After a Fire, a Maryland Couple Turn to Charred Wood to Rebuild Their House
Before meeting a pair of potential clients, architect Doug Bothner drove to their property in the rolling, mansion-studded hills north of Baltimore. The couple’s house had been destroyed by an electrical fire, and as Bothner walked amid the wreckage, he came to a wall that was covered with a scaled, reptilian char. "It was still standing and absolutely beautiful in the most tragic sense," he remembers. "That wall started the story of the house."
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Shortly afterward, Marlene and E. Dale Adkins hired Bothner’s firm, Ziger/Snead, to envision their new home on the heavily wooded site, and Bothner set to work on the design with his partner on the project, Matthew Rouse. Marlene plunged into the process along with them, making meticulously researched and exacting choices along the way.
They decided to envelop the house in a combination of slate, Cor-Ten weathering steel, and gable ends finished with shou sugi ban, the Japanese technique of preserving wood by charring it. The latter, inspired by Bothner’s first visit, seemed to both evoke history and appeal to longevity: Wood that undergoes the process is naturally resistant to fire and disease. It also struck Dale as ironic. "We had all this charred wood that needed to be carted away," he says, somewhat bemused. "Why were we ordering new wood to burn it?"
After dozens of drawings and iterations, Bothner came up with a concept emphasizing a series of shapes. All of them allowed soaring heights that would accommodate tall windows, as well as enable the archetypal gables of a traditional house—something Dale wanted.
The height and windows were key, because they made an essential change in the way the Adkins experienced their home, which is surrounded by land owned by the Maryland Environmental Trust. Now angled slightly more to the west, the house reframed the three-acre property, making the landscape feel new even to the people who have lived there for more than two decades.
"There was a consciousness when we designed the gardens that they were meant to heal the site." Kevin Campion, landscape architect
"We had never seen the tree like this," says Marlene, referring to one gracefully bent, lichen-splattered poplar that sits like the subject of a portrait painting outside their new master bedroom windows.
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With contractors’ vehicles traversing the property, the team cordoned off groves of trees so the root systems wouldn’t be damaged. "The trees were sacred," Bothner says. Now the groves are surrounded by geometric landscape beds that echo the angles of the house. "There was a consciousness when we designed the gardens that they were meant to heal the site," says landscape architect Kevin Campion.
The overall impact of the new house, from the outside, is almost symbolically defiant. The blackened wood and dark slate make it appear invincible. A Cor-Ten–clad retaining wall running the length of the house and gardens cuts through the curve of the land like a cliff. But the effect of the design and material choices invokes contemplation in quiet ways, too.
After walking over a giant bluestone slab flanked by reflecting pools, people enter the house by first stepping across a gap, then going through a giant, pivot-hung mahogany door. The moment is meant to invite reflection. "You’re floating over the water," Campion says. "We wanted the visitor to be mindful of the water as an element of healing and calm."
Inside, another transformation happens. The woods tower in every window; the reflections from the pools dapple the ceiling. Dozens of careful choices declutter the view: large-format Italian ceramic tiles; water-jet-cut registers that sit unobtrusively against the walls; flush electrical outlets. A deck off the living room is enclosed with glass panels that look seamlessly attached to one another, but are bolted to the outside of the deck, fasteners out of sight. "As soon as you step in," Rouse puts it, "you’re outside again."