Steel Preserve

With a new skeleton, a brick house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., gets an eco-friendly upgrade—without losing its local charm.

"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. 

In Arlington, Virginia, a drafty house was made more than twice as efficient with the addition of metal both inside and out. Roof panels topping the brick envelope echo its original geometry. 

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. 

"Brick is such a strong load-bearing material, we wanted to emphasize its strength," says Paola Amodeo of the new design.

"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." 

The den, originally and enclosed porch off the back of the house, was one of the biggest energy-sucking culprits. The designers opened it to the rest of the house to improve circulation, added a pentagonal Weather Shield window, and clad the structure in metal panels matching the roof. 

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." 

Like the exterior, the open-plan living area combines reclaimed materials, including the pre-existing black walnut floors.

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."

Industrial finishes include Viroc cement fiber panels over the fireplace. 


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