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In Thomas Eakins’ painting, “Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,” the rower’s craft is slim and light, skimming the surface of the water as lightly as a dragonfly. When the architecture firm of Ziger/Snead was asked to create a second home for a pair of avid water enthusiasts and rowers, they took this image of a historic rowing scull as inspiration. Like the quiet pastime of rowing, the new house on the Rappahannock River was to be a peaceful weekend retreat, a place to reflect on the convergence of water and land, horizon and sea.

“The water was the most important reason for being there,” says Douglas Bothner, the project architect. “There was something really compelling to the owners about where the water met the land and they wanted to be able to experience that from everywhere in the house.”

To maximize the connection between the structure and the landscape, the house was placed as close to the water as possible, with simplicity underscoring every aspect of its design and construction. In addition to the view of the Rappahannock, it also encompasses vistas of a wetland and a forest.

Historically, rowing sculls consisted of a straightforward frame construction covered in a light skin. Like a scull, the home is a long, slim frame wrapped in glass. The result is that the house becomes a border and the landscape around it a work of art. “If you take a snapshot and put it in a frame on the coffee table, people engage with it differently, as if it has more value,” says Bothner. “This is a way of re-presenting the landscape and the river in that way.”

Though some private spaces in the home are opaque, due to the use of concrete fiberboard siding, interruptions in the transparent frame are kept to a minimum by using floor-to-ceiling glass wherever possible. Even the master bathroom presents an open face to the river, requiring no solid walls for privacy in this rural setting. Sliding doors allow the entire house to be opened to cross breezes, giving the feeling that the structure is one large, pleasant screened porch and blurring the line between house and nature.

The ideal of simplicity carried into the home’s interior finishes, where the owners challenged the architects to use basic materials in creative ways. “They wanted the architecture to be the interior, so architectural materials are the finish materials,” Bothner explains. “The materials are very raw, very pure. There wasn’t to be a distinction between how the building was built and how the building was experienced from a materials point of view.”

The 3,500-square-foot home, which was built during the course of five years on a tight budget, can be summarized with a few choice words. Concrete. Glass. Wood decking. Steel. On the interior, galvanized steel structural columns are left bare, the fireplace and hearth are concrete block and poured concrete, and the light fixtures are cast metal. Ziger/Snead developed the custom stainless steel kitchen and minimalist lacquered cabinetry in keeping with the home’s restrained palette. Because the structure is essentially a glass box, there is little need for artificial light during daylight hours; a glass floor along the south-facing wall of the building allows sunlight to filter into the lower level multi-purpose and storage spaces while giving a lightweight feel to the home’s main floor.

Despite the home’s minimalism, the owners are colorful people who are active in the Baltimore area art community and live in the Canton neighborhood when not at their river retreat. Their personality is evident in the red Ligne Roset “Togo” sofa (which offers a soft counterpoint to the rigor of the architecture), and the vibrant array of Arne Jacobsen “Series 7” chairs and bar stools scattered throughout the home.

“The success [of the home] is its simplicity,” says Bothner. “It’s so lightweight when you are inside. I think, in part, it is a very rigorous thing and yet it allows the life of the river to dominate. It slips away and becomes a wonderful frame for being in the landscape.”

Resources

Architects  Ziger/Snead Architects; Partner in charge, Steve Ziger, AIA; Project architect, Douglas Bothner, AIA/LEED AP; Project team: Jeff Morgan, John Shorb, Glenn Shrum; 410-576-9131
Landscape architect  Lazarus Design Associates, Baltimore, 410-235-7737
Cabinetry  Artisan Interiors, 410-243-1045
General Contractor  Connemara, 804-435-155

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