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.

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