Never underestimate the ability of architecture to surprise and delight, and to channel necessity into invention in beautifully unexpected ways. Architect Robert Gurney did just that in his approach of a modern custom rebuild in Echo Hills, Maryland, a few miles outside of Washington, D.C. A striking yet simple facade of shou sugi ban siding and minimal fenestration present an elegant yet understated front elevation that blends into the neighborhood fabric.
The movement toward the home’s entry is a deliberate series of experiences that set up a great reveal. The walkway, flanked by fencing and corten panels, guides visitors to a bridged footpath along the side of the home leading to the front door. Gurney describes this transition as an invitation. “As you get to the end of this bridge, there’s a moment of pause where you can stand and have views of the river and down into the woodlands. And then you turn right to get to the front entry.”
Gurney saved the most dramatic impact upon entry, where his vision unfolds and opens to a two-level great room with grand floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The effect is visceral and immersive as the vast wall of glass propels the home’s main living spaces into the trees. The feeling is akin to a childhood treehouse — one that’s grown up into an ethos that’s relaxed and refined.
The windows’ aluminum frames allow large-scale openings with slim profiles to create expansive views with the least amount of obstruction. Gurney’s preoccupation with movement and transformation paid off. “The idea was to change your perception from the suburban community and transition into this phenomenon where you’re at one with nature,” says Gurney.
The clients commissioned two-time National AIA Honor Award recipient Gurney to reimagine a residence that made the most of the sloped terrain. Situated on 23 acres of lush woodland and vegetation, the custom four-bedroom, three-bathroom home is flanked by two concrete walls that anchor the structure into the hillside. The rear elevation’s glass construction of fixed windows and multi-slide doors affords panoramic views at each level of the surrounding woodland and Potomac River in the distance. “It’s incredibly complex structurally, because the previous house was built on a hill, so we basically had to go down 25 feet in the back, which also accommodated our double height of four stories in the back,” says Gurney.
Moving through the home, the expansive views impart a feeling of floating among the treetops. Clear sight lines and furnishings contribute to the overall effect, from floating bathroom vanities and staircases to the kitchen’s sleek and modern design. The surrounding trees diffuse natural light and increase the home’s energy efficiency. In the two-level great room, a canvas of original art, a low-slung leather bolster sofa, and a fireplace ground the space and bring the home’s sheer volume to human scale.
A collection of balconies and decks on each of the home’s four levels creates a push-pull relationship between the structure and surrounding landscape. Gurney creates a wholly immersive experience and sense of balance between the structure and natural environment. The home is built right up to the trees in some areas, with sliding glass doors offering seamless access to various outdoor living spaces.
Driven by Nature
Gurney was deliberate in orchestrating vertical movement throughout the home’s four levels in order to showcase the surrounding natural splendor. The two-level living space organizes the overall composition of the 4,542 square-foot floor plan. Utility spaces, like the laundry room and elevator, were placed toward the front of the home and private living areas – living room, dining area, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms – open to the views in the rear. That’s not to say views can’t be enjoyed at the front of the home as well — a series of tempered glass wall cutouts along the staircases and hallways offers glimpses of the landscape and brings in natural light. The result is a tranquil oasis where the trees and vegetation not only influence the design, but become an essential part of the home’s construction.
We carefully laid out the way you move through the house, with the stairways and things,” Gurney says. “As you move up and down the house, there’s cutouts in the stairs where you have these peeks into the little spaces and out to the views. The whole house is designed to take big advantage of the views.”