Points of view: Elk Run Ridge’s exterior quietly nods to its surroundings

Photo Courtesy Carter + Burton Photo Courtesy Carter + Burton

How do you design a landscape for a house that sits within a stunning landscape?

Gregg Bleam, whose firm envisioned the exterior approach to Elk Run Ridge, understood the problem as “trying to do the most with the least.” The hilltop site affords panoramic views: fields, woods, and distant ridgelines. What’s more, the house was built to be used as a retreat. So a sense of quietude was paramount, even as owners Fred and Kathryn Giampietro looked for a way to complement the grandeur of the surroundings.

The driveway provided a starting point. From the road, it takes its time winding up and over the folds of the hill, giving visitors a series of alternating views: house, landscape, house. “It’s quite calming,” said architect Jim Burton. “There is a pilgrimage effect.”

Bleam wanted to extend that sense of a journey from the parking area to the front door, using what he called “simple materials and direct components.” Upon leaving the car, one steps onto a pathway made of bluestone slabs in warm tans and rusty browns, bordered by Cor-Ten steel. This pathway steps up about six inches to land on a single-level composition formed by the continuing pathway, an ipe bridge over a concrete-edged pool, and a courtyard made of river stone. “The geometries are trying to be in sync with the geometries Jim had set up in the house,” said Bleam.

Elk Run House, Staunton, VA
A sweeping view becomes even more dramatic when matched with bluestone’s texture and hues. Cor-Ten steel’s rusted patina, and the polished forms of dark beach pebbles at Elk Run Ridge. Photo Courtesy Carter + Burton

The pool is fed by water running from a Cor-Ten tank, through a board-form concrete trough that’s lined with Mexican beach pebbles, then tumbling from a bronze scupper. This deceptively simple design represents careful effort toward unity of materials: the bluestone’s texture and hues, the Cor-Ten’s rusted patina, and the polished forms of the dark beach pebbles.

“There’s a lot of psychological cooling you get from all that water,” said Burton. Mixed with the burble of running water and set against the counterpoint of the sweeping, patchwork vista, the design creates a powerful experience of arrival—a sense that one should slow one’s steps and drink in the drama of both house and site. Bleam called it a “series of thresholds”—simple but effective markers that one is entering a succession of ever-more-elevated spaces.

“One of the best things about the house is its approach,” said Fred Giampietro.

Bleam’s design includes no plantings. “They didn’t ask for a garden with a capital G,” Bleam said. “This is something much more tough-minded and rigorous.” Rather than trees or perennial beds, a simple lawn surrounds the house, with Cor-Ten “blades” helping to define level pads off the porch and courtyard, subtly distinct from what lies beyond.

Elk Run House, Staunton, VA
The Giampietros’ modern home bows to the rural landscape that spills out below the ridgetop site. Photo Courtesy Carter + Burton

Here too, Bleam’s design nearly disappears. “We did quite a bit of grading,” he said—but the grading was minimal in scale, just enough to let the house fully settle onto its site.

For all the aesthetic muscle at work here, the design is also functional. When the Giampietros entertain, guests can flow easily between porches, lawn, and courtyard, or they can sit on the edge of the water trough with a plate of barbecue. And the lack of plantings is a practical decision, in that the elevated site would demand more maintenance for wind-stressed plants than the owners (whose primary residence is out of state) are able to do.

“We tried to eliminate unnecessary things,” said Fred Giampietro. “We tried to achieve what we wanted to, but get out of the way of the vistas.”