Starting over: Seeking simplicity, two empty-nesters build anew in Woolen Mills

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The main level of the house boasts an open floor plan, with the kitchen, living, and dining spaces all within visual reach. A centerpiece of the room, the dining table was handcrafted (by Joe!) from a large slab of oak. Photo: Abby Inman The main level of the house boasts an open floor plan, with the kitchen, living, and dining spaces all within visual reach. A centerpiece of the room, the dining table was handcrafted (by Joe!) from a large slab of oak. Photo: Abby Inman

For some folks, “downsizing” means moving from a house to a condo. Many empty-nesters relish letting go of maintenance and other work associated with the family home—in other words, simplifying. But for Joe and Lindsay Milby, an energetic couple with years of experience in real estate and construction, downsizing wasn’t exactly simple.

In the master bathroom, a glass-walled shower stall shows off grey porcelain tile that mimics the look of weathered wood, while a modern, open-tread metal staircase guides guests between levels. Photo: Abby Inman
In the master bathroom, a glass-walled shower stall shows off grey porcelain tile that mimics the look of weathered wood. Photo: Abby Inman

The pair took on a sort of mini-development project in Woolen Mills: renovating (and selling) an existing house, parceling off part of the lot where it sat, and building a brand-new cottage for themselves. While they may not have saved themselves much work, Joe saw the project as a chance to fulfill a dream. After a career in commercial construction, he said, “This was my first opportunity to build where my passion is.”

The driving force behind the design of the new home—a 2,800-square-foot cottage that marries contemporary and traditional details—is what Joe calls “sensible design.” He explained, “You’re using all the space. Instead of a living room and a great room, you have one room. Instead of a breakfast nook and a formal dining room, you have one.”

On the second floor, two large guest bedrooms both feature a wall of built-in storage and spacious closets. Photo: Abby Inman
On the second floor, two large guest bedrooms both feature a wall of built-in storage and spacious closets. Photo: Abby Inman

This notion had not only struck Joe back in his days as an engineering student, it was also a reaction to the Milbys’ previous home, a historic Downtown house that clocked in at more than 4,000 square feet. While beautiful, it was also somewhat impractical. “We never used any other rooms but the great room and the bedrooms,” Lindsay said. “We felt sort of silly in that house; it was almost uncomfortable.” The excess space meant more to heat and cool, a considerable expense in a house dating to the 1920s.

For their new place, the Milbys prioritized efficiency. The house is framed with 2′x6′ lumber to provide space for extra insulation, and Joe worked with energy consultant John Semmelhack of Think Little to choose high-performance windows and doors. “Our energy bills are next to nothing,” said Lindsay. “This is awesome, coming home and not having to bundle up.”

A modern, open-tread metal staircase guides guests between levels. Photo: Abby Inman
A modern, open-tread metal staircase guides guests between levels. Photo: Abby Inman

Unified look 

The look of the house is a hybrid aesthetic that fits right in with many of the design-build projects that have cropped up around Charlottesville over the last decade or so. “Joe wanted more ultra-modern, and I like more character,” said Lindsay. “We ended up with this: clean lines, modern, but not cold.”

The cottage has a traditional form, but makes clear to anyone passing by that it’s brand new, with an au courant steel porch railing and alternating courses of wide and narrow Hardiboard siding.

Inside, the design balances austere white walls with warm red oak flooring and exposed Douglas fir ceiling beams. “We painted all the walls super white and decided to bring color in with stuff,” Lindsay said. “We wanted a really clean look.” Bright rugs and artwork pop against the uniformly pale walls; even the kitchen and bathroom cabinets are white.

The great room, where the Milbys knew they’d spend most of their time, puts the kitchen and living area near each other and close to a small rear deck, accessible through two sets of French doors.

With these open on summer evenings, Lindsay said, “It’s like one big great room.” Soapstone countertops, a small gas fireplace, and a modern oak-and-steel, open-tread staircase (with metalwork by local artisan Lauren Danley) provide accents within this flowing, well-lit space.

“The smaller space makes us more organized,” said Lindsay. “It makes you say, ‘I don’t need that.’” Their old house, now a vacation rental, still holds many of their possessions. “We left everything except our clothes, some artwork, and knick-knacks and walked out the front door.”

Photo: Christian Hommel
Photo: Christian Hommel

The new cottage seems to have invited their creativity. Joe made a dining table from a large raw slab of oak, and a simple credenza from a leftover structural beam that he cut in three pieces, put together at right angles, and painted turquoise. Lindsay chose a modern stainless-steel sink for the powder room and retro-industrial light fixtures for the master bedroom.

In the master suite—located on the ground floor—there is a nod to drama, with a soaring cathedral ceiling over the bed and tall closets flanking the door to the bathroom. A glass-walled shower stall shows off grey porcelain tile that mimics the look of weathered wood.

Upstairs, two large bedrooms each have a wall of built-in storage and roomy closets. Light pours into the shared bathroom through a pair of windows over the double sink, and seems to illuminate the bedrooms, too, which feel airy despite having just one window apiece.

Indeed, less is more throughout this new city abode. With a minimalist approach to furnishings, and an attitude of being consciously selective, the Milbys’ home speaks of a fresh start. “Our friends think we’re crazy,” laughed Lindsay. But, said Joe, “We’re extremely happy and comfortable here.”

 

As for their former house…

What became of the Milbys’ 4,000-square-foot home Downtown? That one holds its own story.

While Joe was developing the Randolph Condominiums on 10th Street NE, the Pryor Haynes house on East Jefferson Street acted as an office building. The couple gutted it, renovated it, and moved in, wanting to live closer to Downtown. But, when both their kids left home, the space felt too big. “We literally used about 25 percent of the house,” Lindsay said. That was when they decided the smaller home in Woolen Mills was more their style.

Having rented the East Jefferson house through websites like VRBO and Home Away for football weekends and graduation, it was an easy transition to allow Stay Charlottesville (our local answer to those big-name sites) to manage the property full-time.

“The house is perfectly suited for a vacation home, as it has four bedrooms, each with their own private bath,” Lindsay said. “It is rented almost every weekend and in some months of the year, [entirely] occupied.”

They plan to keep the spot in the family as long as they can. “As real estate professionals,” Lindsay said, “our homes are our investments for future retirement.”—Caite White

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