An Annapolis architect and his wife build their dream home with principles that will help them age in place, plenty of green design ideas and light-flooded, contemporary space for their beloved art collection.
When architect Al Graf and his wife Marcia Marshall built their new home in Eastport, Md., they designed it to be their last. Within the striking Prairie style architecture is a principled home that puts the couple’s ideals of green, small-scale living into practice while also providing a stylish living space where they can age in place.
The home is noticeably distinct in this neighborhood of traditional clapboard cottages. Graf worked in institutional design, primarily hospitals, before starting his own firm, AEG Associates. When he set about the design of the house, Graf knew he wanted something more modern than is found in this sleepy bedroom community of Annapolis. He opted for the Prairie style because it has a contemporary feel, but uses traditional elements that would be appropriate in the historic area.
“I’d always wanted to do a Prairie style house, but no one ever hired me to do one so I designed one for myself,” says Graf. Frank Lloyd Wright, the style’s most noted champion, described the Prairie School as “organic architecture.”
“The Prairie style concept is a low, horizontal building that looks like it’s grown out of the ground, like it’s always been there,” Graf explains. Horizontal lines, which help the building feel like it is settled in the landscape, are a hallmark of the style. The most stunning example of this in Graf’s design is the “prow” window that juts forth from the master suite. Graf couldn’t find a window company that would tackle it, so he and builder Phillip Forsythe of Forsythe Construction built it themselves.
Inside, the home opens into a bright space flooded with light, particularly in the entry where two-story windows show off a floating staircase. Graf says the luxury of being his own client was he could spend more time getting things “just right.” He labored over the plan for the staircase for more than a week. The stairs sweep to a small second floor that houses a pair of guest suites, frequented by grandchildren and visiting sailing clubs. But the hub of the house is the first floor, which was very much by design.
“We both have parents that ended up living on one floor,” explains Marshall, a health policy consultant. “We thought about our disabled parents and our backgrounds in healthcare and we didn’t want to build a house that wouldn’t accommodate us as we aged.”
The house uses Universal Design principles. The halls and doorways are wide enough for wheelchair access, for example, and the master bathroom’s shower has no curb so a wheelchair could roll directly inside. Doors open with levered pulls, not knobs. The wood floors are smooth and even; Graf created different ceiling heights to give drama to the otherwise flat, functional design.
However, many of the age-in-place principles are tucked away, waiting for the day they might be required. “Doing Universal Design to its logical conclusion isn’t necessarily a great idea unless you are in a place where you need it,” says Graf, noting that the kitchen counters would have been dropped to wheelchair-accessible height had they taken the concept to its fullest expression. Instead, the home is adaptable. A portion of the wrap-around porch can be converted into a wheelchair ramp connected to the garage, for example, and the master bathroom counters can easily drop to a lower level.
While the couple was thinking about their future, they were also concerned with today’s emphasis on green design. Avid proponents of Sarah Susanka’s small-scale living ideology put forth in her book, “The Not So Big House,” the couple’s 3,000-square foot house is designed so every space is utilized. The floor plan is open and straightforward, with a living space at one end, a master suite (concealed behind Soji screen doors) at the other, both connected by a functional corridor that houses Marshall’s office, a laundry room and a butler’s pantry.
“The most special part of this house is that we live on this entire floor — there are no rooms we don’t go into,” says Graf. “We live in 100 percent of the house 100 percent of the time.”
Great care was taken to use environmentally responsible materials. The construction uses Hardy Board on the exterior and low-e windows trimmed in Kynar over wood so they never need painting. Whenever possible, the couple used recycled or regionally sourced materials. The gorgeous wood stair treads are a recycled product called “glue lams,” while the maple for the floors came from Ohio and the kitchen cabinetry from Pennsylvania. The kitchen counters are made from Caesarstone, a recycled material that gives the appearance of concrete but is easier to maintain. Everything from paint to wood glue was selected to be low emission.
The home’s landscape helps fulfill the illusion that the house is growing up from the earth while also adhering to green ideals. “The landscape is a garden first, rather than a typical ‘landscape,’” says Deborah Schwab of Deborah Schwab Landscape Architecture. She worked with the couple’s wants, the architecture of the house and, most importantly, the environmental regulations mandated by the home’s location in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area. “It wasn’t a house that needed traditional foundation plantings,” she continues. “The style leant itself to a house growing up from a garden.”
The house has no gutters; rainwater is dispersed through the yard into two rain gardens and flow wells. In a normal rainfall, the property generates virtually no run-off. Schwab used many native plants, particularly those that work well with both wet and dry soil, like switchgrass and sweet bay magnolia. Marshall cultivates vegetables in raised beds, and Knock Out roses and hyacinth bean flourish in the summer.
The home’s interior beauty is in its simplicity, clean lines that are echoed in the furnishings. The roster of designers reads like a mid-century modern hit parade: a Florence Knoll sideboard in the dining room and replica sofa in the living room; Harry Bertoia wire chairs; Mies van der Rohe-inspired white living room chairs; an Eames lounge chair. Even the kitchen is as elegant as it is practical.
“Because style is so important to us, it was important that the kitchen not look “kitcheny”” Marshall explains. “It needed to blend into the living area.”
In many ways, the home is intended to be a gallery for the artwork Graf and Marshall have accumulated from friends and local Eastport artists, like the painting in the master bedroom by Cindy Fletcher Holden and pastels by Marshall’s longtime friend Claudia Turmel. “We didn’t want window treatments,” says Marshall. “And we’re white walls kind of people. We wanted to be able to display our art.”
Even as they grow their art collection, Graf and Marshall have trimmed back on many things, trying to live the small footprint lifestyle emblematic in their home’s design. Downsizing has never looked so stylish.