When Adelaide Rackemann began thinking about building a house in 2000, she had a pretty short list of requirements: lots of sunlight, plenty of storage space, and a stone fireplace. What she didn’t want was slightly more controversial: central air conditioning, a garage, a dishwasher and a microwave.
“Most of my friends disdained me because I didn’t want all these things,” says Rackemann, a spry 79-year-old with a passion for traveling and gardening. But she held firm. Her husband, Frank, a longtime garden columnist and reporter for The Evening Sun, had died in 1996, and the three-story frame house they’d bought in 1961 was becoming increasingly unmanageable. Rackemann wanted a small, simple, environmentally smart home that would allow her to continue living on the Falls Road property she and her husband had named Copper Hill Farm, among the trees and the birds she dearly loves.
No architect was more suited for the job than Ed Hord, a neighbor of Rackemann’s who advocates “the not so big house,” a term coined by a 1998 book of the same name. Hord designed a one-story, 1,700-square-foot home to be built roughly 100 yards from the Rackemanns’ original house, on the spot where a red barn once housed their pair of Sicilian donkeys. Though Hord wasn’t able to incorporate the barn itself into the construction of the house (it was deemed structurally unsound after examination), its influence is evident in the board-and-batten siding, the open floor plan and the seven lodge-pole pine timbers that support the roof. “When we were creating the design, Adelaide kept saying, ‘I don’t want to live in a barn,’” says Hord, a principal in Baltimore-based Hord Coplan Macht. “We had to do a lot of talking about the open floor plan, because she’d never seen anything like it.”
Indeed, it was hard for Rackemann, who had lived for nearly four decades in a house built in the 1880s, to imagine a compact modern home— especially one without interior walls. But now the open floor plan is one of her favorite aspects about the house, second only to the views it offers. Beyond the glass-walled entranceway, and past the small kitchen where Rackemann can observe the action at her bird feeder, the dining room blends seamlessly into the living room and culminates in an east-facing wall of glass that offers a vista of the stone patio, the sloping hillside and the stately trees beyond.
“I imagined Adelaide sitting out on the patio under the roof, listening to the rain during a storm,” says Hord. She does sit there, at least for the few minutes each day when she’s not in motion— working in her garden, walking her black Lab in the adjacent Robert E. Lee Memorial Park, trying to convince her reluctant chickens to lay eggs, or swimming in the pool sited between her new house and the old, which is now occupied by her former housesitter.
Besides protecting the patio from the elements, allowing it to truly serve as an extension of the living space, the deep overhang also shields the house from direct sunlight. That’s crucial given that Rackemann didn’t want A/C but did want lots of windows. The windows themselves are placed high and low so air flows through the house on multiple levels.
The concrete slab floors, which are stained a rustic amber color and textured to look like leather, also help to keep the house naturally cool. In winter, the floors are warmed by the house’s radiant heat system. Hord took Rackemann’s request for a stone fireplace one step further, and provided a recirculating fireplace that also acts as an efficient heat source.
Walking through the sunny rooms on a summer afternoon, Rackemann takes care to point out both the large walk-in closet and the storage area built next to the kitchen, in the footprint of the original donkey barn. “I never had enough storage space before,” she says, clearly pleased by the house’s practical aspects. A former librarian and a longtime garden writer and book reviewer, Rackemann also delights in the two custom-built maple bookcases that separate her bedroom from the house’s living space. Recessed lights within the bookcases illuminate her many books and framed photographs, and fluorescent lights installed atop the bookcases provide overall lighting for the house. Unencumbered by multiple light fixtures or heating ducts, the ceiling floats 12 feet above the floor, giving the house an airy, cathedral-like quality.
“I keep thinking how much Frank would like this new house,” says Rackemann. “But I never would have built it if he hadn’t died.”
Though Hord’s mission was to design a house adapted for “aging in place”—with wide doorways, grab bars in the bright yellow-tiled bathroom, adaptable cabinets and an extra room for a caretaker—Rackemann’s home feels less like the abode of an almost-octogenarian than a sophisticated cabin nestled in the woods. And though many of Rackemann’s friends were dubious when the house was being built, they’ve changed their tune. “I see Adelaide’s contemporaries, and they say, ‘Can we have one of these houses?’” says Hord. “In this day of the McMansion, a simple, small, sensible house is unique.”