For the son of award-winning industrial and commercial designer and handicap accessibility activist William L. Wilkoff, the decision to live and work in a single 2,200 s.f. structure, built largely with his own hands, was not as big a leap as it might be for some. Winning an AIA chapter award for design excellence in 1984, the inspired Cabin John, Md. home and office of architect Robert Wilkoff, Principal of Archaeon Architects, underwent a major renovation in 1990 where the third floor office became a master suite, and the practice migrated to a brand new 1,000 s.f. addition at the front.
"One of the main reasons I kept the office in the house was I really wanted to be involved in my kids’ lives when they were younger,” Wilkoff said, acknowledg- ing the idea was not as popular two or three decades ago as it might be now. In true family form, Wilkoff’s wife Martha, formerly a college librarian, joined the practice to oversee administrative affairs when Hannah, now 22 and a mental health counselor, and Kate, 20, a fashion design student at N.Y.’s Pratt Institute (a third generation Wilkoff to attend), were young, with the home office advantage making a close-knit family even closer.
With green building principles nearly tantamount, for the Wilkoff’s, to the intimate family environment they sought to achieve, from the beginning the architect used a heavily insulated Styrofoam sheathing system, uncommon at the time, and ferreted out 5,000 s.f. of reclaimed redwood for the new home and office - something he conceded was done as much for economy as nascent sustainability issues.
“Wood was expensive, so I hunted it down,” Wilkoff said of his early days. Revealing he’d (courageously) rented a tractor trailer he wasn’t sure how to drive in order to meet an incoming load of Western red cedar at the docks in Baltimore, notions of the wood’s passive solar qualities fortified him for the trip. As for the actual construction process, teaching himself carpentry as he went along, Wilkoff said he and Martha, along with the senior Wilkoff and some friends, did all the interior partitions, finishes, set the cabinets, the fixtures, etc., with a general contractor putting up the exterior structural shell. A plumber and electrician were also hired for expertise and code purposes.
“We’d have staining parties. We’d have insulating parties. We’d have bagels and cream cheese or crabs–whatever would entice a bunch of people to come over for a day on the weekend, and we’d put them to work. It took four years,” the architect said, adding at the time he was working 20 hours a week as a consultant and 40 hours on the house.
A Greenhouse Runs Through It
Currently a three-bedroom, 3.5-bath home, the 400 s.f. third floor master suite, nee office, includes an adjacent library/greenhouse that serves in a passive solar capacity to facilitate the home’s HVAC system. According to Wilkoff, the greenhouse’s dark tile floor, which is actually hard-fired ceramic pavers from Italy, sits on a thick masonry mat. At a due South exposure, the floor heats up, radiating the heat back up through the room, which gets to a high point in the greenhouse where openings in the upper wall help draw it into the HVAC mechanical return. In summer, when it’s really hot, a fully-leafed 70-foot sycamore tree provides a huge canopy effect, shading the greenhouse, and shading mats applied to the glazing on the inside of the room reduce sun infiltration by about 60 percent.
In the master suite bath, charcoal grey polished porcelain tiles, resembling granite, line the walls which are ribbed with Corian. Milled to an inch in width, Wilkoff glued the Corian strips to the wall (prior to the tile installation), with a 6-inch deep invisible support Corian window shelf for displaying bottles or other objects. Sited on the other side of the greenhouse wall, corresponding upper wall openings can be seen above the bathroom’s sink and counter area, where any warm, moist air is drawn into and utilized by the home’s HVAC system.
In the first floor living room, a wood stove used for many years as the home’s main heating source stands idle most of the time, with Wilkoff claiming that “…dragging wood in at 3 in the morning on a cold winter day is not quite as appealing as it used to be.” Used on occasion for exceptional cold snaps, the architect explained that based on a concept dating back hundreds of years and seen in pot-bellied stove farmhouses, the wall behind the wood stove is a dense, concrete material with black slate. A duct return on the ceiling opens into the bedrooms above, and fans in each bedroom pull rising heat from the stove into the rooms. Motif-wise, a 1950s Folke Ohlsson-designed Dux chair, Mies van der Rohe glass and metal table, Barcelona chairs and table, a Nakashima desk chair and Le Corbusier LC6 dining room table punctuate the living and dining rooms, with much of the furniture traced back to a store once owned by the entrepreneurial senior Wilkoff who passed away in 2004.
Moving Out But Staying In
Ascended to by a two-story spiral staircase and comprised of four separate rooms including a work studio with four CAD stations, Wilkoff’s decision to create the 1,000 s.f. office addition was precipitated both by a growing family and burgeoning practice that supported up to six team members. With the only entrance to the previous third floor office space directly through the house, privacy had become an issue, though Wilkoff said despite the new space, and to this day, staff traditionally eats lunch together at the old breakfast table.
With client access on the outside and its own HVAC and plumbing systems, Wilkoff said the office addition is almost like a separate building except for a communicating door between it and the house. In the conference room, flourishes like beveled, pocketed wood trim (milled on a table saw in the office) that protrudes deep enough into the space to support presentation drawings and material sample boards preclude tack and nail holes in walls, and banks of awning windows open to the trees for natural cooling whenever possible.
“Being here has its benefits and drawbacks,” Wilkoff concluded. “It’s energy-conscious: I’m not commuting - sitting in traffic and burning gas, but in the middle of the night if I think of something I need to take care of, I’ll come in at 3 a.m. and draw,” he said. Mostly, though, the opportunity to wholly participate in his daughters’ lives from the beginning is what has driven him, and continues to. “This is exactly what I was looking for,” Wilkoff said of his own life.