In 2006, Chris Timura saw a 1930s Colonial house for sale by owner while he was out walking in a neighborhood in Arlington, Va., with one of his sons.
Drawn by the back yard with a pond and easy access to the Metro in Clarendon, he and his wife, Elise Frasier, moved quickly to buy it. But they outgrew the house.
The circuitous configuration of the interior made it difficult to get from the living room to the back yard to enjoy their garden and patios.
In addition, because the house had only two bedrooms, their two sons, ages 10 and 12, had to share a bedroom.
“An important thing was to gain a bedroom,” their architect, Robert Gurney, said. The couple also wanted more open space and views of the outdoors.
The original above-grade house was approximately 2,300 square feet including the lower level.
The couple ultimately reached a crossroad and had to decide among several options: move; renovate; renovate and enlarge; or tear it down and start from scratch.
Ultimately, money helped dictate their decision. They took an unusual approach: Rather than tear down the house and build a McMansion as so many other homeowners in the Washington area do, they opted to rebuild within the footprint of their house, using the original exterior walls and constructing a 700-square-foot addition.
“We weren’t interested in building a massive house,” said Timura, a lawyer who works in downtown Washington. “We had a budget we had to stick within. Otherwise, it was out-of-pocket or do it ourselves.”
Their Washington story began in 2001. Frasier and Timura were still graduate students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and they moved to the area, where Timura was to do D.C.-based dissertation research for his PhD in anthropology and finish law school and where Frasier had a job.
They began looking at a map and decided they wanted to live somewhere along the Orange Line. “Everyone said Rosslyn,” Frasier recalled, but once they saw it, they knew they wanted to keep looking. “I don’t think this is really what we’re looking for,” but Lyon Park was.
When Frasier got off the Metro at Clarendon, she knew it was right: There were single-family homes not too far from the Metro rather than towering high rises.
After several years of living in their Colonial house, Frasier and Timura decided to research architects in the area who could help them translate their dream into a house they could love.
They both wanted a house with “a modern sensibility,” so Frasier began to search for an architect in the Washington area who specialized in modern architecture. They liked Gurney’s work.
“We knew the spaces we needed, but we didn’t picture what they would all look like,” Frasier said. Each son would have his own room, there would be an office for Frasier, who is a development editor, and an open living and dining space and kitchen.
For Timura and Frasier, the most important goals were to be able to enjoy their house and their outdoor space. “We were spending about all our time in one room of the house. We wanted more usable space,” Frasier said.
Timura added, “We wanted to be able to see our garden.”
Meanwhile, the couple had sketched out their idea of what could be done with the house. But Gurney had his own vision of how to get the most out of the house. “The center stairwell had to go,” he told them. “There were elements that he could see right from the beginning,” Frasier said. “This wasn’t a teardown. It was a renovation.”
The original footprint of the house remained, but the Colonial style was replaced with a modern cube with windows that created a light-filled structure.
The upstairs space was reconfigured into four bedrooms — the master with a bath, a separate bedroom for each of their sons and, the fourth, to be used as a home office for Frasier. It also doubles as a guest room. With an additional workroom/bedroom on the lower level, the house was transformed from its original two bedrooms to five.
Windows bring in plenty of light on the first floor, and two clerestory windows in the upstairs hallway draw in even more light. “You can’t really see into anybody else’s house,” Timura said. “Yet light streams into the master bedroom.”
They agreed with Gurney on the “overall aesthetic” of the house, Frasier said. The challenge was how to transform it within their budget. Timura and Frasier declined to disclose the cost of the renovation, but experts said similar renovations could cost $300 to $400 per square foot. “We all initially thought we’d have to preserve the facade of the house at the front — the Colonial look — and concentrate only on the interior and rear exterior,” Frasier said. “When we realized that it would be within our budget to revise the full exterior, too,” they moved forward.
Essentially, what once was a Colonial house is now a contemporary structure that blends with the natural environment and does not overpower the neighborhood. “In a lot of ways, it’s easier to design when you have a footprint and exterior walls,” Gurney said.
Gurney was able to translate their dreams into a home that works for them.
The lower level used to be reserved only for doing laundry, but the renovation renewed the space.
“We wanted to get a lot out of a small area — a functioning workshop that doubled as a guest room, a separate living and entertaining area with a wet bar, a laundry room, a bathroom, and storage space,” Frasier said. “The whole basement area gets a ton of everyday use now.”
Although the couple sketched out ideas for what they wanted, they realized Gurney’s expertise could create something better than they had imagined.
For example, Gurney explained to them that the center staircase should be eliminated to optimize living space and light.
They first met with Gurney four years ago but waited to move forward with the renovation because they were unable to get a construction loan.
“We waited and saved money,” Frasier said.
The family had to move out of the house while the work was in progress “so we lived in a rental nearby throughout the remodel,” Frasier said.
The key to the transformation is Gurney’s signature style of using as much natural light as possible.
“They wanted to incorporate green, sustainable elements into the project,” Gurney said. “They wanted light-filled” spaces, so the house relies on glass throughout to capture natural light.
The front of the house uses Forest Stewardship Council mahogany siding that blends with the neighborhood. (The council sets standards for responsible forest management to protect wooded areas for future generations.)
Insulated glass keeps the heat out during the summer and in during the winter. “In between two layers of glass is argon gas that increases the insulation value of the windows,” Gurney said. Between the windows and the frame of the house, spray-foam insulation expands to fill gaps. A rain-screen system creates an airspace between the back of the siding and the actual wall of the house to “let the house breathe a lot better.” In short, that means the house does not retain humidity, Gurney said.
The combination of the wood siding with gray stucco and charcoal fiber-cement panels allows the house to “recede into the leafy, tree-lined street,” Gurney said. The result is a compact structure that subtly draws the eye.
“We made sure we could keep all the trees,” he said. The renovated structure is the same height as the original one to “protect the rhythm of the street,” he said.
The first floor houses the main living spaces with an open floor plan. Windows at the front of the house light up the dining area; across the back of the house, floor-to-ceiling windows in the kitchen and living space intensify the light and showcase views of the back yard.
“We really do like the outdoors,” Timura said. “We spend a lot of time outdoors. We wanted to be able to see our garden.”
Four bedrooms are on the second floor, where ceiling heights vary between approximately 14 and 15 feet in the bedroom of one of the couple’s sons to 10 feet in the other son’s bedroom. (One bedroom is Frasier’s office, and the fourth is the master bedroom with a bathroom.)
Throughout the renovation, Frasier and Timura aimed to save where they could. “We were definitely going to salvage yards all the time,” Frasier said. For example, that’s where she found two Gaggenau ovens. If Gurney suggested materials, they would look at the samples and see what else they could find that was similar but less expensive.
Neither Frasier nor Timura say the project was easy, but they think the results were worth the effort. “It is a relaxing place to be,” Timura said.