Seeing the Light

Natural illumination—with its varying angles and intensities throughout the day—is part of the theater of living in a place, architect Phillip Eagleburger says. But achieving it can be tricky.



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Too little light and the home feels like a cave. Too much and it's uncomfortably warm and bright. These three home remodeling projects strick just the right balance—thanks to a few brilliant touches.

Moving into the Light

Kristen and Fergus Donaldson loved the quiet street and tight-knit Silver Spring neighborhood where they bought their home eight years ago.

They liked the convenience of living between Washington, D.C., where Kristen often bikes to her job as a senior human resources officer for the International Monetary Fund, and Columbia, where Fergus works as a civil engineer.

They liked the bright family room, which faces east, and the way the sun shone on the vanilla walls. But there were a few things they didn’t like, including the single-pane casement windows. “When it was really cold, we used to get ice on the inside of the windows,” Fergus says. “That’s how poorly insulated they were.”

In 2005, the couple approached Phillip Eagleburger and David Fenchel of Treacy & Eagleburger Architects in Washington, D.C., for advice about replacing the windows.

Eagleburger says that in the past, fewer windows were incorporated into designs because they were so poorly insulated. “There are so many existing structures that didn’t take advantage of the light,” he says. “It’s amazing how closed in that feels.”

Insulation was such a problem for the Donaldsons that they replaced their windows before undertaking a more ambitious renovation a year later.

The Donaldson kids love to sit on these white stools to eat their ice cream.Kristen had grown up in a village in Nova Scotia where people sat on front porches and neighbors would stop by to chat, and she wanted a porch of her own. The Donaldsons also wanted to redo their kitchen, which had dark cabinets and little natural light. They wanted a larger, brighter living space, open to both the front and back yards.

And they wanted to eliminate the damp, poorly lit family room that had been fashioned out of a one-car garage by previous owners, along with the prefabricated greenhouse that had been added onto that side.

Over time, the plan grew to include expanding the house on one side, with the addition going the full depth of the house and aligning with the front of the new porch. What used to be a small dining room and kitchen is now a combination dining room, kitchen, family room and mudroom.

Construction took place in 2008, when Kristen was pregnant with the couple’s second child and on a six-month maternity leave. She and their 2-year-old stayed with her family in Nova Scotia during the renovation, and Fergus camped out in the remaining part of the house, cooking his meals in a microwave.

By 2009, the work was done. The kitchen had been moved from the back of the house to the side and was lit by three small skylights, aided by the reflective quality of the white cabinets and white Caesarstone and bamboo countertops.

The house now has five backdoors—nearly all glass—that lead onto the terrace and, when combined with the large, new, double-glazed casement windows, add to the sense of openness and light. When Kristen threw a 40th birthday party for Fergus last May, those doors made it easy for guests to circulate in and out of the house.

The kids and their friends love to sit on the kitchen’s white stools and eat ice cream. Behind the stools is the living/dining space where the Donaldsons spend most of their time.

From the porch, there are two entrances into the house: the front door and a mudroom door on the wall to the left. The architects retained several feet of the original exterior brick wall on the side of the house, which now forms one interior wall of the mudroom. The opposite wall is curved bamboo, which conceals both the mudroom closet and the kitchen pantry.

When they started the renovation, the Donaldsons were so intent on bringing the house out of the shadows that they almost overdid the light, Kristen says. “But it worked out really beautifully.”

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