Finding level: On a mountaintop, Waterstreet Studio carves outdoor living space

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Photo: Bill Mauzy Photo: Bill Mauzy

The cabin sits on a steep Albemarle mountainside under a tall forest canopy. It was built in West Virginia, probably in the early 1800s; it was moved here in the 1970s, reconstructed and updated with basic conveniences like plumbing. Its owners used it only a few weeks per year as a vacation spot.

Then, on a cold day in 2013, Joe Chipuk and Sara Szmania drove up the steep, switchbacking driveway. They’d relocated to Charlottesville and had noticed the property as soon as it entered the market. “It was pretty clear it was a special place,” says Szmania.

They loved the solitude of the mountaintop perch and the sense of palpable history embodied in the house. Yet they also knew they’d have to make some changes if this were to be a full-time dwelling, and those changes would have to start literally from the ground up. “Everything outside was quite steep,” says Szmania. There was virtually no usable outdoor space because of the slope.

A materials palette that is local in spirit and fact was used to transform a mountainside Albemarle cabin into a full-time dwelling: Bluestone paves the patio, while walls, created with rocks from the site itself, support new grassy terraces that aren’t lawns so much as modest moments of green that contrast with the mature forest floor. Photo: Bill Mauzy

Bill Mauzy of Waterstreet Studio helped them to develop ideas about the transformations that were needed: more parking and better turnaround space for cars, sitting and dining areas near the house, a path approaching the front porch and storage for firewood and tools. “It was about designing it to be beautiful, but also practical,” says Chipuk—“making sure it felt like it should be here.”

A suburban-style lawn clearly wouldn’t be appropriate, and pavement needed to be kept to a minimum. The driveway itself presented challenges: No gravel or concrete trucks could make it to the top during construction.

All these constraints led to a materials palette that is local in spirit and fact, and ultimately very appropriate to the character of the site and cabin. Dry-stacked stone walls create terraces; bluestone paves the patio; mulch and gravel paths blend with the surroundings.

Photo: Bill Mauzy

“One of the important things was to create a sense of transition from domestic spaces to forest,” says Mauzy. “Before, the forest came right up to the cabin. On three sides, we pushed the forest edge back, being careful to keep certain trees.”

Szmania had an idea for what became the key outdoor living space: a sitting area on the side where the house’s fieldstone chimney towers overhead. “I’ve always been enamored of the chimney,” she says, adding that its natural texture is a contrast with the angular modern spaces in which she’d lived before. She and Chipuk had a favorite hike when they first came to Virginia, which ended at a lone chimney in the ruins of a homestead.

In that spirit, she conceived of a second chimney, opposite and mirroring the first, to suggest a place where a summer kitchen had once stood, then burned down. The fireplace in this chimney would heat the seating area, and it would be paved with long rectangular sandstone pavers, to mimic wooden floor planks. Seating and the coffee table here are made as simply as can be, from stacked wooden pallets.

Masons from Lithic Construction built the new chimney to reflect the antiquated style of the old, with more mortar than is typically used nowadays.

They also engineered serious stone walls, pulling many rocks from the site itself. “A lot of the rock, especially larger pieces, were repurposed from the site,” says Mauzy. “We wanted to use native material.”

These support new grassy terraces. They aren’t lawns so much as modest moments of green at ground level that contrast with the mature forest floor. They are planted with native creeping red fescue that’s soft underfoot and, left unmowed, grows into low shaggy humps.

“The plantings emphasize the use of natives,” says Mauzy. “All the plants have the feel of plants you would find in the forest.” They also need to be wildlife-resistant and shade-loving, and they can’t be water-hungry, because there isn’t enough water pressure to irrigate on a site as elevated as this.

Rhododendrons, ferns, fothergilla, witch hazel, Virginia sweetspire, blue zinger sedge and epimedium—installed and maintained by J.W. Townsend—are some of the species that fill out the landscape around the house: around the dining patio, along stone walls and steps and lining parking areas.

Upslope from the house, with a stone wall to create a boundary, is a small barn built by Frank Joseph from salvaged timbers and other elements. “Frank is the pure artist,” says Chipuk, as Szmania shows Joseph’s pen drawing for the little building, which includes sketches of the old local structures that supplied the materials. Its salvaged door still includes a small cat door cut into the bottom.

“The base of the small barn is a wedge; the terrace wall zigzags around it,” says Szmania. “It’s an exchange of ideas and angles.”

The couple have been enjoying the way their landscape now invites them outside, allows more light into the house and connects them with the surroundings year-round. “The aim was to enjoy all the seasons,” says Szmania, “and let nature be part of the equation.”

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