A house for all seasons

By: Katherine Salant

September 13, 2002

From the moment you enter Rick Barry and Linda Cox's new traditional Georgian-styled house in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., you sense something unusual. No eye-popping artwork or design tour de force takes your breath away. Instead, a very gracious house with unusual attention to scale and detail—the hallmark of any well-designed house—gradually unfolds.

The exterior walls are nearly a foot thick. When you cross the threshold, you know you've gone from "out there" to "in here." Even the act of opening the front door feels different because the front door handle is heavier solid brass. The ten by ten foot foyer with its eight-foot ceiling is modest for a house this size—2,800 square feet of living area—but its proportions feel exactly right. The foyer opens onto a very large dining room; straight ahead a wide hallway topped by a shallow curved barrel vault leads to a large and sunny great room in the rear. As you tour the house, you note that with the foot-thick exterior walls, the windowsills are wide enough for potted plants. All the door openings are three feet, the hallway widths a generous five feet.

This 2,800-square-foot, one-story house feels so roomy it's a shock to realize that it only has three major living spaces—the great room, a large eat-in kitchen and a master suite—plus a formal dining room large enough to accommodate the 30 people in Barry and Cox's extended family who dine there on major holidays and important family occasions. It's even more surprising to learn from these very active owners in their sixties (Cox is a former marathoner and they are both avid hikers) that a design priority was accommodating their physical needs as they age. This was done so seamlessly a visitor notices only when these features are pointed out.

With the extra-wide hallways and doorways a wheelchair can easily maneuver. The five by seven-foot master bathroom shower has a door with no lip so that a wheelchair can just roll right in. The shower is also unusually attractive. The end with the shower door is all glass. There are two showerheads with dual controls, and the shower is finished with 12-inch ceramic tiles that look like pricey Italian marble but are safer because their surface is less slippery. When the time comes, the shower will undoubtedly be a major selling point.

So will the very large kitchen. Its 42-inch wide aisles are wide enough to get around someone in a wheelchair and the cabinets and appliances were laid out so that a wheelchair accessible sink and appliances could be installed later without major surgery. But most buyers will focus on its size—there's plenty of food prep area, a huge island and space for furniture as well—and its inviting look. The pale yellow walls, the distressed pine cabinets and the eclectic mix of furniture here—clearly pieces that have been in the family a long time—create the ambiance of a comfortable French country kitchen. And the wide aisles, big island and generous seating will definitely accommodate a crowd, exactly what Cox wanted. "I like to make big meals and have a bunch of people in there," she said.

What led a very fit couple in their 60s to decide to build a house for their 80s? They looked at their elderly neighbors in their old neighborhood and saw their own future. While Barry and Cox were still very firmly in control, they decided to downsize. At the time they were living in their dream house. After 11 houses and apartments as a Navy family and five more houses after Barry left the military for civilian life, this team thought they finally got it right: three stories and 6,000 square feet of living space that included four bedrooms and five fireplaces. The house was great for entertaining lots of family and friends, great for stealing away to a favored spot to read and great for long leisurely breakfasts in their kitchen that overlooked Cox's garden.

For Barry and Cox's lifestyle, it was the perfect house in everyway. But as they observed their elderly neighbors cope with houses that were only half as big, Barry and Cox began to wonder how their dream house would feel in 20 years when they were in their mid-80s. After a bad fall or hip replacement, some neighbors became "almost prisoners to one floor of their house," Barry said. Those in one-story ramblers who were relatively fit were still forced to modify their living arrangements because they couldn't get down to their basement office and laundry room. "We could see if we stayed there long enough we would likely be confined to the first floor with a makeshift office and bedroom, and we wanted a house that would not make us feel compromised."

They both agreed that such a house would have one living level and no basement. If they had a basement, they said, it would inevitably fill up and neither Linda nor Rick wanted the other or their five children to have to sort thru it someday.

The decision to build a smaller house however was easier said than done, the Barry-Cox team discovered. The purging of their household possessions was not hard. During those years as a Navy wife, Linda said, "I got ruthless. I'm not a saver." But selling their house took a year. They wanted to stay in the same neighborhood and finding a suitable lot took another year. Once they had a building site, hiring an architect, designing and building their house took two more years.

When Barry and Cox finally sat down with their architect Jim O'Brien to discuss the house, both had unusual perspectives gained from their job experiences. Linda, who had been a head nurse in a military retirement facility, had a lot of experience working with elderly patients. "I became aware of things that our patients did and did not do in retirement apartments," she said. "They only lived in about three rooms. I've also seen this in our neighborhood. One elderly couple we've known thru the years now lives basically in their master bedroom. They make coffee and microwave in their kitchen and sit in their living room when friends come to visit. They have a big house, but they have ‘nested' in three rooms. For the new house I knew I wanted fewer, bigger rooms."

As a World Bank manager, Barry had worked on a number of office building projects that had to meet the Bank's needs at the time and their needs 20 to 30 years hence. With constantly changing workplace technologies requiring frequent modification to office space, built-in flexibility was essential. Segueing from the professional to the personal, he wanted the spaces in the new house to be adaptable, should his or Cox's circumstances change.

For peace of mind in their retirement years, they both wanted a sophisticated security system.

Barry and Cox's architect Jim O'Brien, quickly came up with a workable floor plan. To their surprise, the main stumbling block, which took several months to resolve, was the roof. With such a large area on one level, creating a roof that was aesthetically pleasing without being prohibitively expensive was a challenge. To stay within their budget, their builder Chip Gruver had to downsize the entire plan and combine the many smaller roof gables of the original design into a simple hip-shaped roof.

Now six months after Barry and Cox moved into their new dream house, the only surprise has been the unstoppable accumulation of files and papers, no matter how ruthless the purging. "The second bay of the garage is filled with boxes of files. It functions like a basement," Cox said.

Syndicated columnist and author of "The Brand New House Book," Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com

Copyright 2002 Katherine Salant

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