Throughout the four decades they’ve been married, Susan and Rich Walther have lived in 12 homes, including an 1890s Victorian, a 1920s Tudor, a 1960s rambler and, most recently, a 1980s ersatz Cape Cod. They’ve lived in small towns, cities and suburban developments.
Occupying so many different places over the years constituted a kind of housing education for the couple. So when they began searching for a place to retire in 2004, they knew exactly what they wanted: a home in a walkable urban neighborhood that had lots of natural light, was energy efficient and looked good. In this place they would reinvent themselves for the next phase of their lives.
Pretty quickly they realized that what they wanted probably didn’t exist— it would have to be created. And so when Susan Walther, a longtime graphic designer who recently retired from her post at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, walked into the two-story, 1,800-square-foot, brick rowhouse in Charles Village, she saw potential even though it looked nothing like what she and Rich, a soon-to-be retired human resources manager, envisioned. The Walthers bought the house, fixed it up and installed a renter, knowing it would take several years to find an architect, design plans and construct their dream home.
They were right to predict the process would take that long. Partly because green technologies are still fairly new, meaning a significant amount of research needed to be done to integrate all the components. Partly because the Walthers were working within a fixed budget. But mostly it was due to the uniqueness of their mission.
“The Walthers didn’t just want to do a typical house using green materials and an energy-efficient heating and cooling system,” says Charles Alexander, principal at Alexander Design, who became the architect on the project. “They wanted those things integrated seamlessly into good design.”
Walking into the home for the first time, Alexander immediately recognized one of its key assets: it faces south. That means that in winter, the home takes in lots of natural light. And in summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, the home is shielded from intense rays by its front porch and shade trees. In terms of energy efficiency, the home had another big plus: it’s shielded from the elements on two sides by neighboring houses. Alas, that characteristic came with a downside: like all rowhouses, the home was dark in its interior. “Very quickly, a driving question was how to get natural light to the middle of the house,” says Alexander.
The answer to that question became the central design feature of the home Alexander Design would create. The architects took a typical element of many rowhouses— a skylight above the central stairway— and amplified it tenfold, creating a sort of shed on the roof that allows light to filter in through three walls of vertical clerestory windows. “We shaped the ceiling to be curved to allow the diffusion of light across a larger area,” says Alexander. “Even on a cloudy day, you get a lot of light: direct light for surprise and interest, as well as diffused light, which changes throughout the day.”
Like everything in the home, not only does the light shed provide aesthetic pleasure, as sunlight floods through the open stairway into the dining and living areas, but it also serves a green function. As Prescott Gaylord, president of Baltimore Green Construction, the builder on the project, says, “The greenest systems are the ones you don’t have to use”— and the profusion of natural light coming from the light shed means less need for electric lights (which usually account for about 20 percent of utility bills, says Gaylord). Most strikingly, three interior windows in the stairway shaft provide sunlight to the master bathroom, kitchen and the bathroom adjacent to Susan Walther’s studios, all of which lack outward facing windows. “I don’t need to turn lights on in these rooms, even though they’re interior rooms,” she says.
Hidden on the north wall of the light shed is a large exhaust fan that works via the chimney effect, pulling hot air up from the living area and expelling it through the roof. The fan provides enough relief from the heat and humidity that the Walthers don’t plan to use the air conditioning regularly. When they do, the consolation is that the home’s four “mini-split” units are ultra-efficient, cooling specific zoned areas rather than the whole house.
From the street out front, the Walthers’ home looks like a renovated rowhouse with nice new wooden windows. You can’t see the light shed on the roof. You also can’t see the three solar roof panels that collect energy from the sun and use it to heat hot water that is circulated throughout the radiant heating system in the floors and the plumbing system. “The water that’s running through the floors is the same water the Walthers drink,” says Eric Lewis, senior associate at Alexander. “Depending on the use, the water is tempered up or down, and distributed. In the case of a run of cloudy days, an on-demand gas-fired unit will heat the water.”
Lewis calls the home’s mechanical system “beautiful” even as he recognizes it’s not very sexy. “They’re mechanical systems— they’re difficult to talk about at a party,” he says. “But they are key to the Walthers’ mission, which was to have low energy usage.”
Gaylord seconds that sentiment, saying, “The most important system in the house is very nonsexy and boring, and it’s the wall system. Because we needed every inch in the house for living space, we needed the biggest bang for the buck in terms of insulation. So we used closed-cell bio-foam, which is sprayed into a cavity and fills cracks to make sure the house is ‘tight.’ Because it’s tight, the house retains its heat and coolness.” Both Lewis and Gaylord believe that the Walther home is likely the greenest in the city.
Though the home’s key systems may not be sexy, the home, itself, is. The sleek white oak floors (which are reclaimed, and were purchased at Second Chance) and white walls provide a backdrop for the Walthers’ collection of art, sculpture and furniture. In the open living and dining area, there’s a rice chest from Korea, a mid-century Eero Saarinen “grasshopper chair” and a set of black Eames dining chairs.
Local firm Luke Works created the cast concrete sinks in the bathroom, which are embedded with the Walthers’ collection of beach glass, a few square nails and a glass fuse from the home’s deconstruction and Bromo-Seltzer blue glass in a nod to the home’s Baltimore roots. Susan’s work table, the stair railing and the metal drapery rods were created by local metal worker Malcolm Majer. Susan herself designed the kitchen, which features aubergine walls, open shelving and a wall of custom cabinetry that conceals the refrigerator, air conditioning unit and TV. In one corner of the concrete countertop a butter knife engraved with Steiff Silver rose pattern is inset (the same pattern Susan’s grandmother had), as a reminder of the traditional in such a modern space. Another reminder is the “truth niche” in Susan’s office that shows the original brick wall now hidden under the new insulated walls.
Perhaps the most attractive design feature is the profusion of glass. In the living area, the back wall features three large windows along with a glass door that leads out to the deck. In Susan’s office, three large windows overlook the street. And in the master bedroom, another collection of windows fills the back wall. All of them are triple-paned high-efficiency windows. As Susan says, “The windows are worth their weight in gold.”
She says she and Rich so love their home that every time they enter, they feel happy. Still, she says, “I think I have one more house in me. It would be neat to take everything we’ve learned here and apply it.”