Architects who favor a streamlined approach to design in Washington, D.C., have often felt constrained by the city's prevailing preference for traditional styles. But times are changing, just a bit, and local design pros are discovering more clients willing to push the envelope and embrace the unexpected. Janet Bloomberg, AIA, and Richard Loosle-Ortega, RA, principals of Washington-based KUBE Architecture, encountered such free-thinking clients on this extensive remodel of a claustrophobic three-level brick home.

Located just outside of Georgetown's historic district, the 1950s-era house escaped preservation restrictions, so KUBE and clients were free to pursue its conversion into a modern, “loftlike” building. With little intrinsic charm in the structure to guide them, the architects had to tap imagination for its transformation. “It had been renovated many times over the years with bad additions,” Loosle-Ortega says. “The exterior had a fake veneer stone mixed with brick, the kitchen was poorly separated from the dining room, and it was especially chopped up.” It had other transgressions: sparse natural light and poor circulation. “I told the clients, ‘Your house is totally clogged in the middle,'” Bloomberg jokes.

First off, the team tackled curb appeal. Unifying the exterior cladding with fiber-cement panels and inserting a steel-and-cedar screen to fashion a modest courtyard did wonders. Then they reconfigured the entrance, removing solid walls in favor of direct-set aluminum-clad windows and glass doors, and redirected the circulation into the living room instead of the dining room.

Interior walls came down, replaced by acrylic screens that diffuse light and add a sense of drama. The screens provide visually permeable transitions between spatial sequences—from entry courtyard and dining room to family room and folding glass doors beyond. “We needed the house opened up, but we still wanted to have the rooms read as discrete functions,” Loosle-Ortega says. A new sense of transparency permeates the now-unclogged space.

The architects also reoriented the staircase so it feeds from the new family room instead of the dining room. “We realized that if we flipped the staircase, you could enter it from the private side of the house,” Bloomberg says. “It really made a nice separation of public and private.” Made of steel and wood, the new open-riser stairs become a sculptural, light-filtering element that casts a ghostlike shadow behind its screen.

Given a limited budget, KUBE designed strategically and creatively. Wherever appropriate, exterior elements were saved. Second-level rooms were “cleaned up” with paint and minor modifications. Low-cost off-the-shelf wall cabinets balance custom-built units. And the budget did not stymie a judicious use of sustainable and high-impact materials—among them low-odor paint, recycled rubber flooring, reclaimed wood, bamboo, cement-based wood boards, and concrete. But resourcefulness and a willingness to experiment is the firm's modus operandi, and the clients knew this. “The owners were great,” Bloomberg says. “They wanted us to have some fun and they wanted great materials, so we were given a license to create.”

project: Q Place Residence, Washington, D.C.

architect: KUBE Architecture, Washington, D.C.

general contractor: DMI Development Group, Silver Spring, Md.

structural engineer: Brandes and Cassagnol Engineers, Washington, D.C.

project size: 1,900 square feet

site size: Approximately 0.25 acre

construction cost: $300 per square foot

photography: Paul Burk Photography