From little to big


Photos by Eric Kelley

If there’s one profession that’s well represented in Charlottesville, it’s architecture. The local glut of designers—from neo-Jeffersonian to eco-contemporary—partly accounts for all the great houses here. This year, as we looked forward to our children’s design issue, we started to wonder: When architects become parents, how do they design spaces for their own kids?

In the end, we wound up with two interesting answers, via two local families. One of them has a wealth of space while the other makes the most of snug quarters. Both families, in that thoughtful and deliberate way architects have, seem to make their houses work for everybody—kids and adults alike.

Here’s how they do it.

The big house: in an open space, keep an eye on style

It takes a little while to drive from Charlottesville, past Keswick and Cismont, to the Cobham home of John Quale, Sara Osborne, and their two children. A onetime post office and general store, the place was probably only average-sized when it served its original function—but, converted to a house, it’s more than spacious.

That fact is amply illustrated when 4-year-old Alice bounces around the living room on a big green inflatable ball. Literally, around the living room: She makes a complete circuit around the pair of couches in the center of the room. She, her 6-year-old brother Walker and their friends also love to ride bikes and scooters around the big loop, their parents say.

The 1,000-square-foot room was the general store, built in 1936 (the post office portion of the building, which is now the family’s dining room, is older but not precisely dated). Your average adult would find the dark wooden floor and beadboard walls very appealing. It also has acres of shelving—even after the couple removed some. ("How often do you move into a house and take out shelves?" Quale laughs.) That this is a two-architect household (Quale teaches at UVA, where he heads the green-construction ecoMOD project, and Osborne is a landscape architect with Nelson Byrd Woltz) is evident in the understated unity of the room.

Alice Quale demonstrates the coolest feature of her family’s 1000-square-foot living room: bikeability.

Though Osborne has a small computer table at one end of the room, and a woodstove and the couches dominate the center, there’s still room for a big open play area at the front end, defined by a rug laid under the tall storefront windows. Their deep window seats double as toy cupboards. Osborne remembers the family’s Thomas the Tank Engine phase. "We had a whole town of Thomas," she says, "and that was a great thing that we could leave it out and develop it, with the zoo and the airport, and not have to put it away."

Osborne admits to a certain choosiness that comes into play when kids are assigned a portion of a large shared room, rather than a separate playroom. "The toys that come in, we’ve had an eye to what they look like," she says. "Will that look good in the living room? You know it’s not going to get put away." ("Yeah, we’re snobs," says Quale.)

A converted post office and general store, the Quale-Osborne house is long on character, with beadboard walls and shelving that once held merchandise. And, it’s just plain long.

As new parents, they tried to toe the line. "For about two weeks we had a no plastic toy policy when Walker was born," says Quale. They both chuckle, remembering this. "We’d rather have a nice wooden rocking horse or something," says Osborne. "Then you find out it’s much easier to clean a shiny plastic thing than painstakingly washing a woolen lamb."

Upstairs is the master bedroom, and each of the kids has an eclectic room filled with toys, books and artwork. Alice shows a visitor what she likes about hers: a bear named Ogogo, a mini basketball hoop on the back of the door and an old telephone that isn’t plugged in. "It is supposed to be right here," she explains, moving it to the edge of the bed.

In Walker Quale’s bedroom, things are adaptable: There are low-to-the-ground shelves that can evolve from toy to book storage as he grows, and a system for hanging art that allows quick change-outs. The closet provides a cosy reading nook.

"We don’t try to theme their rooms," says Quale; "It should be open, in my view." Osborne concurs: "It’s all got to be adaptable and moveable for kids." To that end, they’ve installed shelving that’s at kid-height and can serve many purposes as Walker and Alice grow up.

The spaciousness of the family’s quarters allows the area at the top of the stairs to function not just as a hallway but a sitting area. There are shelves, a small TV and a suspended wicker chair from Ikea. In earlier years, Osborne kept a rocking chair there for nursing, and the master bedroom was left open so she and Quale could hear their children at night. Now they have a bedroom door they can close, and the top of the stairs is a hangout for the kids to watch videos or read.

While Jody Esselstyn woirks in the kitchen, her daughters Edie and Sarah can inhabit their own specialized space for doing art – and still be close enough for conversation.

Outdoors, the family has a big back yard to match the big house. "In this area we play baseball. And soccer. And Frisbee, too," says Walker, standing within a wide swath of grass. He’s practicing tossing up a ball and batting it. Nearby, a fenced-in veggie garden is spilling over with produce and frequented by chickens. Osborne and the kids stop to admire a swelling watermelon. She says both kids enjoy the garden, especially the green beans: Alice likes to eat them immediately after picking and Walker had a few he’d planted himself. Walker goes looking for eggs and comes back with a fresh one; Alice announces the name of one of the three chickens: "That’s Mr. Speckly Hen. It’s a boy chicken."

Edie and Sarah Aten help their dad fold up the Murphy bed to make more space for playing and reading.

Quale and Osborne’s biggest project outdoors was replacing a big asphalted area in front of the house with grass and a gravel drive, then adding a fence to keep the kids away from busy Rte. 22. Fortunately, it works. Other successes are more ephemeral: A kid-sized teepee got a lot of use last year but has been neglected this summer. Still, Osborne is cooking up projects she’d like to undertake in the future: building a treehouse and making a sunken pool out of a natural spring. "One thing about being a designer is you have these great images and great ideas about what you can do," she says.

Though time and money can be obstacles, at least there’s plenty of space.

The little house: making rooms work twice as hard

Back in Charlottesville, Jeff Aten—a colleague of Osborne and a landscape architect—stands in the middle of his house, a 1920 bungalow in Fry’s Spring, and surveys most of the first floor from a single spot.

You wouldn’t call it a tiny house, but it is the kind of place a Realtor might tag as "cosy." Aten moved in in 2000 and his wife Jody Esselstyn followed soon after. Then they had a daughter. Then they had another daughter.

Now, Edie is 5 and Sarah is 3 1/2. "We’ve made a lot of decisions based on the lack of space," Aten says. He points out where he took out a wall between the kitchen and dining room, "to make a space that a family could use," he says. "We just wanted that fluidity a little bit more." Where the wall used to be is now a small table that the girls use for making art, and a small cupboard for their supplies. The dining room in turn flows into the living room—in effect making one large multipurpose space. "The bulk of their awake time is spent" in this open area, says Esselstyn, a stay-at-home mom. If she’s working in the kitchen, her daughters like to be nearby. "So they’ll take the pillows off the couch and make a fort on the living room floor, or draw at their desk, or have a tea party on the dining room floor."

For the Aten-Esselstyn family, a friendly and walkable neighborhood—and plenty of outdoor space—are worth the challenges of a not-so-big house.

Aten says that the combined space has the effect of also blending family activities. "The kids are with us mostly in their play," he says. "They’re not relegated to some basement room. …We can hear the dialogue that goes on between them and choose to intervene or not. They’ll do artwork at their table and want to come and share it or show it off. …The dining room and kitchen are where we spend their waking hours together. It’s sort of that hearth mentality."

Still, everyone needs a little spot to be alone. And, as one progresses further into the house, more private nooks reveal themselves. At the back of the house is what Aten calls "one of our most intentional moves in terms of maximizing our space"—a Murphy bed built into the wall of a very small room that can double as a playroom when the bed is folded up.

"We had a futon down there that was our guest bed," Aten explains, "but the grandparents were complaining quite a bit and wanting to truncate their visits." With a better, albeit stowable, bed and a curtain across the doorway, the family created "a guest space that was flexible and multipurpose," he says. The grandparents have a separate realm that’s insulated from kid noise, and when they aren’t in town, Edie and Sarah can play here. ("I like pirates," Edie says. "I like babies," Sarah says.) It particularly works as a quiet play spot for Edie while Sarah is sleeping, says Esselstyn. "[Edie will] close the curtain, she’ll crawl in her huge cardboard box and do whatever she does in there, or get books off the shelf and have a reading nook, or lie on the floor and listen to a book on CD."

Another quiet spot? The girls’ compact shared bedroom, which is barely longer than the bunk beds Aten installed when Sarah outgrew her crib and moved in with her sister. "It opened up a lot of extra space and made the house feel much more liveable," says Esselstyn. There isn’t room for a lot of extras in here—just a few books and some of the girls’ artwork on the walls—and it’s tough to imagine them still happily sharing in, say, 10 years. But there is an escape route: another small bedroom across the hall that one of the girls could someday occupy. "Right now we’re in a holding pattern that will work for a while until school needs and privacy needs will change," says Esselstyn. For now, the camaraderie of a shared room is more important.

Other future plans? "One of the issues we’ve run into with having kids and an older house is that I don’t want to stir things up too much," Aten explains. "There’s lead paint everywhere you look, and it’s already such a small house that to take over part of it as an area of renovation could be a breaking point." Instead, he says, he envisions possibly another whole building to add living space and create a "compound" feel.

He’s already designed at least one structure: a coop for the family’s two chickens, its shape inspired by that of an egg. The girls introduce a visitor to Alfreda and Brownie, whom they identify by foot color, before observing tiny ants on a raspberry bush and pointing out a tall sunflower nodding in the garden. The yard, says Esselstyn, is one of the best things about where they live; along with the walkability of Fry’s Spring, it’s a good tradeoff for the challenge of their small house. "I love our neighborhood and I love that our house has the green space that allows the kids to run around," she says. "We’re within a walk of the trolley, and [the girls have] friends right across the street and right next door."

Designers’ wisdom

Whether your house is large or small, if you have kids, some of the ideas we picked up from local architects might come in handy:

–    A rug can define a play area within a larger space.
–    Know your aesthetic—and that plastic cleans up faster.
–    Skip the themes; instead, keep décor flexible.
–    Give kids shelf space they can easily reach.
–    Multipurpose rooms promote togetherness.
–    Everybody needs a place to rest and be alone.
–    A small house is worth living in the right neighborhood.
–    Kids love chickens!