Great Makeovers

A house may be beautiful, but does it also fit the way you live? These three renovations achieved both.

Home remodels are seldom driven by aesthetics alone. Sometimes the impetus is to create more space for an expanding family. Other times, it’s to make an old house more energy-efficient. Or to render an existing home safer for “aging in place.” Sometimes it’s a combination of all three. As these homeowners will attest, the best remodels make cosmetic improvements that are easy on the eyes, but also solve design problems that allow us to live the way we want to live. 

Modern Love

Andy and Nikki Feinsot’s house turns everything you think you know about home living on its head. For one, the bedrooms are on the ground floor, and you have to walk upstairs to get to the main living area, “like a beach house,” Nikki says. 

That’s not all. In lieu of a dark “man cave” in the basement, the family TV room and lounge area is an airy loft overlooking the living room. (It’s not just for guys, either.) And the main staircase, rather than being relegated to the interior of the house, is visible from the street, thanks to the home’s large front windows. 

The house wasn’t always designed this way. When the Feinsots purchased their Lyon Village home in 2001, it was a traditional, gable-roofed brick-and-siding structure, similar to the others on their street, a cul-de-sac of only nine houses. And it was small, with just under 1,800 square feet of insulated living space. Moreover, the rooms were walled off from each other and assembled in an L-shaped pattern, meaning that a person working in the kitchen couldn’t easily chat with someone in the living room. Once their family grew to include two children—Lucy, now 7, and Calvin, 6—and a bulldog named Jello, the lack of space and openness became even more of an issue. 

From the start, the Feinsots knew they didn’t want to demolish the existing home or build a large addition that destroyed the character of their street, a haven of woodsy calm tucked between Lee Highway and Clarendon. Because the house was built in 1940 and was considered a “contributing building” to the Lyon Village Historic District, the couple initially contacted the county’s historic preservation department to discuss doing a historically sensitive renovation. This process eventually connected them with paolasquare architecture + design studio, an Arlington-based firm led by architects Paola Lugli and Paola Amodeo

The architects soon determined that a historically accurate renovation would not be possible, given the couple’s desire to expand. Yet “the Paolas,” as Nikki calls them, recognized that they could maximize the existing space and give it a new, contemporary aesthetic while still respecting its history. 

To this end, they kept the house in scale with the neighbors (for example, the rooflines still match up exactly with the other homes on the street). When they had to remove brick from the original facade, they reused it in the newly remodeled exterior, which blends brick and finished concrete, tying in the old with the new.

Inside, they removed the walls separating the kitchen, dining and living areas, and repurposed several of the home’s original uninsulated areas (the front porch, garage and attic) to become part of the interior space. The house now includes a light-filled, insulated two-story foyer with an open staircase connecting the two levels. 

Although the interior space is now double what it was (spanning more than 3,600 square feet), the additions remarkably increased the home’s overall footprint by only 420 square feet.  How is that possible? The original attic was bumped out with a new flat-roof dormer to create the loft, where Andy and Nikki like to watch TV and where they can both work at home if necessary (Andy works in sales and Nikki is a human-resources consultant). On the other side of the house, the original gable roof was popped up and out on a gentle slope, creating a cathedral ceiling effect in the living room. 

“There is so much wasted space in these old houses,” Amodeo says. “Before people do these big additions, we encourage them to look in the interstitial spaces—those in-between areas—to maximize their space.” 

Lugli adds that the remodeled house proves that “doing ‘modern’ does not have to be cold and huge. It’s more often about bringing in light.” 

Without overpowering their neighbors or their lot, the Feinsots now have a spacious house they plan to stay in for a long time. “Friends tell me, ‘I want to love my house as much as you love yours,’ ” Nikki says. “This is our home. I don’t ever see us leaving.” 

Sleek & Safe

Tom and Ida Claire Kerwin loved to entertain in their former home in Arlington’s Old Glebe neighborhood. Their annual Kentucky Derby party—complete with mint juleps and betting—was a time-honored tradition. But by 2011, with their two sons grown, and the difficult “Snowmageddon” winter of 2010 not yet a distant memory, they were ready to downsize. They also needed a home that could accommodate Ida Claire’s mobility limitations (she relies on a wheelchair) and where they could safely “age in place.”

Intent on continuing their active social life, they chose a 16th-floor condo at The Jefferson, a high-rise retirement community in Ballston, with sweeping views that stretch all the way to Alexandria. The 2,036-square-foot condo was a double—two apartments that had previously been combined into one—so it was airy and spacious, though the Kerwins nevertheless lament all the stuff they had to part with from the old house, including an agonizing 22 boxes of books. 

Before they moved in, the couple turned to Carnemark Design + Build in Bethesda, which had done some work on their former Arlington home, as well as to interior designer JoAnn Zwally of the Ashton Design Group in Ashton, Md., to revamp the existing space to fit their needs. In addition to making some ergonomic design improvements, they wanted to get rid of one bathroom (one of three in the unit) that opened awkwardly into the living room.  

Today, that awkward third bathroom is a gallery space for items the Kerwins have collected during their travels, including Southwestern pottery and Indian and Nepali art. A former railroad executive, Tom also collects mechanical robots from the Nevada-based Lilliput Motor Co., his favorite specialty toy supplier.  

The redesigned master bath includes a frameless, roll-in shower that is easy to get in and out of, and a tile platform that is customized to the height of a high-tech toilet-bidet. 

In the kitchen, one counter is now lowered to create a work surface that Ida Claire can use while seated, and ample drawers—including a slim pullout pantry—put common items with easy reach. 

“As many projects do, this project centered around making a workable kitchen,” says remodeler and designer Jonas Carnemark. “They didn’t feel that they needed a large oven, so reducing the size of that allowed us to get even more storage into the space.” 

The kitchen is outfitted with SieMatic Cabinetry (through KONST SieMatic Kitchen Interior Design in Bethesda), a European cabinetry line that is not only sustainable but also very adaptable for height restrictions and small spaces. The bright orange backsplash is by Dreamwalls Glass through Sterling Glass in Washington, D.C.

On a recent weekday, the Kerwins were entertaining houseguests even as they prepared to leave on a two-month cruise. When they return, it will almost be time for this year’s Kentucky Derby party. 

In a kitchen that is tailor-made for their needs, they will once again prepare mint juleps, Ida Claire says, and the women will all wear hats. 

Green Giving

Even though it’s getting late on a weeknight, John Andelin and VirginiaGingerGeoffrey are standing in their basement, talking about their geothermal heating system. 

John explains how it works: Heat is gathered and transferred through long loops of liquid-filled pipes that are buried in the ground. By taking advantage of the earth’s natural insulation (the underground temperature stays at a constant 55-60 degrees), the system uses far less energy to heat the house when compared with conventional systems, which use the outside air temperature as a baseline. A trained physicist, scientific researcher and former congressional staffer, John is still a self-professed “technical guy,” who relishes the mechanics of new technologies. 

He clarifies, however, that sustainability wasn’t the only goal when they remodeled. For the past three decades, John and Ginger have worked as community activists and philanthropists, helping immigrants from a host of countries to get established in the United States—a commitment that began in the late 1970s, after the Vietnam War. Ginger is a trained speech pathologist, and she applied those skills to teach English to Vietnamese refugees. 

Over time, the couple decided to provide what they call “longitudinal” support to immigrants, including long-term educational and career resources, housing and friendship. Although they are not foster parents in a legally binding relationship, they have served as mentors, “adoptive grandparents,” and as a surrogate aunt and uncle. 

In this capacity, they’ve opened their home to many young people—up to a half-dozen at a time—on weekends or holidays, and, to some, full time. (Many of their “kids,” as they call them, are now grown and spread out across the country.) John and Ginger have no biological children of their own, but the fact is hardly worth mentioning when their lives are so full. 

As their family expanded over the years, it became clear that their 1974 house—a “California contemporary” on the border between Lyon Park and Ashton Heights—was unable to keep up with their space needs. They wanted more places where small groups could talk or hang out, and they also wanted a home that could accommodate larger parties and meetings. 

Working with Studio CrowleyHall, a Washington, D.C.-based architecture firm led by Anne Crowley and Michael Hall, and Silver Spring, Md.-based contractor Jarman Co., the couple expanded their kitchen, added a family room and opened up rooms that had previously been closed off, creating a more open floor plan and expanding the living space from 2,156 to 3,884 square feet. 

The home’s once-windowless front facade is now a warm and welcoming entry that lets in light, designed in a modern aesthetic that combines wood, metal and glass. An elevator, tucked into one side of the house, ensures that John and Ginger can remain safely in the three-story house as they age, plus it makes the residence more accessible to house-guests with mobility restrictions. 

The original living room and new family room now spill onto an expansive deck, further connecting the house with the outdoors. The architects kept the main stair, but extended its landing to create a little nook where an individual or small group can read, lounge or chat. 

Making the house eco-friendly was another priority. In addition to the geothermal system, other green features include triple-paned glass windows and high-performance spray-foam insulation (Icynene and Spider brands), and paints with low-VOC (volatile organic compound) content, meaning they emit far less noxious fumes than conventional paint. The exterior deck and siding are made of ipe, a durable hardwood that resists weathering and requires little maintenance. A translucent panel by Kalwall lights the main stairway and increases the “daylighting” effect in the house, reducing the need for interior lights. 

“Their house was fairly modern to begin with, and it had decent bones. We just wanted to make the whole place more open and airy,” Anne Crowley says of the project, completed in 2009. “When people think of ‘green building,’ they tend to think of finish materials [like] tiles and flooring. We start with the stuff that you don’t necessarily see but that makes the house incredibly energy-efficient, like insulation and geothermal.”  

Last fall, the Arlington Community Foundation honored John and Ginger with its 2013 William T. Newman Jr. Spirit of Community Award in recognition of their decades of volunteerism. But to them, the “v-word” is not really in their vocabulary. 

“This is not volunteer work,” Ginger says. “This is real-people work. We want to contribute to these people’s lives, to watch them grow and blossom, and to be an extra family for them.” Now their house is aligned with that mission. 

Kim O’Connell has written about architecture, sustainability and design for several national and regional publications, including Architect, Preservation, EcoHome, Modernism and Traditional Building.

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