Case Study: 1970s Renovation and Thought Bubble by Donald Lococo Architects

In a high-income neighborhood of historic homes that have more than doubled their size in recent years, there’s a sense of relief—delight, even—in being able to recognize this fully renovated 1970s house. There it is in original form, the squarish footprint and massing intact, its brutalist-leaning brick façade refreshed in the most restrained way. There’s something unusual happening on top, but that is the point. With its small, cloud-like addition sitting delicately on the flat roof, it’s an alluring oddball surrounded by houses whose “arms are bigger than their bodies,” as Donald Lococo, AIA, puts it.

Too expensive to tear down, the house had sat on the market in Washington’s tony Forest Hills neighborhood while developers waited for the price to drop. When Donald’s clients bought it, they too were urged to “scrape and assimilate” with the sized-up Victorian just 16 feet away on one side and a Tudor on the other. However, the new owners were open-minded about the possibility of doing something different, especially after their architect explained the house’s stellar logic. 

With its windowless, almost faceless façade, “people around it were very excited, thinking the new owners were going to tear it down and build something big,” Donald says. “However, we all realized as things transpired that this was really something special: the beautiful proportion and weight of the brick, the restraint of not having a punched opening on the right. It was no golden section, but very pleasing, and had a mysterious, 5-foot-deep recess in the front. It was such a rebel against everything around it and had stayed that way for so long.”

Inside, the house, previously owned by an art dealer, had a central, skylit hall that functioned as an art gallery. To the right, the compartmentalized public spaces moved from front to back: office, kitchen, and a dining room overlooking a sunken living room. On the left was a garage with three bedrooms behind it, and a powder room and laundry that butted against the recessed entry wall. “The recess made no sense on the inside,” Donald says. 

This fix was fairly easy, however. To align the floor plan with the elevation, the offending powder room and laundry were moved into the garage volume. This created a larger foyer, now defined by the 13-foot-wide recess and its new glass façade. “I realized that there was a big open area in the garage with nothing in it—probably where the former owners unloaded the artwork—and an equal amount of space in that area inside the front door,” Donald says. “We took all that stuff and stuck it into the garage. It clarified the idea that the mass on the left starts with a front face of brick and includes all the service areas in one block.”

Behind the service areas, the new bedrooms and baths remained roughly in place, although the primary bedroom was moved into an existing addition at the back of the house, and the former bedroom is now the primary bath. Removing the walls separating the hallway from the rooms to the right of the floor plan opened them up to each other and the backyard. The design team also flipped the dining room and kitchen location, removing a wall between the kitchen, with its large new island, and living room at the back of the house. 

Afterthought Bubble

With the floor plan sorted, “the program reared its head—the owners wanted a second floor,” Donald says. The request came well into the design process when costs were climbing. His design for the 780-square-foot library and guest suite reflects that concern, as well as his early-career interest in deconstructivism. Variously described as a spaceship that landed on the house (the neighbors), a dollop of whipped cream (the owners), and a mobile home on top of the house (the contractor), the aerodynamic, white stucco‑clad form hovers on the roof, clearly separate from the 1970s structure but compatible in its simplicity.

“The idea was to be as unimposing as possible with that amount of space,” Donald says. “I wanted to make it almost cloudlike to respect the clarity of what was.” He was inspired by “the great invention of the Oreo, chocolate against vanilla, crispy against creamy; you swirl it around with your tongue. It’s indecisive and malleable, this putty-like thing that tries to fill in the second floor.”

Stucco with a hard, glass fiber–infused finish, the addition’s wood battens and rounded corners also help to minimize its scale. For now, the outdoor access is visual only to eliminate the need for rails, except for a high, locked egress for rooftop maintenance. However, two large mirrors installed about 15 feet away are a teaser. Their reflections allow you to “walk around” outside, where a series of squirrel-cage vents were painted white. Remnants from the old roof structure and treated as “movable follies,” they hint at the rooftop’s future as a sculpture garden. The mirrors are also functional, blocking the “noise” of the Tudor that sits close to the property line.

For Donald, the addition was an exercise in re-referencing the cultural moment of the ’70s. “It’s a rebel,” he says. “You do feel, with the curves on the floor, like you’re in a dollop of ice cream. When you come down the stairway, the simple railing makes it more transparent and reinforces the curves of the thought bubble hovering over the first floor.”

Well Rounded

Floating curves are a defining feature of the first floor too. Whether on the bent walnut kitchen island or the sinuous level change at the living room, they offer a hint of ’70s sensibility. Designed during the darkest point of the pandemic, they were also a declaration of hope. “When things get really bad, you look for happiness, color,” Donald says. “How could we make it have a sense of fun? This architecture tries to speak to that segue.”

The walnut casework was inspired by the same period, in particular the ’70s woody wagons with faux wood-grain siding. “Did they love that material or what?” Donald says, recalling also the stylish Mad Men interiors. The kitchen island’s stereo console‑like legs reinforce that connection.

Sanded and refurbished, the parquet floors lend their own period vibe. They are more visible now that the kitchen and dining room are wide open to the central hallway. “Standing in the foyer and looking through the hallway, you get the idea of the floor running through, walnut on the right,” the architect says. “As the floor edge curves going down into the sunken living space, there is a clear idea of something that was big back then and is not now.” The artwork on the foyer wall is another through-line, a nod to the original owner’s light-filled gallery.

This couple with a baby were the right clients for the project, Donald says. They were too young to have witnessed the tumultuous ’70s, and they saw the value in the home’s light, circulation, and divisions of space. Although they didn’t insist on a big second-story addition, the project was smartly designed for future marketability. A doorway on the left at the top of the stairs offers an expansion point. Marked by a walnut panel on the lower wall, it could open to a hallway and another bedroom or two. 

Donald says that his training as a concert pianist influences his design approach. “The idea is that you’re in the mind of that musician in a single consciousness,” he says. “You’re not only Bach, but writing it like he does. When I was in [the original architect’s] mindset, I wanted to get those clarities in the front and design something that would not visually overtake the existing house.” The result offers an intriguing alternative to the modern obsession with supersizing the nest egg. It wasn’t long before people began knocking on the owners’ door and asking to walk through the house, Donald says. “Every time I talk to the clients, I thank them for their trust. It put them out on a limb, and they have really just body-hugged it.” 

Image Gallery

Plans and Drawings

1970s Renovation and Thought Bubble

Washington, D.C.

Architect: Donald Lococo, principal in charge; David Moore, project architect, Donald Lococo Architects, Washington, D.C.

Builder: Finecraft Contractors, Gaithersburg, Maryland.; Impact Construction, Washington, D.C.

Kitchen cabinet fabricator: David Brandon, East Side Design & Build, Rockville, Maryland

Interior designer: Donald Lococo; Santha Siegel, Donald Lococo Architects

Landscape architect: Jennifer Horn Landscape Architecture, Arlington, Virginia

Structural engineer: Linton Engineering, Potomac Falls, Virginia

Project size: 3,507 square feet

Site size: 0.25 acre

Construction cost: $341 per square foot

Photography: Anice Hoachlander Photography

Key Products

Cladding: Parex Premier Stucco

Dishwasher: Cove

Entry doors: Torrance

Faucets: Vigo, Gerber, Delta

Garage doors, openers: Raynor Garage Doors, John Calloway of Crisway Garage Doors

Garbage disposal: InSinkErator

Home theater components: Sonos, Revel, Focal

HVAC systems: Bryant

Lighting: Lightolier

Lighting control systems: Leviton/Lutron

Millwork: Custom by Finecraft and East Side Design & Build

Paints: Benjamin Moore

Range: Wolf

Refrigerator/Freezer: Sub-Zero

Roof, truss systems: Tyvec

Roofing: Manuel Garay

Sinks: Elkay, Nameek’s

Toilets: TOTO

Structural fasteners: Simpson Strong-Tie

Thermal/moisture barriers: DeVere Insulation

Vent hood: Prestige

Washer/dryer: Miele

Ventilation: Panasonic

Windows: JELD-WEN

Window wall systems: Pella

Full-Size Images