McLean is full of big, new houses, so news that a big new house just went on the market in McLean, well, isn’t exactly news.
Francisca Alonso, co-founder and CEO of AV Architects + Builders, recently invited me out to see the $3.5 million home they just completed after more than a year of construction. With nearly 1.25 acres to work with, they had the space to position this house so it takes advantage of the sun, untethered from the burden of facing the street. The house won Best in Show by the Custom Builders Council in the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association’s Parade of Homes earlier this month.
That means the rear of the house gets the bright, warm southern light, where they placed a two-story family room that’s lined with windows and sliding-glass doors. And instead of placing the master wing adjacent to the home’s core—or even at 90 degrees—they put it at an angle suited for the sunrise, where the new owners can bask in the morning glow through floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls.
You could say that capturing light is somewhat of an obsession for Francisca, who made sure that every space in the house offers at least three sightlines toward the outdoors “so you’re always engaged with your surroundings,” she says. “Even the hallways have some sense of journey associated with them.”
She also elevated the windows themselves into modern art, framing them with Mondrian-inspired grids. “I love the geometry and the play of shapes,” she says. “It’s asymmetrically balanced.”
With more than 8,700 square feet and five en-suite bedrooms, the house was actually designed with empty nesters in mind, Francisca says. “It’s all about this new demographic,” she explains, meaning that folks around here are just hitting their stride professionally when the kids are leaving home, and they’re ready to entertain in a big way and have plenty of guests come to stay. They can also leave on a moment’s notice. Francisca pointed out that the house is built with engineered materials—fiber cement, engineered hardwood, and aluminum windows to name a few. Translation: it’s super low maintenance, so you won’t have to spend your weekends on upkeep.
But how does it live? I’ll go off on a small tangent for reference. When we bought our own house — an open-plan, post-and-beam structure in Arlington — my son said, “You can walk through the space; you don’t have to walk around things.” That’s exactly the case here, where the journey from one space to another is comfortable and airy and effortless. There’s no cramped feeling anywhere—especially in transitional spaces, such as the entry to living space, garage to the mudroom, and the stairs between floors. From a layout perspective, everything makes sense:
The kitchen has two islands—one for cooking and prep and the other for eating and socializing, so the cook and his or her guests can interact, but in their own space.
There are also separate counters and cabinetry in the breakfast area—a convenient spot for a coffee bar—and in the connector between the kitchen and dining room—the perfect display for wine and stemware.
A huge, walk-in pantry is located at the intersection of the kitchen and dining areas (across from the wine bar in the above photos). Not only do you have space for food storage, but plenty of shelving for china, cookware, serving dishes and platters. “My pet peeve is when you have this big house, but no pantry,” Francisca says. Amen.
The office isn’t an afterthought. That’s crucial in an age where more and more of us are working from home. We shouldn’t have to commandeer the dining table or take up shop in what used to be the baby nursery. This office has some serious square footage, a large closet for supplies—and big windows!
The second-floor hallway connecting the guest suites doubles as a balcony overlooking the family room. The clerestory windows sending light into this large volume illuminate the upper passageway at the same time.
Storage and accessibility get lots of care and attention. “I tell people it was designed by a woman,” Francisca says—and it shows.
- The coat closet at the entry has shelves and cubbies for bags and purses. Guests don’t have to find the nearest bedroom to put things down.
- The mud room is huge, with cabinets, a sink, a pull-out for trashcans, and space for a new owner to put the laundry machines (not to mention cubbies for each member of the family to place coats, shoes, bags, etc). “A mudroom is your everyday entry. It needs to feel like a nice entry,” Francisca says.
- Every bedroom closet is a walk-in, and contains shelves in addition to hanging racks. Francisca designed each one to be big enough to double as storage for towels, bed linens and other supplies. There are no hallway linen closets—everything is stored right where it needs to be used. Bonus in the master closet: built-in laundry hampers.
- The front steps are nearly non-existent. “It’s almost at grade,” she says. “There are no barriers.” Sure, there are steps between the levels, but with a main-level master suite, the owners seldom have to leave the first floor.
- The stairs are easy. There’s only a 7-inch rise between each step, and the steps themselves are 11 inches deep. You won’t get out of breath climbing these gentle inclines. Builder-grade stairs tend to be much steeper, sometimes 9 inches high, and only 10 inches deep, so you can’t fit your whole foot onto them. That’s where you get that cramped, uncomfortable feeling as you move through a house.
- The front and back porches are covered. Why shouldn’t the back porch, where you dine and lounge in privacy, get the same ceremonial treatment as the front? From here, you can enjoy the wide back yard (big enough for a future pool), that gently rolls down to a wooded stream.
These kinds of details are making me think about houses in a different way—like the one under construction near my house that has so many steep steps climbing a mountain to the front door that I get tired just looking at them. Francisca admits that it’s definitely not cheap to design and build a house that makes living in it so easy, but she points out that the same accommodations can be designed into a 2,000-square-foot house as well as this much larger one. It’s always those little, day-to-day details, after all, that define your quality of life.