Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

Q&A with Steve Lawlor of Lawlor Architects
By Beth Herman

After 10 years spent raising a young family in a 2,700 s.f., three-story, circa 1905 row house in Capitol Hill, just off of Lincoln Park, the homeowners desired a change and update. But instead of undertaking a massive renovation which would have required that the family – with its three children – move out for months, they purchased an identical adjacent residence from a favorite neighbor, embarking on a plan to create the indoor/outdoor refuge they’d always wanted. Steve Lawlor of Lawlor Architects was at the helm.

DCMud: What compelled the homeowners to essentially purchase their old home all over again?

Lawlor: They got the second house exactly for that reason—because they were familiar with it. It’s a mirror image of the house that they were living in, but this new house could be the clean slate they wanted. Unfortunately, the former owners were smokers and hadn’t done much maintenance for years. There was a lot of remedial work that had to be done: Water was getting in and had damaged a lot of the structure in the rear…it needed a new life regardless of who moved in there. It was really on its last legs.

DCMud: Describe the client’s wish list.

Lawlor: They wanted to have three bedrooms, including a master suite, and two full baths on the top floor. The original house had three bedrooms and one bath. We also moved the laundry upstairs, but to the second floor where they wanted some creature comforts. Then on the first floor, they wanted a big entertaining area—an open kitchen/dining room space. They liked to cook, liked the outdoors and wanted to animate the space with natural light.

DCMud: Given the period in which it was built, what did the first floor look like before?

Lawlor: You couldn’t see through the house for all the walls. Coming in through the main entrance, some strange diagonal wall pushed you off. Artificial fire places—part of a renovation at one time or another— abounded that were purely decorative; there were no elements to warm the home. We realigned all the openings in the house so that when you walk in (it’s a side entrance), we made a vestibule with coat closet and cubbies in which to put books, shoes, mail and more to organize. After you come in, you’re reoriented to the center of the house. We made a long, visual access that slices through the entire house so that at any point, you can look east or west and see the outdoors. Light penetrates deep into the house and you have that connection to the outside. It helps bring the house to life.

DCMud: What about the materials?

Lawlor: Some of the flooring is reclaimed heart pine. The kitchen is American cherry, and the island’s countertop is reclaimed white oak wood joists from a Wisconsin barn. The kitchen floor is cork, a renewable material, and the room is warmed by hydronic radiant heating which, with all the glass, makes it very comfortable.

DCMud: With outdoor space at such a premium in this neighborhood, in what other ways did you open the space to light and air?

Lawlor: Part of the whole manifest destiny of this house was to try to bring the outdoors into the house. Most row houses have very little outdoor space. This house occupied 80 percent of the lot, as opposed to a more typical 60 percent. With little backyard space, on the lower level (basement) floor we eroded the rear walls, installed new windows, and made brick openings. We designed a staircase that descends from the new kitchen down to the new terrace below, with the terrace accessed through the basement in which we lowered the floor and increased the ceiling height. A polished and stained concrete slab with radiant heat created a hard surface yet a warm surface at the same time. A family room with TV and library/guest room which opens onto the terrace is where they spend a lot of their time. Big French doors—actually we made the home’s old pocket doors into sliding barn doors—are used to isolate the space when guests are there. We really decided to make the downstairs as desirable a destination as the upstairs for this house.

DCMud: Speaking of desirable destinations, is there a part of the District you covet more than others?

Lawlor: I've lived in Capitol Hill for 26 years by design. My office is here. There are other parts of the city that are great, but Capitol Hill is the most modern historic area. All the things people try and put into an urban setting - access; walkability; public transportation - are here in what is essentially a small town in the middle of a big city.


Anonymous said...

Amazing space and what a surprise that the natural lighting is so plentiful in a row house! Wish it were mine.

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