Suburban Simplicity

A professional couple with two young children lived in a glassy corner condo on the water, dreaming of gardens, grass, stars and fireflies. So they bought a 1950s house in a leafy neighborhood north of downtown.

From the moment we met, this project was on a very tight schedule, with closing coming in two months. A design-build approach was the best way to meet the clients’ needs. We started with a design workshop to get a feel for the bones of the house and begin to speculate how it might be altered to fit their taste and lifestyle. Design work included a master plan to tie the house to its site with gardens, trellises, terraces, and a swimming pool, and to locate a future guesthouse for grandparents.

The focus was on simplifying and reducing the space to essentials. We substantially altered the first floor by removing two later additions, shrinking the house’s footprint. Two walls were also removed to open up the living spaces and allow sweeping views of the outdoors.

Stair composite_610w

An airy, modern stair connects to the second floor. Separate his and hers bathrooms became one master bathroom, taking advantage of an old back stair to create a laundry chute. The other bedrooms received new windows and finishes, and bathrooms were updated.

The new master bath was made snug with recycled denim insulation

The new master bath was made snug with recycled denim insulation

Family room, before and after

Living room, before and after

Exterior before-after_450w

Front entry, before and after

Composite demo_450w

After removal of rear addition

With new, energy-efficient windows and a fresh coat of paint, the updated house is ready for landscaping, which will include a front entry trellis and back terrace. The fireplace and chimney were retained when the old family room addition was removed, extending the indoor living room to the outdoors.

A fast-tracked design and construction made good communication critical. We made use of web sharing technology and 3-D computer visualizations to keep the team up to date and help the client through the many decisions required. Having Greenbuilders involved from the beginning made it possible to complete the project on time and on budget.





This video has many great views of the house interiors, as well as comments by industry experts and project team members on the collaborative design process.

Dancing with spirit and matter

Im Montage

“Seek the real practical life,
but seek it in a way that does not blind you
to the Spirit working in it.
“Seek the Spirit, but do not seek it
in Spiritual greed, from Spiritual egoism,
but look for it because you want to apply it unselfishly
in practical life in the material world.
“Make use of the ancient principle:
Spirit is never without matter, matter never without Spirit.”

Rudolf Steiner, 9.24.19

Recently, I had occasion to consider what matters most to me as an architect, and this was my answer: I like to play with the balance of spirit and matter. The Steiner verse above has been my guiding light for the past three years or so, helping me to navigate our overly materialistic culture so it doesn’t drive me absolutely crazy. By “materialistic,” I don’t mean only that we Americans buy and have a lot of stuff and spend more time shopping than reading with our kids. I also mean that our dominant cultural story is that something is only “real” if it can be measured, scientifically described, and known by the rational mind.

I have come to accept that one of my roles – and this is not easy to admit – is to challenge that assumption and to put forth my own version of the reintegration of spirit and matter. So far, I’ve worked with this as an architect and professor. Lately, I’m also exploring other media, including writing essays and fiction and offering Restorying workshops.

In my architecture master’s thesis, I identified three aspects or stages of designing a building: idea, form, and material. In the diagram below, idea belongs in the “spirit” circle and materials (wood, brick, stone, metal) in the “matter” circle. In the overlap is “form,” which refers to all aspects of the shape of the building, including orientation, windows, heights of rooms, roofline.


Idea is not bound by time or budget because spirit is free: it is everywhere. Form is partly bound by time and budget. A little forethought will give you the window that frames a view to the garden or lets in the sunrise. That’s what I get paid to think about. Builders are necessarily focused on material – and thank god for that. They also have input on form, because being human they too have insight and ideas.

To get a delightful result, my role is to balance out spirit. If we focus only on matter, the resulting building tends to be rather soulless. We can all recognize it when we are in a good place. It is beautiful and uplifting and moving. It makes us smile, dance, sing. As Mrs. Leighey, who lived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey house in northern Virginia, said to my friend during a tour: “Living here has made me a better person.”

I always ask my clients what they want for their project. If anything poetic or cryptic is part of the answer, that’s a good sign I can be helpful. Even if it’s not overt, if it’s just a feeling or a collection of photographs, I know what questions to ask to tease out the vision and court delightful solutions.

Designing a building, whether a new church or a house remodel, depends on the participation and trust of everyone involved. It’s an iterative process, which sometimes feels like one step forward and two steps back. There is ambiguity and paradox – which is always a good sign, because it means that Spirit is in the room.

Since we all live in the real world of schedules and budgets, it’s helpful to remember that budget and delight are NOT mutually exclusive. It’s all in the intention and the forethought.

Design Consult: Kitchen

Polly Bart of Greenbuilders and I came for a 2-hour collaborative design consult with this Baltimore couple. They wanted to open up the rear living spaces of the house, to allow for better flow. The kitchen was original to the 1940s house and needed to be updated and better integrated into the social life of the family.


Spacious new kitchen with eco-cabinets and bluestone counters from a sustainable source.

Consult sketches: measured plan of existing house + concept sketch for new kitchen

Consult sketches: measured plan of existing house + concept sketch for new kitchen

We had good rapport during the consult and a promising design concept, so the owner hired us to develop and build the project. The kitchen cabinets are formaldehyde free and made with sustainably harvested wood, the tile is recycled glass, and the countertops are regionally sourced, ethically quarried soapstone. Everything has a place in this well-planned layout, which includes a custom pantry. New openings between kitchen, dining and living have transformed the family’s enjoyment of the most-used rooms in their home.


Computer sketch used in development of design

Existing kitchen


View from new kitchen through dining to living room


An Abundant Future

LEAFHouse, the University of Maryland’s 2007 Solar Decathlon project, touched hundreds of lives. Over 200 students were involved with the two-year effort, as well as dozens of industry experts and professional tradespeople. Julie Gabrielli was one of three faculty advisors, designing curriculum to guide the students through the process of collaborative, interdisciplinary design; giving feedback on the design; and contributing to the communications package.

The LEAF in the name stands for Leading Everyone to an Abundant Future, and also speaks of the inspiration the team drew from the leaf as nature’s solar collector. The team finished second overall in stiff competition, first in the U.S. LEAFHouse now has a permanent home on the College Park campus, as the headquarters of the Potomac Valley AIA, and is sometimes open for tours.

An abundance of details about the house design, the team, the process, and the Solar Decathlon contests, can be seen on the official website.

Photo by Jim Tetro

Photo by Jim Tetro

Green Wall_LEAFHouse_620w


Group process

Line at LEAFHouse_David Hicks Solar Decathlon

Strawbale Transformation

The musician owners of a 1960s-era house are planning extensive renovations to the living spaces on the first floor. They are committed to using low-impact, non-toxic, sustainable materials. They also desire to wean themselves off fossil fuels, so energy efficiency is a high priority.

As part of a long-range master plan by Gabrielli Design Studio, the first phase was a small addition to the kitchen. Built by Greenbuilders on the existing foundation of a dilapidated screened porch, the structure is post-and-beam with infill strawbale walls and fiberglass-clad windows . The green (planted) roof drains to a chain drain and a rain barrel.


The new room brings daylight deep into the kitchen, while sweeping views upwards along a steep hillside to the sky. The straw walls are clad in lime plaster, the floor is the existing concrete, finished with a natural, plant-based stain and beeswax.

Polly Bart, President of Greenbuilders, Inc on 1-8-2006. ES

The next phase was going to be a kitchen renovation. But the new room has changed the character of the existing kitchen so dramatically, the owners may not need to renovate it for a long time.

Existing_croppedWorking with this family has been an inspiration. During the year we worked together on this project, they also chipped away at wasteful practices all around the house. Using tips from friends and from green websites, they reduced their electricity use by 64%! What a difference a little curiosity and a lot of motivation can make in a household’s budget, as well as the health of our planet.

Strawbale Reconstruction

It all started when a tree fell on the house. . . .

We had just met with the client about doing a master plan for renovations to their house. One night during a storm, an enormous tree crashed into the house, shearing off a small powder room and leaving most of the rest of the house mercifully untouched.

Tree removal

Tree removal

New plan

New plan

We reconstructed the half bath and entryway with straw bale construction and clerestory windows for privacy. The cabinetry could not be salvaged, so bamboo cabinets were installed. The granite countertop was reused, with a new sink and water-efficient toilet. Exterior siding was salvaged and reused to finish the sides above the strawbales. The shed roof was planted with sedum and a chain rain drain elegantly channels excess water into shallow copper bowls in the garden.

Finished addition

Finished addition

This project included a kitchen facelift with new cabinet doors of bamboo, a recycled tile backsplash, Energy Star refrigerator, and decommissioning the old trash compactor in favor of composting, resulting in more storage space.

Section through addition

Section through addition


21st Century Craftsman Bungalow

This new home is nestled at the end of a quiet street in Takoma Park, Maryland. The lot is surrounded by great Tulip Poplars and historic bungalows. Because of new setbacks on the small site, the original one-story house had to be completely deconstructed.

Left: existing house Right: new design

The design and detail is based on the traditional bungalow. A significant amount of space is deftly contained within pleasing proportions and scale that fit the neighborhood. The house has a full basement, two complete living floors and a sizable attic for storage and kids’ lofts.

Care was taken to create a comfortable and efficient home that is well-knit with the site. Orientation of “winter” and “summer” spaces takes advantage of the path of the sun through the day and seasons, allowing for passive heating and cooling. The sunroom, screened porch, and deck with outdoor shower are in-between spaces from which to engage with the outdoors.

A deep commitment to environmental sustainability informed every aspect of the design and construction. A computer energy model helped the team to coordinate the interactions of the building orientation, envelope, and the mechanical system.


The existing house was carefully deconstructed so that salvaged materials could be donated or sold, including brick, framing lumber, oak flooring, paneled doors, kitchen appliances, copper and steel pipe, and aluminum. Even the mercury from the old thermostats was recycled, rather than landfilled. Stone from the original chimney was incorporated into the new house.

85% of the construction waste was recycled.

The concrete has a high percentage of fly-ash, a waste product from coal-fired electricity plants that is usually landfilled. Fly-ash offsets the use of cement, the production of which is highly energy –intensive and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Hardie board siding made from cement and recycled wood fibers; front porch timbers from urban salvaged trees; zero-VOC paint; FSC certified wood floors; bamboo floors; water-based stain and varnish; oak trim from urban salvaged trees (cured in a solar-powered kiln); formaldehyde-free cabinetry; cast concrete & recycled glass counters and soaking tub; LED and fluorescent lighting; interior doors of oak veneer over compressed wheat core.


Great attention was paid in the construction to proper insulation of all walls and slabs; and air sealing at joints and openings.

Ceiling fans in all bedrooms, the sunroom, dining room and den are a very low-energy way to stay comfortable during swing seasons.

Heat: High-efficiency “Munchkin” boiler, some rooms have radiant floor heat; Tulikivi ceramic stove in Great Room (a few logs can keep the first floor warm for twelve hours)

Energy Star appliances .


Plumbing: PEX instead of copper. Low-flush and dual-flush toilets; low-flow faucets and shower heads.

Native plant landscaping.

Epstein Residence, photo by Julie Gabrielli

Forest Retreat

The steep path crosses wetlands and streams as it winds through the forest up the hill and into a clearing. Our clients’ priorities were to maintain a deep connection with the forest and to build with non-toxic materials. We designed an earth-sheltered house with passive solar heating, natural ventilation, and other energy- and resource-efficient elements. Computer energy modeling and building science helped us to optimize the orientation, building elements and heating and cooling systems.







Visitors arrive at the house from the north, through a modest walled garden passageway set into a gentle rise near the top of the site. From within, the house gradually opens outward, towards a dramatic ravine to the southeast. Part buried, part pavilion in the woods, the house alternately acts as cave (refuge) and treehouse (prospect).

House from southeast


















The main structure is foam and steel prefabricated panels, for maximum insulation with minimum embodied energy. We found historic chestnut logs salvaged from an 18th century church and a traditional timber framer to build the structure of the Great Room. The clients love it because it feels like a lodge to them.














Other features:

  • open and screened porches at the forest edge
  • radiant heat floors
  • eco-friendly finish materials such as cork, rubber, and locally quarried stone
  • concrete countertops and Japanese soaking tub made by a local artisan
  • rain garden and native landscaping
  • no gutters; rain drips off the roof into a gravel bed and percolates back into the water table
  • durable Hardi-board siding on the outside












The house has grown into its surroundings over time and provides sensual delights year-round. Great Blue Herons have been known to visit – brazenly stealing fish from the pond. Hints of the client’s experiences of serenity, beauty and wonder can be glimpsed in her album of photographs below.