September 08: Party in the back

September 08: Party in the back

Ah, old houses! How do we love your handmade cornices, your characterful proportions, your charmingly slanted floors!

Your size, not so much.

An addition by STOA Design + Construction makes a decisive stylistic break with the 1930 brick house it expands.

Plenty of local homeowners, given the abundance in Charlottesville and Albemarle of well-seasoned housing stock, face this situation: They love their old houses, but they need more space. And so they decide to build additions.

This choice leads directly to a second dilemma. When one is starting with a late-19th century farmhouse or even a brick colonial, is it better to match that original structure, or to add something that’s obviously different, that actually revels in its newness?

Often, locals and the architects and builders they work with are opting for transparency with their additions. The front of a dwelling—and its place in a streetscape, if it’s in the city—can be preserved and honored even as something boldly contemporary arises in the back. 

Cook’s treat

Here’s your test case: a 1930 brick house in north Downtown, blessed with a wonderful location, solid construction and an extremely tiny kitchen. The owners, one of whom is an enthusiastic cook, felt cramped in there, and what’s more, the appliances were outdated and inefficient.

Cut to the present, with the proud couple standing in their brand-new two-story addition, which turns the old cramped kitchen into a butler’s pantry and adds a spacious new room for cooking, bedecked with windows on three sides and sandwiched between a new deck and a generous stairwell down to the bathroom, laundry and entryway on the ground floor.

Color choices, fixtures and small objects weave an eclectic style that links old and new.

Though the new wing certainly solved space problems and made good use of the least usable part of their backyard, its most notable features are aesthetic. With its Hardiboard and cedar exterior, and its contemporary sensibility, it’s a total departure from the stolid brick look of the original house. “I struggled with the idea of this brick house—what would you add on that wouldn’t look funny?” says the owner. It was Justin Heiser, co-owner of STOA Design + Construction, who convinced his clients that matching the original was virtually impossible and that a clearly modern look would be more satisfying in the end.

What makes it work is a whole series of decisions, on both designers’ and owners’ parts, that link the old and new. For one thing, the brick wall that used to mark the rear exterior of the kitchen is preserved as an interior wall in the new stairwell, its color mimicked in paint on the lower-level floor. For another thing, the countertops (large light-grey patterned ceramic tile), sink (a pale sea green that looks inspired by a 1950s Chevy Bel Air) and smaller decorating touches reveal a fondness for all things retro, art deco and mid-century modern.

A sleek, minimal look in the kitchen addition, and improved energy efficiency throughout, serve as an update to this Belmont cottage.

Such eclectic taste serves to knit all the elements together between house and addition: herb-green stairwell walls showcasing large original artworks, antique furniture, stainless-steel appliances and a great Internet find—a light fixture made from recycled materials whose metal fins bend into a custom form.

A relatively subtle change in the original house seals the deal. Two wall openings connect the dining room visually to the butler’s pantry and the living room. Those openings nudge the house toward a modern way of living, in which rooms flow more seamlessly into each other, and inhabitants are less sequestered, than in 1930. Outside, the interest of the new forms and surfaces is a definite improvement, say the owners, over what used to be a rather bleak exterior, with a looming brick wall punctuated here and there by tiny windows.

Then too, the new space just feels good, regardless of one’s preferred era of design. The kitchen seems to hover in the treetops, light pouring in through its many windows. “We’re incredibly happy,” say the owners.

Built for the moment

The little cottage on Elliott Avenue was built in 1927 and nearly faced its demise when architect Jim Rounsevell prepared to transform the property. Its layout was outdated—again, the small rooms would have sequestered inhabitants—and it was inexpensively built worker housing to begin with. But, Rounsevell says, “It’s cheaper to leave as much as you can than tear it all down.” So he set out to modernize the house and expand its footprint while preserving its bones.

The cottage’s facade is now subtly energized by modern styling.

Whereas the early 20th-century norm called for “Mom in the kitchen, Dad with the guests,” Rounsevell says, “we’ve gone back to the one-room house”—the big flowing space that incorporates kitchen, dining and living rooms. And that is exactly how the little cottage now functions.

Once again, an eclectic approach allows old and new to marry happily. The front facade still blends perfectly into the streetscape, but there are modern touches in the railings and in a large wooden panel that holds the deco-style house number and hides the former front door opening.

Rounsevell had a sweeping vision for this modest place: He reversed the original floor plan (two bedrooms became living and dining rooms, and vice versa) and took off an existing rear addition to replace it with the new kitchen. That kitchen is unapologetically contemporary, a study in minimalist black cabinets and stainless steel backsplash and countertop, and it’s ornamented mainly by the view through three big rear windows. “I don’t like being in a house and separated from where it is, from the land,” Rounsevell says. “This house is 1,200 square feet, but it doesn’t feel like it because you’ve decompartmentalized it.”

As for the bright line between original house and recent addition, Rounsevell says, “I’m a modern architect. I believe in building for your time and not trying to represent history.” If a new structure is well-designed, he believes, it will work with an existing or traditional building. This one announces itself on the exterior with honey-colored Hardiplank that meets the original white siding. Inside, that juncture repeats where old hardwood floors meet the newer flooring in the kitchen, which is a lighter hue and runs the other direction.

From the older section of the house, the massive fireplace draws one toward an airy new retreat.

Such juxtapositions may stand out on a street of traditional houses, but they seem entirely at home within the larger context of a neighborhood like Belmont, where design-minded owners have been hard at work for at least a decade updating older homes.

Modern farming

Realtor Bob Hughes (voted the best in town by C-VILLE readers, incidentally) lives in an 1880 two-over-two farmhouse, which upon initial approach looks like a classic Albemarle dwelling: white siding, boxwoods and beautiful big trees. Follow the driveway to its end, though, and your car winds up facing a tall stucco wall that Albemarle County, circa 1880, surely would not have recognized.

This is Hughes’ rather grand two-story addition, designed by Wolf-Ackerman to boldly assert itself in contrast to the homey, vernacular building to which it’s attached. (A previous addition, c. 1910, connects the two.) The addition comprises a master suite upstairs and a sitting area downstairs, as well as a screened porch looking onto the backyard, where Hughes cultivates a variety of ornamental plants. Anchored by a substantial granite chimney and dressed up in mahogany flooring, the tower-like structure is “purposefully different” than the farmhouse, says architect Dave Ackerman. His partner, Fred Wolf, says the firm has an interest generally in “using what you have to create a starting point; to bring the old into the new but allow the new to stand on its own.”

In this case, they say, the relationship isn’t about superficial things but about massing and scale. And the addition’s natural materials—cedar siding and granite—allow it to relate to the setting and thus to the very-well-lived-in farmhouse.

Bob Hughes’ Albemarle farmhouse is connected to its contemporary addition by what architect Fred Wolf calls a "knuckle."

Starting in the 1880 portion of the house, one is struck by the low ceilings, which suddenly give way at the juncture—Wolf calls it a “knuckle”—of the airy addition. Here, light pours through an upstairs window and down a decisively modern staircase (the treads seem to float, sans risers, on a single central support). One’s path seems to naturally drift toward the screened porch (which can be fully integrated by folding back the wall that separates it from the fireplace area) and ultimately, outside.

“Part of the idea behind this space was to dissolve the barrier between inside and outside,” says Ackerman. That happens most deliciously in the master bedroom, which has the feel of a treehouse thanks to the clerestory windows that top the walls. From bed, “On a full moon, you can watch the moon as it traverses,” says Hughes.

He also finds himself drawn to the fireplace in the wintertime, and has reserved the area as a kind of retreat: no cable and no phone. “Farmhouses are great, and I like them, but the ceilings are low,” he says. “Out here it feels fresher and more airy…I have the best of both worlds.”

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