As children grow up, change is a constant. So it’s appropriate that their surroundings would continually evolve along with them. In the case of Kirk and Cathy Train, the process of raising two children has been intertwined with the process of building, rethinking and rebuilding their house.
“Buildings and houses are living fabric,” said Kirk, founder of Train & Partners Architects and designer of his family home in western Albemarle. “They need to be altered to extend their useful life.”
When the Trains built the house, in 1988, the kids were young and the house was designed to bring the family together. “There’s no den, family room, or kids’ room,” explained Cathy. “Our whole family operated in one room. That was important to us, not to have that segregation.”
The “one room” is a distinctly flexible space. It can be thought of as a single living room (replete with bookshelves and Blue Ridge views, and organized around a fireplace on one end). Yet it is nearly continuous with the house’s central hall and beyond that, the library. It’s a 60′ line of sight and movement—so when the house needs to feel big, it can.
“At Christmas, we have 120 adults here, and they fit,” Kirk said. “It’s comfortable for a family, for the two of us”—the children are now grown —“and when we entertain.”
Whereas the Trains once slept upstairs in a bedroom near their children, they now have a first-floor master suite, added in 2011. Other major updates to the property since 1988 have included the addition of a garage with a garret apartment; a total kitchen renovation; and the transformation of a shed into a one-bedroom B&B.
Built for books
Of course, it’s not only family life that has prompted all this change. It’s also an architect’s intense interest in the process. Kirk, who also serves as chief builder, originally designed the house as a two-over-two dogtrot, both for simplicity of construction and aesthetics.
“Cathy and I are both from the Deep South,” he said. “We grew up with white clapboard houses, so emotively it made sense.” Yet, feeling that many houses are “fat and bloated,” he kept this one quite slim—just 16′ from front to back. “It’s a very narrow house, so it can wear white,” he said.
The “dogtrot” is not open to the elements, as is traditional, but serves as central hall and as dining room when the Trains have company. Upon entering the front door, one looks straight through this space and out the rear doors to a formal, columned porch.
Two other elements determined the basics of the design. One is the mountain view to the northwest—faced by that porch and a plethora of large windows along the rear wall of the house. The other is books.
“We’ve been collecting books for 40 years,” said Cathy. “So we have to figure out how to make them not additions to our life, but part of our life.” The couple keeps 5,700 volumes at home, and Kirk has strived to fully integrate the collection into the fabric of the house. For example, in the living room, built-in shelves are designed to mirror, in their proportions and style, the large windows on the opposite wall. “These walls are analogous,” Kirk said. “We view the mountains this way, and books that way.” Then there’s the book room, part of the most recent addition, in which shelves line walls that extend two stories in height.
Moving toward modern
The not-so-traditional feel of the book room is typical of this new wing of the house, in which the Trains allowed the house to try on a more modern guise. Its exterior, for example, is a grid pattern of white and unpainted wood, complementary to but distinctly unlike the time-tested white clapboard of the original portion.
The new master bathroom is quite up-to-date, with the modern-style bathtub squarely in the center of the room, and a wall of glass looking onto a private, enclosed garden.
“I can take the traditional when I’ve got the modern around,” Kirk said. Indeed, the interior is a quirky blend of classic detailing and occasional, modernist touches—an iconic Le Corbusier chaise lounge, or modern fixtures in the powder room.
The new kitchen, too, has gone contemporary. It’s built to suit Kirk, who became head cook some years ago and prefers a protected space for making meals. When the Train children were growing up, the center of the room held a large table big enough to allow their friends to join family dinners. Now, that spot is occupied by an island that creates a somewhat separate zone for cooking.
Rich with books and artwork, and continually inviting the eye outside, the house feels like the perfect response to its setting. Perfect, but perhaps not complete. True to form, the Trains have another project in mind: an outdoor pavilion within “an enlarged, dedicated bird en-vironment”—a spot specifically for birding.
One guesses the planning and building will never stop. Said Kirk, “The house has always been something that evolves.”