Traditional Building Portfolio



Informal Federal

A new brick and clapboard farmhouse has a history built in.

Project: Happy Choice Farm, Montgomery County, MD

Architect: Neumann Lewis Buchanan Architects, Middleburg, VA; Mark Buchanan, AIA, Architect in Charge

Interior Designers: Dovetail Interiors, Inc., Oceanview, DE; MJ Interior Designs, Bethesda, MD

Contractor: Potomac Valley Builders, Bethesda, MD

By Hadiya Strasberg

Situated on approximately 80 acres in Maryland's Montgomery County, Happy Choice Farm is home to a couple and the wife's horses, and is the part-time residence of the couple's four grown children. When the couple purchased the property in 2003, it came complete with a 1960s rambler, which they decided was inadequate for their needs and didn't suit their tastes. So the couple commissioned Neumann Lewis Buchanan Architects (NLBA) of Middleburg, VA, to design a 7,700-sq.ft. Federal-style brick and clapboard farmhouse further away from the road.

"The 1960s rambler is a contextual misfit," says Mark Buchanan, AIA, architect in charge with NLBA. "So we didn't have any dilemma about moving away from it and building a new house on the property that took advantage of the surroundings."

For the new house, the clients specified a country farmhouse with an historic feel to the exterior and a casual design on the interior. Buchanan drove around Montgomery County photographing homes he thought would appeal to the couple. "I had an idea of what they were looking for and I wanted to show them a broad range of styles, so I presented a few different types of homes found in and around their town." The predominant house type in the area is a "simple and countrified" Victorian farmhouse, but that didn't appeal to the clients. They were instead drawn to the three or four Federal-style farmhouses that dotted the countryside. "That's where this house has its roots," says Buchanan. "They liked the brick houses better than the stone ones and quite a few had metal roofs and clapboard additions, like the house we ended up designing for them."

Typical of Federal farmhouses, the brick portion of the house features a Flemish-bond pattern on the front façade and a five-course American bond on the other three sides. The brick was manufactured by Wyomissing, PA-based Glen-Gery Brick. Because the clients had requested an historic exterior, NLBA planned to soften the color of the handmade brick with a lime wash. "The brick is new and we didn't want a stark contrast between the orange-red brick and the white clapboard siding," says Buchanan. "We didn't want the brick to look pristine." However, the clients changed their minds once they saw the brick in place. "The brick had been laid rather expediently or carelessly, but while I advocated taking back the slop of the setting mortar a little bit and then adding the lime wash, the clients were pleased with the haphazard application of the mortar. It certainly did the job of softening the brick's color and texture."

The site and the program determined the orientation and layout of the house. The clients wanted to take advantage of the majestic backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain to the west and also wanted the house set in close proximity to an oak tree, the only significant tree on the side of the hill where NLBA was building. "This is not to say that the other views aren't also spectacular," Buchanan points out. "The home commands the hilltop and looks west toward the mountain over the pasture below where the horses graze and the stable can be seen in the distance."

One of the biggest design challenges was to accommodate 7,700 sq.ft. within what appears to be a modest farmhouse. "It was a struggle to get the amount of area on the first floor tucked in behind this small main brick block of the house," says Buchanan. "By choosing a late-18th- or early-19th-century farmhouse look, small rooms are the standard. But then the clients requested a large family room and a large kitchen adjacent to that, as well as a master-bedroom suite on the first floor."

NLBA accommodated the program without overwhelming the landscape by approaching the brick box "as the dominant feature," says Buchanan. "We didn't want a sprawling mess, so we created a series of ‘additions' in white clapboard." The brick portion of the house is the tallest at two-and-a-half stories, while the "additions" are a story or a story-and-a-half tall. Another trick to keeping the massing as small as possible was to hide much of it behind rooflines. The family room sits behind the main brick block and the master-bedroom suite is behind the service wings.

"As a means of conceptualizing the plan, I supposed a brick farmhouse with a single detached brick outbuilding as the ‘original' structures," says Buchanan. "Then I linked them with clapboard additions to imply a building that had evolved over time. The ‘original' brick house is ‘now' an entry hall, small study and library and the brick ‘outbuilding' is ‘now' the master bathroom."

Like the exterior, parts of the interior detailing were designed using a Federal vocabulary, though Buchanan says the firm "got more casual with that in the family room, kitchen and bedrooms and kept it more formal in the brick block of the house – the library and entry stair hall."

Buchanan notes that though the clients wanted traditional detailing, they did not want an overly traditional floor plan. The first floor is arranged on two perpendicular axes. "One starts at the formal entrance and ends at the family room [north to south] and the other one extends from the side entrance through the family room [east to west]," says Buchanan. "A series of doorways down these axes are aligned and eventually terminate at a window and the view beyond."

On the first floor, the main entry stair hall opens onto a 20x30-ft. family room, which features an 18-ft.-tall ceiling. "This room is the nucleus of the house; it accommodates the entire family," says Buchanan. "With such a tall ceiling and large windows with views to both the west and south, the room is open and airy."

When the couple is home alone, they are most likely to be found in the library, which can be accessed through the entry hall or the family room. "This is my favorite room," says Buchanan. "It has a view of Sugarloaf Mountain and a fireplace in one corner. With the fireplace, the wood paneling and of course the many shelves of books, the room is very cozy and comfortable."

The kitchen is adjacent to the family room. "The arrangement of the family room to the kitchen was copied from that of the couple's old house," says Buchanan. "They liked having the two rooms side to side and asked us to bring the same layout to this house." There are two large openings – one that connects the kitchen to the dining area of the family room and one that links the seating area of the family room to the breakfast area.

The master-bedroom suite, which includes the bedroom, a large bathroom with his and hers walk-in closets, is also on the first floor. The master-bedroom windows frame a view of Sugarloaf Mountain to the west.

Porches are abundant at this house: there is a front entry porch on the main block and one to the west of the family room overlooking the pasture. A third, off of the side entrance and service rooms, is an L-shaped wraparound porch.

An unusual feature of this house is the separation of the second floor; there are two areas without any connection to each other. In the brick building above the library and study are two bedrooms and a bathroom for the client's sons. In the attic portion of this same block is a third bedroom. On the other second floor, which is tucked under the roof in the clapboard "additions," there is a bedroom that also functions as a guest bedroom. To the east, above the service rooms, is a second study. "The idea behind separating the floors this way is mainly for privacy," says Buchanan. "Coincidentally, it works well with breaking down the massing."

Two interior designers – Dovetail Interiors, Inc., of Ocean View, DE, and MJ Interior Designs of Bethesda, MD – collaborated to come up with a cohesive design for the farmhouse. "The designers are sisters," says Buchanan. "We met with them early in the process to discuss the floor plan and possible furniture arrangements."

After about two-and-a-half years, the house was completed in the fall of 2006. The interior and landscape designs continue to be works in progress, but everyone who had a hand in the project – Mark Buchanan, the interior designers and the family who resides there – is delighted with Happy Choice Farm.  

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