When You Love the Location, but Not the House
By Scott Sowers
Special to The Washington Post
WASHINGTON -- In 2010, Gordon Bernhardt bought a five-level townhouse but never really liked it. “It was more space than I needed. I was never there and never fell in love with the place. I spent more time in the office,” he said.
Bernhardt was resigned to selling the townhouse and moving to a condominium. He wanted to to be close to his financial services company, Bernhardt Wealth Management in suburban McLean, Virginia, but wasn’t satisfied with what the market was offering.
He often drove by the Pimmit Hills neighborhood in nearby Falls Church.
“I saw these old homes, and occasionally saw a place being torn down,” said Bernhardt, 59, who wanted single-floor living, easy maintenance, quality construction and a place that actually felt like a home.
Bernhardt stumbled on the property he eventually bought while he was in the neighborhood looking at another prospect. A “for sale by owner” sign was stuck in the ground in the front yard of a distressed rancher. The son of the original owner, who had died, had possession of the house, which was mostly vacant.
Bernhardt called Francisca Alonso, a builder and architect he knew socially, to have a look. Alonso approved of the path of the sun across the lot and confirmed that she could get one-floor living on a lot that’s less than a quarter of an acre. Bernhardt bought the place as-is for $450,000. He had no need for walk-throughs, appraisals or inspections, and he never stepped inside the property until the settlement.
“It was a prime location for teardown,” Bernhardt said. “I never considered buying a house that I could put an addition onto and make it my house. The teardown seemed like the only way to go.”
Alonso, 52, co-founder and chief executive of McLean-based AV Architects + Builders, said working with a teardown is often more beneficial than buying a pristine plot.
“Typically, land on its own is hard to develop or overpriced,” Alonso said. “When no house has ever been there before, there’s no utilities. There’s several fees you have to pay: tap fees, connection fees. When there’s already a house there, those fees have been prepaid by somebody else.”
Neighborhood opposition to teardowns can complicate things, but Alonso takes the static in stride. “There’s always going to be somebody who’s going to complain,” she said. “That’s the nature of humankind.”
To minimize the impact of the demolition, the design team used Second Chance, a home deconstruction company based in Baltimore, to break down the house and recycle what could be salvaged.
“We took three weeks, as it was deconstructed, piece by piece, which gives the homeowner a tax write-off opportunity,” Alonso said. “Second Chance put it all in a giant trailer - there was very little left after that. Instead of using five dumpsters, we used one.”
While the house was being deconstructed, Alonso and Bernhardt started an unconventional design process. “I’m a simple guy from Nebraska,” Bernhardt said. “Francisca would have three pieces of tile that she would want me to look at. I’d say, ‘These all look nice to me - what would you do? I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion. What would you recommend?’ ”
Alonso teased out Bernhardt’s love for the look of Italian villas. To keep maintenance to a minimum, brick was used as exterior cladding, along with a steel roof. The gutters and downspouts are aluminum. He wanted an office, kitchen, dining area, master suite and laundry on the first floor. She got all that in and still had space for a powder room.
The front door opens into a foyer. The office, complete with custom built-in shelves and cabinetry, is off to the left, laundry and mudroom to the right. The stairs to the second story are on the way to the open-plan kitchen, dining room and great room. The floors are wide panel oak, stained dark.
The kitchen is separated from the dining area by a bank of base cabinets. All the cabinets are custom and made from maple. The perimeter cabinets are gray, and finished with a glaze; the cabinets under the island are a shade of dark espresso.
The upper cabinets are full height to the ceiling, with clear glass fronts on the top row. All the appliances, including the glass cooktop on the island, are KitchenAide, and the countertops are neutral-colored quartz by Cambria. Pendant lighting and countertop brackets on the island’s seating area help carry the Mediterranean theme through the house.
The great room features a fireplace with a stacked stone surround and a TV above, which is hidden by a piece of art. Twin sets of casement windows flank the fireplace, and full-light doors lead to a stone-and-tile-clad deck with an outdoor grill.
The master suite is off the great room and includes a walk-in closet, bedroom and bath. The master bath features a soaking tub, a dual-sink vanity with custom cabinetry rendered in dark-stained maple and an oversize curbless shower. The tile is a mix of porcelain and ceramic.
The project took about 16 months. Bernhardt was not in a hurry to move; he stayed in his townhouse until the new house was finished.
He estimates he invested more than $1 million in the new space and has no plans to flip.
He recently completed a 600-mile walk in about 30 days on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a spiritual journey that affected his approach to life.
“The house helped me get the quality of life that I was looking to enhance my personal well-being,” he said. “Not all those things are dollars-and-cents decisions.”