If the most memorable houses are subtly tuned to their environment, this one on Linkhorn Bay in Virginia Beach sends up its antennae in multiple directions. Surrounded on three sides by a waterway that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, it responds not just generally to the idyllic site but with very specific moves that build up to something more than the sum of its parts.
Asked to design a spacious home for a couple with three children, architect Allison Ewing, AIA, let the land inspire its three-dimensional form. “The river strikes a horizontal line and then the shore across has a band of trees, and then sky,” she says, while little inlets suggested the opportunity for more intimate views next to the house. For Allison, who spent time in Japan, that strong horizontal line brought to mind the Japanese concept of shakkei, or borrowed scenery. The T-shaped house engages this flat line with cantilevered rooflines and with terrace edges and stairs detailed to cast a horizontal shadow line.
The substantial home was designed as two perpendicular volumes defined by dark Spanish cedar cladding, composite metal panels, glass walls, and cumaru-and-steel pergolas. The main section contains a large kitchen, family room, and great room/dining area that spill out to the pool terrace; upstairs are an art studio and three bedrooms and baths for the children. The perpendicular wing, separated by an axial entry gallery on the first floor and a glass bridge on the second floor, houses a library, office, and master wing downstairs and a media room and open porch upstairs.
It’s not just the horizon line, but water seeps into the scheme, too. A fountain and water channel along the entry path seem to slide beneath the house, only to reappear as a swimming pool at the far end of the foyer gallery. A dark wooden pergola reinforces that through-view overhead. It starts at the front door, continuing through the entry gallery and out the back, where it shades the great room and pool from the western sun.
These ideas, too, were innovated from the other side of the globe. “One thing I carried with me from my time in Japan was that when you’re arriving at a Japanese house, they tend to be closed in; the experience of entering is always a surprise,” Allison says. “There is that about this house as well, a muteness, always looking for that sense of arrival and surprise.” She adds, “The water has a symbolic connection—the Japanese concept of foreshadowing the experience to come. Not until you arrive at the top step do you begin to understand the connection between the front view and the view of the water.”
The other part of the puzzle was making the home’s 6,537 square feet feel livable. The clients, who sometimes use caterers to entertain, felt that their previous house was too small. “I might have said it was just awkward and chopped up,” Allison says. She was able to reduce the square footage that the owners thought they needed by creating overlapping spaces and eliminating wasteful hallways. “One thing we try to do is have a sense of moving from space to space in a way that your sense of calm and centeredness is reinforced and you appreciate the light and nature, rather than just have a series of disruptions to your mental calm.”
It’s a quality she became keenly aware of early on. “My mother made a comment that stuck with me all these years,” Allison says. “She said she didn’t like to walk into rooms where the paint color was different and sort of jarring; she thought houses should have a few good colors so that as you move from one room to the other you don’t have an abrupt transition of mood. The idea is that flow and materiality can affect your mood, and how can we create spaces that help people feel centered and calm and happy?”
With 16-foot ceilings and glass walls, the atmospheric great room became the place for entertaining, but it also feels intimate day to day. Dark paneling on the ceiling brings it down visually while reinforcing the notion of horizontal planes, as do the exterior louvers on the upper part of the glass walls and the lower trellises that wrap the great room. Other human-scale moves included dropping the ceiling down over the family room and breakfast area, and the great room’s linear fireplace is moderately sized. Those elements, while striking a lower scale, also allow the room to feel light, airy, and impressive.
Everything revolves around the kitchen, of course, and it too figures into the careful calibration of compression and expansion, light and dark that affects the main living space’s scale and mood. White Poggenpohl cabinetry, found on sale in New York City, is mixed with darker custom cabinetry made of stained ash to match the wood in the rest of the house. And sliding panels on the counter between the kitchen and great room can screen out some of the cooking activity. Silk paintings by a Chinese artist were laminated onto the glass panels to add visual interest.
Sitting atop the perpendicular wing, the media room and porch are another living space whose proportions and scale play with the sense of prospect and shelter. Allison calls it “a compressed space between floor and roof.” Roof decks can feel uncomfortable if they are too open, she says. Under the flat, cantilevered roof, accordion doors open the media room to the roof deck, where a double-sided concrete fireplace divides the seating and dining areas.
That porch fireplace has a steel moment frame that picks up the load of the wing’s robust steel beams and transfers them down into a closet two stories below. “Because there are no walls to provide lateral stability against wind flow, the steel beams had to be rigid so the structure wouldn’t twist,” Allison says. “The wing’s two levels are articulated to bring down the scale of the depth of that structure.”
It’s always impressive when a building’s structural logic is exposed, revealing a sculptural rhythm in the way its weight is carried. In this case, concrete site walls, formed from smooth plywood with the joints and form ties expressed, were used both for support and to “strike a line toward the view” in the public volume. For example, the two-story concrete wall in front continues through the entry gallery and deforms into spaced columns that support the pool pergola.
“The columns had to be formed and cast in place and all other components built around it and to it,” says Dan Neveu, project supervisor at Sykes Construction. “As you walk through the house, you can see how she designed the concrete columns to be not just a feature but part of the structure. The wall on the north side of the hallway entry is 40 feet long. It was impressive to see that structure stand alone as we were moving forward.”
The plan was set up on an 8-foot grid system, with windows, roof components, and metal panels aligned with cuts and control joints in the concrete. “You couldn’t be a half inch off here and there,” says Sykes Construction owner Jim Sykes. “The combination of concrete, metal panels, wood framing, and glass was challenging. Some of the glazing, which was shipped from Germany, was set with a crane.”
Another structural feat involved the great room’s floor plate, which overhangs the pool. Because hurricanes come through the region, the slab had to be robust enough to tie in the trellises. “The trellises are supported on the concrete columns but also on the base of the glass wall so they don’t rotate around the columns” in high winds, Allison says.
Passive and active strategies helped to neutralize the house’s size. The great room’s cantilevered slab was wrapped in two inches of insulation so that the concrete doesn’t carry heat and cold into the house. “This house is too big and has too many windows to be Passivhaus certified,” Allison says, “but we looked closely at the details they use.”
The windows are triple-pane with a U value of 11, which helped the home achieve a nearly 40 percent reduction in energy use over code. A Zip system creates a watertight and airtight barrier, and two inches of rigid “outsulation” isolates the building envelope from the unglazed exterior, even wrapping over the window frames where possible. In addition, storm water is collected and slowly released in bioswales planted with native species.
The house, so relevant to its setting, seems to satisfy the owners’ need for balance, harmony, and contentment. “They used to travel a lot, and one of the clients said she doesn’t want to travel anymore; she loves just being in the house,” Allison says. “It’s a validation of what we were trying to do.”
Plans and Drawings
1. Entry/Stair | 2. Great Room | 3. Family Room | 4. Breakfast | 5. Kitchen | 6. Pantry | 7. Mud | 8. Garage | 9. Library | 10. Office | 11. Bedroom | 12. Bath | 13. Closet | 14. Mechanical/Storage | 15. Bridge | 16. Media | 17. Art Studio | 18. Patio | 19. Pool | 20. Porch
Linkhorn Bay House
Virginia Beach, Va.
ARCHITECT: Allison Ewing, AIA, principal-in-charge and project architect, Hays+Ewing Design Studio, Charlottesville, Va.
BUILDER: J.M. Sykes Construction, Virginia Beach, Va.
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Antonio da Motta, da Motta Design, Los Angeles
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Kennon Williams Landscape Studio, Charlottesville (design/execution); O’Shea + Wilson Siteworks (design concept), Charlottesville
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Curry & Associates, Charlottesville
ENERGY CONSULTING: Staengl Engineering, Crozet, Va.
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Jacob Wimmer, Charlevoix Design Services, Charlevoix, Mich. (lighting design execution), Gilmore Lighting Design (lighting), Bethesda, Md.
PROJECT SIZE: 6,537 square feet
SITE SIZE: 2 acres
PHOTOGRAPHER: Prakash Patel Photography
COOKTOP/VENT HOOD/WALL, WARMING, AND SPEED OVENS/DISHWASHER: Miele
FAUCETS: Dornbracht, Grohe, Hansgrohe
GARAGE DOORS: Amarr
KITCHEN CABINETS: Poggenpohl and custom
KITCHEN COUNTERTOPS: Silestone
PAINTS/STAINS/COATINGS: Sherwin-Williams (exterior), Benjamin Moore (interior)
SINKS: Duravit, Blanco, Kohler
TOWEL HEATERS: Virtu USA
WINDOWS: Optiwin Alu2 and Raico timber curtain wall system