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Back to Its Roots

A farmhouse in rural Virginia is renovated and expanded to accommodate a family in search of the simple life.

Project: Residence, Loudoun County, VA

Architects: Donald Lococo Architects LLC, Washington, DC; Donald P. Lococo, AIA, principal in charge

Lynne Lavelle

Since its settlement in the mid-1700s, Loudoun County, VA, has been renowned for its fertile soil and beautiful scenery. In the 1850s and 1860s, Virginia was the fourth largest wheat-producing state in the country, due in no small part to the high yield from the county, which was one of the state's top producers. Today, Loudoun County is home to thriving vineyards and equestrian sports, but its wheat-farming legacy survives in the old farmhouses that dot the landscape. While many have been redeveloped, renovated or torn down, some remain blank canvases, and their disrepair presents a number of possibilities.

Back in 2003, the future of one such farmhouse, located in the small town of Middleburg, hung in the balance. It was slated to have its farmland divided into 15 parcels for new homes. The existing historic home was to be used as a subdivision sales office, to be sold later. However, a single family purchased the entire property, with a different plan in mind, and hired Donald Lococo Architects LLC (DLA) of Washington, DC, to help make it a reality. When the client approached the firm, the two-story, 3,020-sq.ft. house was essentially a ruin. Its doors hung wide open, and it hadn't been occupied in some time. Following a fire in the 1930s, much of the interior layouts – including the entire second floor – had been rebuilt. However, these layouts were not historic or original to the home and remained incongruous with the original, historic features – the exterior stone/plaster walls, openings and old fireplaces.

Initially, the owners considered continuing with the plans laid out by the developer, which included the addition of a great room, sunken living room and an expansive deck. But while these new features would take advantage of the countryside views – and follow redevelopment trends – they felt out of step with the historic fabric of the building. The owner and the interior designer (Washington, DC-based Howe Interiors) approached DLA to reconsider this. "We reconsidered the addition – matching it to the owners rather than to the market," says Lococo. "This fundamentally moved the design in a different direction. From a marketing standpoint, design is often dictated by a grocery list of features to sell the house, rather than a progression of experiences and how a house feels to the onlooker." With this in mind, the client settled on a more sensitive renovation, one that would incorporate service functions and outdoor spaces in two modest additions and restore the main interior to its original condition.

A new 790-sq.ft. addition was built on the west façade to house a powder room, laundry room, screened porch and mudroom on the first floor and a home office and sewing nook on the second floor. "We tried to keep the family spaces within the historic footprint," says Lococo. "Utility and service areas were located in the additions. The new west addition also contains the only basement space with head clearance, providing much-needed general storage, which is often lacking in historic homes."

At the rear of the house, a 140-sq.ft. stair-hall addition freed up space in the main dining/living room area, which was previously occupied by a non-conforming 29-in.-wide stairway that dated from the 1930s. On the first floor, this addition opens to a covered porch, which optimizes the living room's natural light and countryside views. At the second and attic floors, the stairway expands to provide landings and a proportional exterior gable. In keeping with the organic character of the house, the handrail was milled by Edinburg, VA-based general contractor Jay Hafner from a walnut tree that stood in the side yard. "Although the house was surrounded by trees, we all considered it a loss whenever we were forced to take one down," says Lococo. "We could have specified a handrail from the local distributor, but as it stands, there is a little history attached to this one. These touches made the house more personal to the owners, and communicate the feeling of a slower, simpler way of life."

The main-floor plan is inspired by traditional farmhouses and the existing architectural features that predated the fire. Bracketed by existing stone fireplaces, the living room and dining room open to each other, with the foyer between them. Ceiling beams provide the only demarcation between rooms, creating what is essentially one large main living space. "Most farmhouses feel very straightforward, but must address the exacting demands of a family in the 21st century," says Lococo. "We spent a lot of time studying living logistics – after that we refined it even further to make the rooms feel simple." In the hyphen between the dining room and the west addition, the kitchen was renovated with new cabinets and an island, and a kitchen window was converted to French doors to provide access to the yard. Prior to the renovation, the second floor accommodated three small bedrooms, served by just one bathroom. The redesign created two suites, each served by their own bathroom and new closet spaces. And above, the attic was converted to a child's bedroom and playroom with the addition of five dormers.

To re-create historic interior plaster, Lococo asked Hafner to create deliberate imperfections – to match the roughness of the existing plaster by making the new plaster look "as if it was applied with a broom." The correct consistency was achieved by adjusting particles and pigments in the plaster before experimentation with application techniques. Where the plaster was in fair condition, it was re-skinned, and trimless corners were matched.

In a similar vein, Lococo specified that the mason make the exterior stone walls look as if they had been built over several seasons by using a primitive trowel and hand-gathered stones. "It's hard to get a stonemason, who trained to be perfect, to make a wall deliberately imperfect," says Lococo. "In the beginning, the refrain was, 'Let's try one more time, only sloppier.' Larger stones were used at the bottom and smaller stones were used on the top, because, while we have scaffolding and machinery today, back then a farmer would have built manually, and therefore would have had the heavier stones near the bottom. It gives it a cyclical feel, and causes the homeowner and visitors to think about the trowel, rather than the architect."

By taking the home back to its farmhouse roots, and the building methods and cycles that shaped it, Lococo claims a victory for sympathetic renovation over market-led development. "Unfortunately, the way we are exposed to houses in marketing advertisements often doesn't do justice to the many features that can't be expressed on paper," he says. "Sincere beauty in a home – where the sun rises, the views, how it animates your thoughts – transcends the over-reliance on features." Consideration was also given to how the house might naturally, and sympathetically, expand in the future, and there are tentative plans to build another extension to the east. But beyond the transformation of the home itself, the project brought about a significant change in the attitudes of the owners, who now refer to it as "the farm." "They were fulfilling their dream to one day move out of the city and live the simple life," says Lococo. "When, in the middle of construction, they stopped referring to it as the 'the estate,' I realized that they had learned to appreciate the more simple and heartfelt subtleties of their home." 

 

 

 
 

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