March 2011: Standing tall

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 It was love at first sight.

Until the day Mark Hampton and Jay Alexander first laid eyes on a house built by Charlottesville design-build company Latitude 38, they thought they were looking to buy an older dwelling —maybe a 1930s bungalow. One look at the Latitude house changed their minds. “We went from wanting old and charming to new and contemporary,” says Hampton. 

That was about a year and a half ago. At the time, the two were splitting their time between their century-old townhouse in Richmond (their original home base) and a 700-square-foot condo in Charlottesville. Hampton’s work as an associate dean at UVA’s Curry School was the reason they’d needed an outpost here. But Charlottesville had gradually started to feel more like home, so he and Alexander were looking for a stand-alone house that would better accommodate them, two good-sized dogs, and frequent gatherings of friends. 

Unexpectedly attracted to Latitude’s mostly modern aesthetic, the pair had to pass on that first house and then on a second, waiting for their condo to sell in a tough market. When it finally did, Latitude owner Jeff Erkelens was at work on another house—this one at the bottom of a steep Belmont hill. Alexander and Hampton were a little skeptical about the site.

“It was a very unprepossessing lot,” Hampton says. But once again, seeing the house itself caused a change of heart. They happened to drive by when Erkelens was on site; he offered a tour. Although the second floor wasn’t yet in place, “I remember Mark falling in love with the layout,” says Alexander. Hampton adds, “It was complete reversal.” Last August, they moved in.

Building experience

 

Inserting modern houses into old city neighborhoods is a strategy employed by a number of local architects and builders. With nine finished homes around Charlottesville, and another one under construction, Latitude 38 is among the most visible of these operators. 

Jeff Erkelens and Joey Conover, with daughter Eleanor, are the brains behind Latitude 38. They’re shown in their house in Fifeville, another Latitude project.

Back in 2006, Erkelens appeared on the cover of ABODE inside his first house, which he’d built for himself on Monticello Avenue. Joey Conover moved in shortly thereafter (the two are now married, with an infant in tow, and run Latitude 38 together). Since then, he’s refined some of that first project’s hallmarks—a warm contemporary style and inventive use of materials—while improving energy-efficiency and learning from the demands of both custom and speculative building.

All 10 Latitude houses are within city limits, often slotted onto sites that might be easy to overlook. A San Francisco native, Erkelens appreciates both the challenges of dense neighborhoods (placing windows to maximize both views and privacy, for example) and the pleasures of being close to the action. “[Joey and I] are just townie people,” he says. “We want to build close to Downtown, [for] the walkability”—not to mention the convenience of his city-dwelling crew members who bike to work.

“On a bigger scale,” Conover adds, “[we like] being part of the city, and contributing to making the city a liveable place.” They themselves live in a Latitude house—probably the only one in Fifeville with a three-story indoor climbing wall.

“With each house we try to take incremental steps in energy-efficiency,” Erkelens says. Hampton and Alexander’s house, on Montrose Avenue, is entirely wrapped in 1" foamboard, making it tight enough that it requires an ERV (energy recovery ventilator) unit to bring in fresh air. It’s the second of Latitude’s houses to be EarthCraft certified.

Design for livability

 

Alexander and Hampton certainly appreciate the way tight building practices cut down on drafts and noise (Alexander says, “You don’t hear traffic. The dogs, half the time, don’t realize we’ve pulled up in the driveway”). But it was livability that won their hearts that day Erkelens showed them around.

The main living space flows seamlessly from the kitchen/dining space, four steps up. In the foreground is the top of the built-in shelf unit that divides the two areas and doubles as a buffet.

What they saw was a first floor that felt both unified as a single space and intelligently divided into several smaller zones. The design mimics the slope of the site, which goes up from front to back; the kitchen and dining room, at the rear, are four steps higher than the living area. Since the ceiling is flat, it feels lower in the kitchen, making that a more intimate space. 

“We were going for this open loft urban feel—the first floor open, with high ceilings,” says Erkelens, who had design help from Latitude’s Tommy Schapperkotter.

“We envisioned this as a place where we could have parties,” says Hampton. He loves to cook and is keenly aware of the limitations of a small, closed-off kitchen. “In Richmond, I’m in the kitchen by myself, or everybody’s in there with me. With this, I can be at the stove with people down [in the living area], and we can still interact.” 

The split-level arrangement has a couple of other advantages, too. For one, the top of the built-in shelves that mark the transition serves as a perfect buffet for Hampton’s culinary creations. For another, a conditioned crawlspace under the kitchen is almost tall enough to stand in, providing plenty of storage.

The kitchen itself, featuring a concrete countertop on the island and white Ikea cabinetry, is highly functional, says Hampton. “It’s more like a commercial kitchen. I did not want a dainty kitchen, and we did not get that.”

Almost like custom

 

The Latitude team injected its trademark style into the Montrose house even while experimenting with new materials. Having used plywood on walls and ceilings in a number of previous projects, Erkelens decided it was time to break the mold. “I’m tired of plywood,” he says. “[But] in bedrooms we always like to do a wood wall—it adds so much warmth. [Local builder] Bill Jobes turned me onto using 1"x12" pine.” The planks, some cut into narrow widths, bring the signature warmth of wood to one wall of each room upstairs, as well as the downstairs ceilings. The effect seems to be working—Alexander calls the place “cozy” and adds, “I think of it as a ski house.” 

Top: Hampton, left, loves to cook; he and Alexander frequently host friends around their concrete-top island and nearby dining table; Bottom: In the guest bathroom, the window takes in a grand southern view but, because of its height relative to the street, doesn’t need a curtain.

If so, it’s a ski house that skirts rusticism entirely. A downstairs half-bath features wainscoting made of Durock (concrete wallboard, normally hidden behind tile) and three square bubble-glass windows, reclaimed from a garage door. The rectangular sink sits on a platform made from 2"x4"s in a grate pattern—a motif that repeats on a bench in the house’s entryway.

“We liked the hominess of exposed coathooks; you can see your shoes,” says Erkelens, adding that the entryway sets up the dramatic experience of entering the living area. “When you walk in, you’re in a small foyer with dropped ceilings. You don’t realize you’re going to be in this 11′ space.”

Nor do you realize that, even on a low-elevation lot, you’ll be treated to spectacular views. “From all the second floor rooms, you have this incredible view of Montalto,” says Alexander, who also likes the way roofs on neighboring houses “stairstep up to Monticello Avenue.”

Even the Latitude crew didn’t realize what the views would be like until the second floor was in place. At that point, they adjusted the design, moving the master suite from front to back for the best vista. 

Alexander says he appreciates the creativity of this approach. “I feel like we live in a custom house.”

Sensible and green

 

Aesthetics aside, the house is meant to be highly functional. Erkelens says a priority on this project was packing in lots of storage via built-ins and a kitchen pantry. 

 

The master bedroom is of modest size, but high ceilings make it feel bigger. Plank walls add warmth.

 

He and Schapperkotter also paid special attention to window placement: varying shapes and sizes, letting in views and light, but keeping the interior private. “It’s nice to have that size window and not have to cover it,” says Alexander, pointing out a large opening over a bathroom sink. It faces south and is high enough off the street that no one could see in, but commands a large view. 

The house’s western side—receiving the day’s strongest sun—has few windows and is clad in a standing-seam metal material usually meant for roofing. Behind that wall are bathrooms and stairs—areas where windows aren’t as necessary.

Beyond using that basic passive-solar principle, Latitude’s sustainability practices here include using “mill ends” (short remnants of hardwood) for much of the flooring, and keeping the footprint to a reasonable size (the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house comprises 1,840 square feet).

“It’s an impressive use of space,” Hampton says. He and Alexander especially appreciate having a dedicated room for Alexander’s 15-year-old son when he visits.

Modern looks

 

On a street of boxy, concrete postwar houses, this new arrival—tall and modern—is certainly a departure. But Erkelens sought to prevent a jarring effect by leaving a willow tree in place in the front yard, and by designing a “welcoming” façade with wide steps up to a porch. 

“My initial concern about living in Belmont,” Hampton says, “[was that] you’d have this sticking out like a sore thumb. I’m surprised it doesn’t. The neighbors say, ‘Y’all sure bought a pretty house’.…It’s easy to tell people how to get here, but it’s not an eyesore.”

Erkelens says that building modern helps control costs. 

“Modern isn’t as expensive to build—[there are] less details,” he says. “We’re able to put that [time and money] into the energy-efficiency and sustainability practices, and more interesting interior finishes. We’re building boxes for the most part—simple rectangular housing.”

 

 

 

 

 

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