Marcie Meditch and her husband, John Murphey, loved their friendly, quiet Maryland neighborhood, but after two decades in an old house that was giving up the ghost, they had to make one of life’s harder decisions.
They could move away from the close-knit community in Chevy Chase where they had raised their two children, they could pour a lot of money into a rehab of their 1920s neo-Tudor house, or they could rip it down and start again.
A couple of factors weighed in favor of the last option. First, even if they could fix structural problems and deal with the underwater stream that caused basement flooding, they would still be living in a house that felt dark and gloomy. From a practical standpoint, “we would still have an old house with old wiring and old plumbing,” Meditch said.
Second — and here’s the fun part — they were both seasoned architects with a passion for contemporary, green design. They decided to start afresh, and the result is a house completed in 2012 that is a confection of rectilinear volumes clad in glass, wood, stucco and even tree bark. It is inexplicably imposing and modest at the same time. “I call it Warm Modern,” Meditch said.
The residence abides by modernist ideals of form following function, and it is infused, if you dig deeper, with Japanese and Latin American influences. Most of all, it’s a house that is organic within itself and in relation to its garden. Achieving that took another creative leap.
The couple turned to landscape architect Sandra Clinton, an old hand at transforming residential gardens in established D.C. neighborhoods. But the most enlightened aspect of her arrival was that it came at the very start of the project. Such early involvement of a landscape architect or garden designer is highly unusual, as odd as that may seem. Clinton can think of no more than 10 projects in a 33-year career where she has been in such initial collaboration with the architects.
“Often, we are handed the shell of a building and the design is really already worked out,” she said. Her firm, Clinton Associates, is based in Hyattsville. “All the elements of the house are there: the door locations, the pool area, where terracing might want to be,” she said. “In this case it was carte blanche.”
Clinton, for example, persuaded them to shift exits, adjust the placement of the main outdoor patio and enlarge the linear terrace facing the street.
The house and garden, thus, engage in an equal dialogue. The owners move seamlessly between indoor and outdoor rooms, grow vegetables on the roof, dine on the terrace and generally experience an alfresco life that traditional D.C. residential forms discourage.
Although the new house is about the size of the old, at 2,600 square feet, the living area is much larger because of the outdoor spaces and the interior connection to them.
The critical difference, Meditch said, is that the hulking cube of the old abode was replaced with an L-shaped house that is no more than one room wide. This configuration fills interior spaces with cross-flowing light and air along with the exterior views.
The house uses little energy from off-site: It has geothermal heating and cooling; a generous array of solar panels on the roof; thick, insulated walls; and several green roofs, including diminutive ones protecting the couple’s bicycle storage areas and one above the enclosure for the trash bins.
The attention to ventilation, ceiling fans and banks of automatic, weather-controlled blinds delay the need for summer air conditioning. The house’s gutters tie in to a 1,500-gallon cistern, and the rainwater is used to irrigate the garden.
In corners of the house where the owners wanted natural light but privacy, they placed translucent glass manufactured in Germany for industrial use. In other parts, they worked with Clinton to frame views of neighboring landscapes in a way that didn’t compromise privacy.
A recurring material, inside and out, is the bark of the tulip poplar tree, applied as great sheets. The bark pattern, of interlacing ridges, is the defining feature and experience of arrival, cladding the curved wall that leads to the entrance. The bark continues on interior walls. In the master bedroom, it sheathes a wall floor to ceiling. It must be like waking up in a treehouse.
Tulip poplar bark is a traditional shingle material in North Carolina, but milled into squares. Murphey and Meditch found a supplier that also sells this beautifully textured, warm-gray bark in sheets. The bark is flattened and kiln-dried, ready for mounting.
A front portion of the roof is pitched to hide the bank of solar panels, but the house is essentially flat-roofed.
This allows the creation of a fourth level of living: the rooftop, where a sitting terrace is bounded by a deep planter housing a specimen Japanese maple and perennial ground covers. Nearby is a sizable vegetable garden whose soil depth — 14 inches — is generous enough for carrots and other root veggies. (Many green roofs have a mere four inches of growing medium.) The aerial garden also features a structure containing a dumbwaiter. “The tomatoes go down,” said Murphey, “and the Manhattans come up.”
The idea of the roof as living space came from visits to Guatemala, but the same spirit of elevated perches is found on the lower levels, including a generous balcony terrace off the master bedroom.
The outdoor dining terrace fills much of the space between the wings of the house and is defined by vine-clad arbors built from salvaged classical columns. Once the vegetation grows seasonally, the structures enclose the space and screen the neighboring house. A row of Japanese cedars behind provides an additional veil.
A lower, naturalistic garden — defined by a semicircular path of flagstones and a grove of river birches — wraps around the back of the house, providing the rain garden, native ground covers and many of the perennials that Meditch saved from the old garden. Dozens of plants were lifted and held at a makeshift nursery at the nearby home they rented while the site was transformed.
The stucco walls in this area have been softened with a slowly spreading mantle of Boston ivy.
The new house also allowed Meditch and Murphey to set up their office at home. “It’s a great commute,” Meditch said. The fullest sense of the back garden is perhaps best experienced, ironically, within the sunken office, which offers a panoramic, eye-level view of the landscape. Deer, fox and other wildlife play outside, oblivious to their human audience.
The couple, who have had a joint practice — Meditch Murphey Architects — since 2003, met as architecture students at the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s. One of their earliest shared experiences was a study trip to China and Japan, where concepts of strong interior and exterior links offered an abiding lesson.
But a designer cannot address aesthetics without first attending to site problems.
Meditch and Murphey’s groundwater issue was resolved with a thick membrane below the house slab and perimeter drains. Other major storm-water issues — the lot receives surface water from higher properties on the street — are addressed with additional drains that feed sunken basins called dry wells. The lowest and wettest back corner of the garden was turned into a rain garden, excavated and then backfilled with gravel to a depth of up to 10 feet. It is designed to capture and slow water and irrigate the trees, shrubs and perennials Clinton chose for their ability to take periodic flooding.
This required collection and management of storm water is emblematic of how environmental imperatives drive sustainable garden design in our age. “Environmental quality and conservation of natural resources are now the premise of designing landscapes rather than just a consequence of it,” Clinton said.
All these lofty goals would mean little if the house were not working for the owners. It’s fair to say that it not only works, but performs.
The front terrace functions as an open porch. When the living room is opened to the terrace and the main dining terrace on the other side, the effect is of one seamless, breezy space.
Clinton designed the front garden to have a lawn panel but no fence or hedge along the sidewalk. Instead two beds extend from the house to the street, planted with birches on one side and a lower screen of kousa dogwoods and hydrangeas on the other. She calls them “embracing arms.” The house, in other words, is hugging the street.
“John and Marcie are very people-oriented. They love their neighbors; they didn’t want to reestablish themselves somewhere else. So when they took the house down and rebuilt, one of the things they wanted to maintain was the connection to the neighborhood,” Clinton said.
Typically, the owners will have friends and neighbors over to make pizza, harvesting herb toppings from the green roof garden next to the kitchen and cooking their meals in the pizza oven at the far end of the front terrace. To borrow from Le Corbusier: This machine isn’t just for living, it’s also for giving.
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