"Our house was of no architectural interest," says Martha Conboy of her Arlington, Virginia, home, "just a modest Colonial that we never really liked." Martha, an independent producer and writer, and her husband, Rob Senty, a veteran of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, had spent 30 years living in the redbrick home when they decided to do an energy audit.
The results revealed the house was a "sieve" that would require $80,000 to make energy-efficient. In the neighborhood, drafty 20th-century structures are often razed and replaced by "enormous Craftsmen-on-steroids," something Martha and Rob didn’t want to do. As it turns out, they just needed to look to their backyard, where architecture firm Paolasquare had renovated their friends’ house, to find the solution.
"I was in shock at how imaginative and innovative it was," Martha says, "This was a little cottage, and they completely reconfigured and rethought it." So Martha and Rob called in the "Paolas"— Paola Amodeo and Paola Lugli, who now practice as Paola One Design and Paola Lugli Architecture + Design, respectively—to retrofit their house.
"It’s okay to work with what you’ve got—you can make where you are pretty damn interesting."
—Martha Conoby, resident
The architects began the renovation by inserting a steel structure to accommodate the opening of interior walls to better suit the couple’s casual lifestyle. "We don’t use a house the way it was designed to be used," Martha says, noting the impracticality of a dining rooms and formal living areas, "and I don’t think many people do."
An unused garage—the couple travel by bike—was rethought as an entrance to a dramatic steel staircase connecting the three floors of the house. Above it, the roof was opened and replaced with standing-seam metal panels that cap the house without obfuscating its original lines. It took weeks to determine the pattern of the three different colored panels. "We wanted it to have a gradation, just like the natural brick did," says Amodeo. "We are always interested in materials that don’t just have one surface color, that tell a deeper story."
The changes are substantial, but the Paolas reused as many materials as possible, most notably the original brick envelope, saving money and following guidelines from the local green agency Arlington Green Home Choice. As Amodeo explains, such projects are "an exercise in puzzle-making."