Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, has six employees in his Washington, D.C.-based office, many of whom have been with the firm for years. That says a lot about Gurney as an employer and an architect. Designing primarily high-end, single-family houses with a modern aesthetic, Gurney could have grown his business significantly during the boom times. Instead, he turned away projects because he didn’t want to manage a lot of people. He adds that he also “wanted to stay closely involved with all of our projects.”
The decision to remain hands-on with his team and his clients has helped him enjoy a robust roster of projects with a variety of interesting programs, even during the recession. “Being in D.C. has helped a lot,” Gurney admits, “but I consciously and deliberately decided I liked the size of my firm, so we had plenty of work to keep us going through the worst of it.” Gurney did take on different types of commissions during the downturn, but with his usual optimism he says the variety kept him and his staff energized. “We did several smaller projects like apartment renovations,” he explains, “but I like the amount of detailing you can put into small projects.” In addition, Gurney accepted his first historic restoration in downtown Lewes, Del., his farthest flung house in Key West, Fla., and his largest project with a 20,000-square-foot home in McLean, Va.
The McLean project came in just before the downturn and was one of two large-scale commissions that kept everyone at the firm busy. A steep site and an existing 1960s house with low-pitched massing added to the challenge of the huge square footage. Gurney kept the entire original roof and added a three-story glass volume behind it that descends down the hillside lot. “The trick was that the rooflines were so distinctive and the gable was on a diagonal, so it was a hard house to double the size while maintaining the strong ’60s geometry.” Landscape elements such as a parking court, disappearing edge swimming pool, and terraces were a crucial part of the solution, according to Gurney. “This is the most integration of architecture and landscape of any project I’ve done.”
Occasional trips to Key West to design additions and changes to a house in the strictly protected historic district haven’t exactly been a hardship for Gurney, but facing the tough review committee there might have been. They’re notoriously stringent about any alterations and everything about the original structure has to remain intact, yet Gurney flew through the approval process after only two meetings—despite his contemporary tendencies. “They liked my approach of picking up the language of previous additions,” he modestly explains.
It seems the architect learned a lot from his first historic restoration and addition project just completed in Lewes, Del. Gurney and his staff researched the 200-year-old house and the entire block before designing the additions, which nearly doubled its size. The lot is only about 40 feet wide and 150 feet deep, and the owner wanted an extensive program including a pool. Although the Lewes review board wasn’t nearly as restrictive as in Key West, Gurney opted to meticulously restore the original house and let it shine by tucking all of the new sections behind it. He used the pool as the pivot point for five pavilions linked by floating glass bridges. “Lewes is happy because we restored this old house,” Gurney says, “and at the same time we doubled the size of the house.”