This is Virginia’s Piedmont, which undulates gently from the portion of Blue Ridge Mountains within Shenandoah National Park. The Blue Ridge is part of the ancient Appalachian Mountain chain that contains the highest peaks east of the Mississippi. Rappahannock County, which abuts the central section of the park, is just 90 minutes southwest of Washington, D.C., but it feels a continent away. In Umbria, perhaps, or Tuscany.
The park and its peaks form a natural boundary for the county and a pristine backdrop for acres of rolling farm and conservation land. Some of it is home to natives whose forebears were pushed out of family homesteads when the park was established in the 1930s. And some of it is weekend getaways for Washingtonians seeking to disconnect from their high speed lives. Equidistant from D.C., Charlottesville, and Richmond, Rappahannock is far enough away from the hustle of city life without being marooned from civilization. The nearest full-size grocery store and clearest cell phone signal are 30 minutes away, but a two-star Michelin restaurant (the famed Inn at Little Washington) is just a quick jaunt along scenic Route 211.
Many weekenders, as Barbara and Matthew Black once were, are drawn to the unhurried pace of life, the protean beauty of the area, and the comradery of other likeminded city escapees. Some find they can’t bring themselves to return to real life on Sunday nights anymore, and they decide to make the place their fulltime home.
The Blacks, however, followed a somewhat more original path to Rappahannock. Although they had a weekend cabin in Flint Hill within the county, when it came time to retire they first decamped across the country to Seattle. It was a total reboot of their lives—different scenery, different people, different everything. It was far away from everyone they knew in their Washington, D.C., lives—and far away from the all-consuming job Matthew was trying to leave behind. And they loved it. But they found they were beginning to put down roots even though the experiment was meant as a lark. They decided they needed to be more “intentional” in their choice of where to settle permanently. And ultimately, given that the critical mass of their friends and family resides in the D.C. Metro area, they realized they had to return home. Not to just any home, but one that they made deliberately, intentionally, and with the utmost sensitivity and care.
“The kernel of the idea was our old cabin, a sweet little Hansel and Gretel place outside of Flint Hill,” says Matthew, of the hilly little village in Rapphannock. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great to live here full time? Away from the city. And ground ourselves here where it’s open and spacious.” Adds Barbara, “We still have our house on Capitol Hill, but we got to have a new life in coming out here—to live out the last season of our life in a rural setting.”
The Dream Job
And so began what the architect, custom builder, and clients say was one of the best experiences of their lives. Really. Together, on a verge between two mountains and the meandering Thornton River, they created Fletchers Mill—a new, nearly 5,000 square foot house, a guest house, a studio building, and a swimming pool. Even more surprising was that this “dream job” began at the tail end of the housing bust. Perhaps that wasn’t such a surprise, after all, says Washington, D.C.-based architect Richard Williams, FAIA, “How often is it that a project gets the full attention of the principal architect, the owner of the building company, and the complete focus of the clients?” This project was just big enough and exciting enough to capture everyone’s time and imagination—and it shows.
When the Blacks started thinking about the project, they were not wedded to a certain style. But they were drawn to a certain quality of building elements. They were sure, for instance, that they wanted steel windows, because they evoked for France—practical, enduring, and romantic. “They’re Old World and they’re industrial,” says Barbara. “They were the one thing we really knew we wanted.”
Otherwise, they had no laundry list of must-have products or bells and whistles that Richard or builder Dale Abrahamse, of Abrahamse & Company in Charlottesville, Va., had to accommodate. Indeed, both Richard and Dale say they couldn’t have conjured more sympatico clients. And what was especially unusual was their openness to exploration and improvisation. They were equally happy to have the house end up more traditional in style or more modern, or even a hybrid of the two. Fortunately, all are in Richard’s wheelhouse. He and his firm are just as adept at restoring and gently upgrading a house by Hugh Newell Jacobsen or Frank Lloyd Wright as they are renovating a centuries old equestrian estate. They’ve won awards for all of these, and for their new construction modern houses and their traditional work, which is often infused with subtle modern cues and crisply pared details.
Sites and Sounds
Where do you site a house when you have 45 acres of pasture land to choose from? It helps that there were a few givens on this land, which was carved out of a 92-acre property: the river at the south end, Red Oak Mountain to the east, Turkey Mountain to the west, and a driveway built by the Blacks to the north.
Says Richard, “The starting place for the design of the house was the screened porch. The screened porch is usually an afterthought but we said, no, let’s get that right first. Once we nailed that down, everything else kind of fell into place.” The screened porch aligns with the longest view, across a field of wildflowers to groomed meadow and beyond to the Thornton River, which winds along backyards, farmland, and towns throughout Rappahannock. After a heavy rain, a ribbon of fog hugs the river and traces its contours along the property. You can hear it burble from the porch on a dry day, or rush along after a heavy storm.
Once the screened porch was anchored, Richard targeted the mountain views to the east and west. The central axis of the house runs between those two close-by mountains, each a bit over 1,000 feet tall. A long corridor links the views, terminating at each end in floor-to-ceiling Hope’s Windows. It begins at the east terrace entrance and leads past the tidy mudroom, thick storage walls paneled in Douglas Fir, the front entrance (also framed in Hope’s and looking out to the courtyard), the kitchen, more storage walls, a hidden powder room, and ultimately spills down a couple of steps into the great room and over to the west terrace window wall. That storage wall continues into the great room as well, opening into cubes of bookshelves and artfully hiding air returns.
The articulation of the storage wall doors and great room bookshelves serves an aesthetic purpose, beyond challenging Dale’s finish carpenters. “We like introducing a little bit of sticking that catches light in a certain way,” says Richard. “All these offset pivot hinges kind of became a theme in the house. The thick walls are this substantial thing. The whole plane all the way from the mudroom door is lined up like a gun site to that notch in the meadow to the field. And holding that line so that these slight little protrusions, like the master bedroom window or this bookcase, deviate from that pure plane is really what the house is all about. But overall, we wanted the house to be simple, intimate, and legible.”
The Extra Mile
Such tight design tolerances are tough to execute under the best of circumstances, when a builder comes from an already demanding market and has many seasoned subs close by to choose among. But when a builder from a considerably smaller market has to put together a team that can go the distance—55 miles each way to be exact—that’s another hurdle to overcome. Here’s where the slow economy gave Dale a boost. “We had a little hesitancy in the beginning about whether we could get the subcontractors we wanted on the project,” says Dale. “Because of the timing, we were able to get our best subs. Everybody was very interested in working on a project like this.”
It also helps that Richard thinks of custom builders as true partners on the project. He had worked with Dale before on another lovely rural modern house in Madison County, closer to Charlottesville, and convinced him this project was worth going the extra mile. “I listened to a lot of books on tape,” Dale quips. But more seriously, he adds, “Richard is such a sensitive person, and he just wants to deliver a great product. He’s always open to listening to ideas. We like to be involved in the design. We don’t affect the aesthetics much, but there’s so much design that happens behind the scenes—architects can’t draw every connection and every move.”Nor does modern design leave any margin for error. “Personally, I like contemporary design,” says Dale, despite the added difficulty it may cause his team. “Here, the sheetrock goes right down to the floor—there’s no baseboard, no shoe molding, no nothing. We always try to frame as though we will be finishing it. That’s the kind of work we like to do. You can’t just trim over bad framing. We do plenty of traditional work as well. Good workmanship is good workmanship.”
Right From the Start
Good workmanship begins at the foundation, of course, and if that goes in straight and true framers don’t have to compensate for problems. For this project, Dale recommended a system he’s used before with great success: Superior Walls of Central Virginia, a precast, insulated concrete wall system made in the factory and craned into place onsite. The company touts its 5,000-plus psi concrete mix as moisture resistant enough not to require “additional damp-proofing.” Says Richard, “They do amazing shop drawings. The most unique thing about them is they are their own footing. It saved a lot of money and it saved a massive amount of time. You do your slab almost like a garage floating above, and then there’s an internal perforated drain. The precision was so much better than cast in place.”
“We’ve used it extensively. I think it’s an excellent system,” says Dale. “This was the most complex installation that I’ve worked with, and the most complex the sales rep had done. With careful excavation and working closely with the installation, we got it pretty much nailed. Of course, we still poured a lot of concrete out there—retaining walls and concrete floors.” Indeed, the floors in the lower level are polished concrete, with radiant heating.
The site’s gently rolling topography allowed the team to create that lower level mostly above ground. It contains Barbara’s office overlooking the meadow; secondary bedrooms, each with an en suite bathroom; extra storage; and an impressive utility room. “Even with the amount of glass and steel window frames we had, we made a great effort to make this house energy efficient,” says Dale. “It has a high performance, geothermal heat pump, whole house dehumidifier and humidifier, radiant in-floor heating on both floors, and an ERV. The house is very tight, but has great air.”
Aging in Grace
Tucking in that lower level took the program burden off the first level and eliminated the need for a second floor. “You don’t need a whole lot of topography to nest a two-story house,” Richard explains. “It’s about a six or eight foot drop that we accentuated a little bit on one side and graded a bit on another to get a full story difference, out of what for most people would be a really gentle slope.”
“Nesting” the lower level allowed the house to stay low in the landscape, giving marquee billing to the mountains and natural setting. “We wanted a house with modesty and humility,” says Barbara. The main level holds all the rooms Barbara and Matthew need for daily life, enabling them to age gracefully in place. Their master bedroom is at the west end of the house, overlooking the west terrace and wildflower field through one set of windows and Turkey Mountain through another. The room steps up and back from the great room. So it’s close by but still at a discreet remove.
Also a couple of steps up from the great room is a sitting room/office with an elegant Doug fir paneled barn door. It slides closed to provide visual and acoustic privacy for occupants, or open to borrow the great room’s window wall of light and views. The room doubles as an additional bunk room for house parties. And, like, the master, it too has a secondary view to another lovely part of the property—in this case, the crabapple tree-lined courtyard designed by Gregg Bleam, who apprenticed with renowned landscape architect Dan Kiley.
Everywhere he could manage it, Richard introduced another window or skylight, ensuring that every important room draws in multiple sources of light and landscape. Interspersed with all those the steel windows are wood-clad windows by Kolbe & Kolbe. Part of what makes his modernism so warm and welcoming are all the carefully placed natural materials. The main hallway has Doug fir ceilings and FSC white oak floors; the screened porch also uses Doug fir. The exterior cladding is western red cedar coated with Benjamin Moore’s Iron Mountain. Not quite gray, brown, or black, but somehow all of those colors at once, the house takes on the hue of surrounding trees. Elsewhere, lock-seam copper cladding begins its metamorphosis from pristine to patina.
The main house is about 4,900 square feet and a showstopper in many respects, especially as viewed along its southern exposure where its full size and complexity are discernable. But a tiny companion dwelling gets nearly as much attention from visitors. At just 850 square feet, the guest house sits perpendicular to its big brother and completes the boundary of the parking court.
Its program is pared to essentials—an open living/dining/ kitchen, a bedroom and full bath, and a covered terrace. The main house largely turns its back on the guest building, so it is also reasonably private. Barbara’s sister, Darien Reece, lives in it full time. “Everyone wants my little house,” she says. A gifted painter, she also shares the sweet board-and-batten studio building in the wildflower field with Barbara and Matthew.
She is the permanent artist-in-residence. “The guest house has the same palette as the main house. It’s really a miniature version,” says Richard. “It’s a little bit inspired by the Jefferson dorm rooms on the quad at the University of Virginia”—right down to the cozy Rumford fireplace and tidy stack of wood for cool country evenings.
The main house, guest house, and parking area, which is lowered behind a retaining wall, form the entry courtyard. It’s here Gregg Bleam planted the crabapple orchard, and it’s an area the Blacks can keep closely mowed for the grandchildren to play. They’re all under four right now, but a principal delight is the prospect of them romping freely across the acreage.
“We weren’t looking to do a fabulous landscape,” says Matthew. “We just wanted to get around the structure of the houses to the road and the trees. We planted more than 150 trees, but you would never know it—to fill in the gaps.” On the other side of the parking area, just off the east terrace and behind a trained hedge of hornbeam, is the swimming pool. Because of the topography, it’s partially above ground behind a retaining wall. It has the best view on the property—across the meadow to the river. Propped on elbows at the deep end, the Blacks often gaze out across the expanse and watch the wildlife pass by.
Across the wildflower field is a roughly mowed path that leads to the studio building. Its pitched roof suggests an existing building that was found on the property and restored. Board-and-batten siding is barn red for a reason: It’s also a bank barn with a lower level workshop space and room to park the tractor in winter. On the main level is a big open area used for Darien’s painting, Michael’s photography work, Barbara’s crafts, and community gatherings. There’s a small kitchenette and a half bath, so it can function as a rudimentary guest house as well.
The mountains in the Blue Ridge were once as tall as the Rockies, but nearly 500 million years of erosion has worn down their tallest peaks. Still they retain their dignity as an ever-changing stage for displays of climate and shifting seasons and the curiosities of country life.
Beginning in the fall and continuing through very early spring, the Rappahannock Hunt crosses the Fletchers Mill property, the riders looking natty and anachronistic in their scarlet coats. Suddenly, it’s Le Corbusier meets Downton Abbey, and the machine for living gives way to the living well.
“We started this house in the downturn,” says Richard. “But I have to say that I’m a little wistful about that period, because we are so busy now. This was a good time for me and for our office to devote focus to this project. The whole experience was such a treat.”
And for Dale, who has just recently retired (a move the housing bust put on hold for a few years; see Master Class on page 50 for that story), the project takes on a heightened poignancy. “This was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career,” he says. “What was gratifying to me is I always thought Matthew and Barbara really appreciated what we were doing and believed we were going to deliver a superior product.
“I think a lot of people start out thinking a house is going to make them happy. But happy people end up being happy with their house. Great projects take great clients.”
Plans and Drawings
UPPER LEVEL | 1. Master Bedroom | 2. Study | 3. Fountain | 4. Entry | 5. Living Room | 6. Dining | 7. Kitchen | 8. Screen Porch | 9. Mud/Laundry Room | 10. Pool | 11. Guest Bedroom | 12. Guest Dining Room | 13. Guest Living Room
LOWER LEVEL | 1. Crawl Space | 2. Mechanical Room | 3. Basement | 4. Guest Bedroom | 5. Study | 6. Guest Bedroom | 7. Bathroom | 8. Pool Valult | 9. Generator
FLETCHERS MILL, WOODVILLE, VA
ARCHITECT: Richard Williams Architects, Washington, D.C.; Richard Williams, FAIA, principal in charge; Justin Donovan, AIA, project architect.
BUILDER: Abrahamse & Company Builders, Charlottesville, Va.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Charlottesville
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: 1200 Architectural Engineers, Alexandria, Va.
PROJECT SIZE: 4,900 square feet (main house); 850 square feet (guest house)
SITE SIZE: 45 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $350 a square foot (approx.)
PHOTOGRAPHY: Tom Arban, Toronto
WINDOWS: Kolbe & Kolbe, Hope’s Windows, VELUX Skylights
PRECAST FOUNDATION: Superior Walls of Central Virginia
INTERIOR DOORS: TruStile Doors
DOOR HARDWARE: HOPPE, Colonial Bronze, Sun Valley Bronze
TILE: Daltile, Design Tile
PAINTS AND STAINS: Benjamin Moore, Farrow & Ball, Sansin, Coronado
KITCHEN APPLIANCES: Wolf (wall ovens and cooktop); Sub-Zero (refrigerator); Miele (dishwasher);
SINKS AND FAUCETS: Blanco, Grohe, Duravit
LIGHTING: Contrast Lighting, Bruck, STENG LICHT, Tech Lighting
LIGHTING CONTROL AND SHADES: Lutron
GEOTHERMAL HVAC: WaterFurnace