Innovative Design Wins Honors for Alexandria Architect

Innovative Design Wins Honors for Alexandria Architect

July 25, 2002

Reconciling traditional and postmodern architectural styles in a way that satisfied unorthodox owner requirements was the task of a home-remodeling assignment recently honored by the Virginia Society of Architects and the NOVA chapter of AIA.

Confronted with, among other challenges, the need to add a second-floor greenhouse to the front elevation of a California contemporary, Alexandria architect Skip Maginniss utilized design elements common to several distinctive architectural languages, thus creating a whole that both affirms the old and celebrates the new.

Homeowner Jordanna Wilson said, “Maginniss is a very good architect. I think that it makes a big difference to have an architect who has the same sensibilities as you do. We’re so glad that we didn’t do this on our own.”

After many years’ occupancy, Wilson and her husband, Steve Glazier, knew that their circa 1960s two-story contemporary was a place of many charms. However, that was not how the house appeared when approached from the front drive.

Among the flaws were a small, open carport dominating the right side of the edifice — it had the effect of pulling the eye toward "a gaping hole." The cantilevered, second-floor balcony had long ago ceased to have any practical use, and the front entrance lacked definition. On the whole, the home presented a facade with limited compositional order.

“It was a lot of fun because the owners were very receptive to going through the design process,” said Maginniss. “They knew that they wanted to expand their living space and make some basic improvements, but they were totally open to exploring different directions.”

IT BEGAN with window replacements. When leaks and decay prompted the inevitable issue of replacing windows, thoughts of redesigning the home’s front elevation soon followed — an aspiration the owners took to BMK Architects and their colleagues at Danish Builders Inc.

“I knew that we had to replace the windows and that the cantilevered porch was wasted space,” said Wilson. “I wanted a greenhouse for my tropical plants.”

The first step was to "shift the focus" from the front elevation and compel viewer attention along the home’s front and top toward a dramatically redesigned front entrance portico.

Though extended less than four feet, the carport was handily converted to a garage and closed in behind a blue-gray door that, like a panel in a painting by Bauhaus artist Piet Mondrian, neutralizes the area.

This stroke of understatement, in turn, added power to the more visually stimulating sequence comprising a Japanese cherry tree, a second-floor greenhouse and the postmodern front portico with its

beveled glass canopy, custom metal railing and bright red door.

A composition composed of complements and contrasts, the new elevation also carefully articulates visual themes. A custom-designed hand railing of polished steel repeats the angle at the top of the greenhouse; glass sidelights surrounding the boldly hued front door reiterate the facade's other vertical recesses.

While the post and beam structure to the home’s original design remained primly subdued, the new plan exaggerated supports in order to elaborate international and Oriental design ideas of special interest to the owners. The result is a balance of lines, angles and textures — solids amid open space; redwood against a white brick backdrop; elegantly narrow lines confronting massed solids; the subtle offset by the vivid.

The primary focus of the new plan was a 125-foot, suspended greenhouse accessible from the upper-level living room. Facing south, the new room provided both a beautiful view of sloping lawns and gardens and a fall/winter home for calla lilies, a dwarf lemon tree, jade plants and a host of exotic blooms.

AFTER STUDYING structural considerations, Danish Builder’s principal, Soren Jensen, concluded the best approach to adding the greenhouse was to preserve the undergirdings and floor construction of the old cantilevered balcony. A pre-engineered glass and steel frame structure was specified for the top half and roof of the space.

Other design elements carefully juxtapose the old architecture with a new eclecticism.

“This wasn’t just a standard project,” said Jensen. “There were lots of challenges, the biggest of which was putting in the steel column supports, which had to be put in on an angle. We are pleased with the results.”

An exterior of recycled redwood perched on jutting beams offers an earthy contrast to the white brick of the lower level. Narrow-gauge steel supports shooting out of the ground-level flower bed at an angle hold up the green-room balcony in a seemingly delicate grip before proceeding past to support a lateral beam, which, in turn, bolsters an overhanging trellis. It is a look of rustic simplicity. It is so unlike the urban setting beyond the tree, yet a fitting ambience for a greenhouse that aims to transport its occupants to nature's quiet places.

Inside, the greenhouse is a benign mix of high functionality, warmth and a seamless indoor/outdoor connection. Windows are double-glazed to assure greater insulation, yet ventilated to prevent the fogging common to many sun-room systems. The floor is terra-cotta tile.

Though only 5 feet in width, the space is a model of efficiency that features waist-high, marble-topped workbenches at the windows and a row of cases for plants and supplies within easy reach. A small corner sink and workbench provide a space for pruning and re-planting. Tongue-and-groove panels painted gun-metal blue create tones that are restful yet uplifting.

Maginniss said, “The most satisfying projects are ones where we can focus on the details.” By supplying the built-ins mentioned above, the Glazier-Wilson home certainly came under this category.

For information, call BMK Architects, 703-548-0460 or; Danish Builders, 301-279-0255 or