed wood beams and the nature trail that passes in front of it. But the master bathroom left a lot to be desired. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Although hardwood is the most popular material for floors in homes today, and stone is common around a fireplace, homeowners and designers are introducing these materials in other places.

“The Sergents’ Deck House has tons of great windows and skylights, so it was a natural choice to bring in nature,” said Nadia Subaran, co-owner of Aidan Design in Silver Spring, Md., who designed the couple’s kitchen and bathroom. “You always end up with a lot of hard surfaces in a bathroom, like porcelain and tile, so it’s becoming popular to bring in wood to soften the space.”

The Sergents’ bathroom has a sloped wood ceiling with an exposed beam, a natural wood vanity and a wood storage cabinet.

For those who lose homes to wildfires, the challenges of rebuilding are daunting

“Jim was very passionate about using natural stone for the oversize shower, and the natural wood cabinets pick up some of the color in the stones in the shower,” Subaran said.

The Sergents’ bathroom, which Jennifer said cost about $60,000, includes a porcelain floor that resembles slate, a sloping, trough-style sink with two faucets and a mirror above each faucet. The Sergents added a modern touch with a black metal bar that holds shampoo bottles and looks like a piece of sculpture. Jim found wood hooks on Etsy that are pieces of a tree.

“We screwed them into a wall, so they look like an art installation, but they’re also practical to drape your clothes, so they’re not on the floor when you shower,” Jim said.

“We’ve used reclaimed wood in other bathrooms, including around an oversize mirror in a bathroom that was otherwise very sleek,” Subaran said. “Reclaimed wood has a lot of texture.”

In her own home, Subaran created a backsplash from reclaimed parquet flooring for a bar area in her dining room.

Wood and stone can be used to add texture and definition to an open floor plan, said Jim Rill, owner of Rill Architects in Bethesda.

“In a Potomac house we worked on, we used a wood ceiling and wood trim on a hallway to define the space and accentuate where you walk, versus where you gather, dine and cook,” said Rill. “The wood ceiling extends to the breakfast room and outdoor porches. You can feel like you’re inside when you’re outside, and you can feel like you’re outside when you’re inside.”

Natural stone has been used to create a “grotto effect” in lower-level spa bathrooms that seem almost to be carved out of a cellar and make the house seem as though it has always been there, Rill said. Stone walls can be expanded around a fireplace to include arched niches for books and display space, he said.

“Dark wood trim was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but people want to do this again in contemporary homes,” Spicher said. “For instance, in a contemporary home in Austin, the homeowners added wood trim in the family room and painted it green for an unexpected look.”

Technology is taking most of the legwork out of looking for a new home

Shiplap is popular for powder room walls and as accent walls in bedrooms and family rooms in a wide range of stains and paint colors, she said.

“Wood trim is a great way to personalize a space, to give it character and texture,” Spicher said. “We’ve seen it used on one wall or a section of several walls in the dining room to add a natural element to that more formal space.”

In one master bedroom that Parker designed, she added a feature wall with a large wood-enclosed fireplace with a wood mantel.

“The room had very high ceilings and needed some warmth, so we went with this dramatic feature instead of a more traditional small fireplace,” she said.

The adjacent master bathroom, a sleek space with glass and porcelain tile, is warmed up with an oversized shower with two walls of natural stone.

Although some homeowners use wood and stone indoors to highlight the nature found outside their home’s walls, others use these natural materials in contrast with their surroundings.

“In an urban environment, it’s almost more necessary to bring in wood and stone, so it’s not a cold interior regardless of the setting,” Parker said.

At a contemporary-style home in Northwest Washington, Parker added a large four-foot-wide wood front door.

The plan: Install a new bathtub. The result: A six-month, $300,000 renovation.

“The house has stone on the exterior and inside it’s very crisp and contemporary, with high ceilings,” Parker said. “The wood door adds a lot of warmth and is welcoming when you make the transition from the stone exterior to the contemporary interior.”

Similarly, Parker added a beamed ceiling and natural oak floors to a sleek all-white kitchen in a newly built home in Arlington to add texture and color to the space. The adjacent family room has a natural stone fireplace and a beamed ceiling that contrasts with other parts of the house which have plain white ceilings.

The fact that natural stone is used for home exteriors and patios signals that it’s durable for indoor use, as well. However, Parker said, it’s best to avoid it in kitchen areas, where it could be susceptible to stains.

“Stone can be heavier and costlier to install because of the added weight, but people are often willing to spend the money because they love it,” Spicher said.

Wood and stone can cost more than some other materials. Adding a wood ceiling to a room can cost $5,000 to $10,000, Rill said, and installing stone instead of drywall can cost an extra $25 or more per square foot.

“If you’re installing wood in a damp room such as a bathroom, pressure-treated poplar is a good choice, because it’s more resistant to mold,” Spicher said. “It’s also smart to install a backsplash between the sink and wood to protect the wood from getting too wet.”

● A powder room is a good place to experiment with an accent wall of natural stone or shiplap on the walls or ceiling, to see whether you like the look. It’s a smaller space, and yet one that guests always see.

● If you’re doing a partial renovation in the kitchen or a bathroom, that can be a good time to introduce natural stone or wood.

● If you’re not renovating, you can bring in natural elements with rustic accent pieces or a rustic reclaimed wood table.

● Bring in nature through fabrics and wallpaper that include trees, plants or look like wood, even if you don’t see any outside your window.

● Choose one or more floating wood shelves to soften rooms with a lot of hard surfaces.

● Experiment with mirrors that have wood frames — either rustic or polished, depending on your taste and your home’s style.

● If you plan to use wood or stone in one space, it’s best to have it trickle in from a porch to the interior of your home, or to flow through the house in some way.