April 2009: Upward mobility

April 2009: Upward mobility

The house of Edward and Jane Ford is nothing if not carefully planned.
Sitting on an oddly-shaped lot in North Downtown, the building embodies currents of thought that Edward has explored for decades through his architectural practice and his teaching (he’s been a professor at UVA’s School of Architecture since 1986). In fact, he’s written an entire book about the design process for this home. Five Houses, Ten Details will be published in August.

As you might imagine, there is no shortage of ideas at work in this structure. Yet you wouldn’t need an architectural degree, or even to have read Ford’s book, to appreciate the house. There are qualities here—light, space, views—that anyone would enjoy. “From the minute we moved in we felt very comfortable,” Jane says.

A new take

First, to state the obvious: This house, finished in 2002, stands out among its neighbors. A tall, modern form clad in stained cedar, it shows mostly narrow windows to the street and has a roof that’s partly flat and partly a shallow V, like a butterfly’s wings. Rather than making the front door a central feature, like most traditional houses, it draws attention to steel structural elements that are painted bright yellow and green.


If this front façade makes plain its modernist bent, a sense of playful livability emerges once you enter the recessed door and begin to explore the space inside. The brightly colored beams, posts and railings repeat throughout many of the rooms, contrasting with wooden elements and white walls. And though “Victorian” might be the last adjective on a visitor’s mind as she climbs an open staircase or gazes upward through clerestory windows, Ford says that 19th-century buildings were an important influence on his design.

For example, he says, many houses being built today “are incredibly chopped up into lots and lots of little rooms.” On the other hand, many modernist architects have designed “flowing space with no division.” In 19th-century houses, Ford found a middle ground: “rooms that are connected.” His home echoes this idea, with definite separations between rooms that are, nonetheless, linked closely to each other. Standing at a sink outside the master bathroom, for example, you face a mirror—which you can slide into the wall to reveal an opening to the living room.

On the first floor, Ford avoided the “great room” concept, which he dislikes, and instead designed a kitchen and dining room that are distinct from each other, but easy to move between. The large kitchen follows a galley layout, with ample cabinets and workspace running along the long walls. “Jane likes to cook and used to cook professionally,” he explains. “Our old kitchen was less than a fourth of this size.” Jane adds, “It gets frustrating in a corner; that’s why I wanted the open plan. One time I had seven people in here cooking.”

This crowd of guests could easily have slipped through one of two openings into the dining room, where one of the design’s boldest ideas is on display. Two walls of this room are entirely made of glass, and a dining table appears to pierce one transparent wall, continuing for several feet outside. The tabletop is glass, and it rests on a red steel beam. Lines blur here between inside and outside, even as the traditional idea of a separate room for dining (which is “also very Victorian,” Jane points out) remains intact.

Why open so radically to the outside world in this room? The site, says Ford, dictated much of the house’s layout. It’s an unusual lot, long and narrow, with a small stream running through it; the house’s footprint imitates the lot’s L-shape. In the crook of the L are the nicest views—of the stream and a row of maples the Fords planted—and it’s here that the dining room (and, directly above it, a nook within the living room) let that view in most fully.

Looking up

Its footprint squeezed by the narrow outline of the site, the Ford house achieves its 3,000-square-foot size by extending upward. This lends it an urban feel—appropriate for a home that, the Fords say, has strengthened their connection to Charlottesville as a city. “We’re very tied to Downtown psychologically,” says Jane. Since moving here from Meadowbrook Heights, her husband adds, “We just walk a lot more.”

As one ventures upstairs, it becomes clear how the house’s support structure makes possible its lofty, light-filled interior. Halfway up the stairs is Ford’s modernist adaptation of another 19th-century idea, the “inglenook”: a fireplace with seating, “a little room within a big room,” he says. From this perch, the view soars all the way up through another one-and-a-half stories: wide windows, half-walls around a mezzanine, and a green steel V supporting the butterfly roof.

Combining steel and wood to support the house is not only a matter of style (“I like the juxtaposition of the two materials,” Ford says) but of function. In the more intimate, low-ceilinged spaces, particularly the master bedroom, the wooden structure predominates. In the public rooms, the addition of steel allows more openness, and the light that enters the clerestory windows under the roof can fall down through the entire house. “One of the most wonderful things about the house is the light,” says Jane. “I feel much more connected to nature and the outdoors [than in the Fords’ previous house]. If there’s a pink sunrise, the whole room will be bathed in pink light.”

Edward adds, “[The house] ventilates extremely well because of the tall spaces.” Open a few windows, and air readily moves through—readily enough, as Jane learned on a very windy day, to blow a picture off the wall.

One of the challenges of the site is that the house sits only 10′ from the house next door. Though the placement of windows carefully edits the views to avoid a direct gaze at a neighbor, Jane says the clerestory windows allow a different sort of view: “I can lie in my bed and watch the moon.”

Context clues

Though the kitchen does not feel cavernous, it boasts plenty of storage and work space. The countertops expose their wooden edges rather than wrapping Formica around from the top. “It’s fitting with the rest of the house,” says Jane. “It reveals a lot about how the house is made.”

As his book’s title suggests, consideration of detail was essential to Ford’s design process. Rather than decoration added to a basic structure, details in this case—from the exposed wooden and steel structure to the location of overhead lights in the bedroom—were integral to how Ford developed the house. For one thing, revealing the steel elements and even emphasizing them with bright paint was Ford’s way of, as he writes in his book, “designing a building that explained [the structure].” A close observer might notice that the largest steel pieces are green, while the smallest are yellow—further “explanation” on the part of the house.

And the bright colors animate the interior. “I’d rather use a little bit of a really intense color,” says Ford. In contrast to the cool white planes of the walls, Jane adds, “The color is like movement through the space.”

Above the central living space on the second floor, with another fireplace and an arrangement of modern furniture, the mezzanine holds extensive built-in bookshelves and two desk areas, as well as a bedroom for the occasional use of their grown son. “I have a lot of books, and part of the idea was not to have a separate library,” says Ford. Instead, the books become part of the architecture.

Whereas many architects in Virginia feel beholden to the regional legacy of Thomas Jefferson, Ford was not interested in repeating a style for the sake of symbolism. Rather, a broader interest in architectural history, and a response to the particulars of the site, were his guides. “I like wood buildings, and that’s a pretty American way of doing things,” he says. “The American wood house was more important than a regional idea about what a Virginia house should look like.”

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