by Kai Tong, AIA Hopkins & Porter Inc.
The true subtext of the cabin project is the story of the owners, and their sense of stewardship of the land and their simple, clear vision, that allowed this project to proceed.
When the owners learned that the land next door to their Potomac home was about to be sold to a developer who would subdivide the wooded acreage into typical residential lots, they stepped in and purchased the rare river view land themselves, to preserve its pristine state. They then took the additional step of voluntarily legally binding themselves to never selling the land to a developer.
The owners’ intention for the cabin was always direct, modest, and simple – to provide a relaxing, unpretentious place to gather, unwind, perhaps rest after a game of tennis, and become immersed in the cabin’s bucolic setting overlooking the Historic C&O Canal, and the Potomac River beyond. The cabin is perched on the crest of a steep hill; far below, the Canal and River move at their own respective paces. The scenic nature of the site requires strict respect for setback and related parameters.
Research shows the cabin to be about 100 years old. It was built using a traditional saddle-notch log construction on a stone foundation, and included a cellar and a small loft area. The logs appear to be cedar, and most of them have weathered fairly well. There was a modest frame addition added to the original cabin at some point in its history.
Overall, the cabin showed years of neglect and wear. A smaller companion building nearby, a diminutive log “garage”, also showed much deterioration and years of unprotected exposure to the elements.
The owners cite local lore that describes the cabin as once being a fishing lodge for Adlai Stevenson and his family and friends. Indeed, Adlai Stevenson’s biographies also allude to a log cabin overlooking the Potomac that provided him respite from the hectic pace of Washington.
The cabin’s owners also go on to describe a later inhabitant of the cabin, who was a young Potomac woman and horse lover at the time. Her recollections of her time in the cabin and surrounding environs are described in her book, “Fun Between the Falls”, and include a memorable encounter with copperheads at the cabin.
The following text describe the cabin project, all under the energizing auspices of the owners and client , a creative and nurturing client couple.
The Design and Construction of the Log Cabin Renovation is by Hopkins & Porter Inc. of Potomac, Maryland.
The complex and painstaking implementation is by the skilled crews of the builder, Hopkins & Porter Construction Inc. of Potomac, Maryland, under the cabin project’s Lead Carpenter, Don Lowery of H&P, and the Production Supervisor, Ray Hornsby of H&P.
The architectural and renovation design was by Architect, Kai Tong, AIA, Director of Hopkins & Porter Inc.’s Architecture Department, with support from the owners.
Furniture and furnishings are the result the owners’ collaboration with Barbara Hawthorn of Barbara Hawthorn Interiors, assisted by Jason Hodges.
A basic design image the H&P architect found useful while unraveling the many issues associated with the cabin’s design was the concept of the renovated cabin as a solid, massive element at its front walls, i.e. the façade facing the visitor. However, as the visitor enters and passes through the cabin, the cabin becomes increasingly open and transparent, essentially slowly dissolving away until it becomes an ethereal wall of glass at its other side.
At the same time, the owners were presented with the notion of the cabin as a simple, unassuming metaphor on many levels, having to do with the juxtaposition of normally opposing forces meeting and being reconciled. Such forces, now interacting in the cabin, include:
Opaque and Transparent elements– the massiveness and opacity of the heavy log walls and the clarity of the clear glass walls;
Dark and Light elements– the shadows of the original cabin’s cloistered interiors and the open-ness of the treetops and sky immediately outside the cabin;
Noise and Quiet – the clamor of encroaching civilization and the tranquility of the cabin’s setting;
The Past and Present -– the cabin as time capsule, carrying artifact and dream from the past into the future.
The main hall serves to unify the entire cabin interior, and is also provides the most sweeping gesture towards the river, trees, and clouds outside the cabin.
The original roof structure and rear walls, which created a very constricted and downward- acting view out towards the river and trees, was completely swept away in the concept of the owners and architect who, with the carpenters, obliterated that obstruction and tilted the entire view out to the river and up towards the sky.
Heavy rear bearing walls that blocked views were erased and replaced with a slender horizontal tubular steel beam perched on equally slender tubular steel columns or posts.The posts themselves were positioned on massive new masonry piers hidden beneath the floor. Structural steel connections were welded rather than bolted, in order to keep the steel elements a visual” insertion” rather than framework, and as poetically minimal a presence as possible.
Also, several interior partitions were removed, to clear away interior clutter and achieve an open expanse of space. New engineered lumber beams were integrated into the log structure to create long uninterrupted structural spans.
Much of the cabin’s original log wall that faced the river had been previously replaced with a set of sliding glass patio doors and economy wood siding. These elements were removed, as were other extraneous elements that did not convey the character of the original structure or its setting.
In examining the most thoughtful and graceful way to maximize the cabin’s open-ness towards the river, and avoiding a result that felt like the back walls of the old cabin had simply been pried off in an enthusiastic but ham-handed fashion, the design chose to distill, “edit”, and preserve strategic “phrases” of relevant log walls.
For example, the intersection of the two original exterior log walls at the kitchen area was preserved, and the exposed ends of those old logs meet the edge of the new frameless floor to ceiling glass wall at a vertical line of old and new.
Likewise, the top of the log wall over the kitchen counter originally sloped downwards, following the descending pitch of the old roofline. H&P’s architect and craftsmen worked to preserve the original slope of the log wall by stepping the logs down in increments. The new glass panel that now sits on top of this wall follows these step-downs into an increasingly tall expanse of glass that brings the eye towards a frameless transparent corner of glass and out beyond the confines of the main hall.
Rafters are cantilevered over the new steel beam upwards to enable the rear wall to be totally unencumbered by vertical supports.
A sheer wall of glass, floor to ceiling, with siliconed butt-glazed joints, follows the line of the river, and wraps around the two ends of the cabin, turning the roof into a visually floating plane. Because of the uneven terrain, the tall tempered and laminated glass panels were set in place by hand, without the aid of machinery. The panels are anchored by aluminum channels recessed into the ceiling and the floor. At floor level, exterior copper flashing is carried under the channel and up, to create a continuous barrier against water infiltration.
The ceiling, planked in mahogany, follows the soar of the cantilever as well, continuing visually out beyond the glass to the end of the roof overhand. The ceiling is punctuated by low voltage adjustable downlights. The mahogany of the ceiling, as well as much of the exposed wood elsewhere throughout the cabin, has received the most transparent, clear finish possible, at the insistence of the owners that the innate vibrancy and detail of the wood remain unfiltered, and only be subtly altered, in the interest of sealing and protection..
A small almost transparent vestibule creates a landing to the original rear stair location leading to ground level.
The glass wall returns at both ends of the cabin in the form of stepped clerestories, and serve as literal windows into the design process of introducing old to new, and where the solidity of the log walls and the transparency and lightness of the design mesh together.
Recessed pockets in the ceiling house remote control sheer drapes that will filter glare while preserving view, and will temper the southern exposure of the cabin in the warmer months.
Flush circular hardwood high-speed air louvers are positioned generously along the line of major glass expanse, to give the cabin the best strategic advantage for a balanced temperature in the extremes of summer and winter.
The base of the glass wall is set in a continuous metal channel, partially recessed into the new wood flooring. The channel is clad in copper both on the interior and exterior, with the exterior copper carried inside as an uninterrupted flashing profile.
The new flooring in the Main Hall and throughout other main areas of the first floor is Old Growth Eastern Pine. The existing floor structure was opened up, largely replaced or reinforced, tweaked in its overall leveling, insulated, and newly underlaid. Blocking was added to enable the architect and builder to have the option of exposed nailing patterns.
The planks of the new floor are all tongue and groove 20” wide, in
random lengths, adhesived, blind-nailed, and possibly supplemented in the
future with exposed antique cutnails. The planks were selected from 150 year
old trees at the end of their lifespan, and the ensuing open space in the
canopy will enable new trees to flourish. Also, planks are selected from trees
that have grown near each other; the similarity in nutrients and other environmental
factors insures a similar appearance in the mineral content, color, and other
characteristics of the boards. The finish is a premium quality stain accompanied
by urethane applications. A slight distressing was administered on site.
The original window and door openings of the cabin were respected by design. The previous wood, single-glazed casements were replaced by copper clad insulated casement windows, and a secondary front door was replaced by a full-vue glass door with a copper clad frame. That door sets generously recessed into new stonework that adorns part of the cabin’s new front elevation.
The new front door is a tempered all glass door set deep between massive stone piers that are bridged above by a flat, 2” thick single slab of stone. The stone, in turn, stands within a field of old log walls on both sides and above. The hinge and closer mechanisms for the door are concealed, set into recesses carved into the solid stone lintel above and the solid stone threshold below.
One visual intent of the front door composition is to present a distillation of the juxtaposition of light and shadow, transparency and solidity, old and new, that the cabin poses.
The front door is centered on the new rear door, which is also a tempered all glass door. However, the rear door is set serenely in a field of floor to ceiling glass, and is itself aligned with the simple wooden exterior steps that lead one to the ground and river beyond.
In the game room, a side door has been “penciled in” to the large end wall [map wall]. The visual presence of the door is dialed down drastically, in that the horizontal slats of the map wall continue across the face of the door, in largely the same plane and coloration. Similarly, from the exterior, the door visually fades into its background of vertical cedar board siding, by simply being a small piece of the larger jigsaw. The owner’s idea of a small, simple round stone, floating against the field of siding, as a doorknob, will serve as riddle, visual clue, and handle.
The design envisions a stair and landing, both of excruciatingly simple design, that will bring a person from the side door down to the ground. The client had mentioned recently a stair design similar to the Lapeyre stair, and a modified version of that alternating tread stair might be an interesting solution.
The countertop for both the kitchen and bath were conceived by H&P’s architect as having a flowing line and shape that would evoke the nearby riverbanks, and introduce a less geometric contour into the space. The owners requested an open kitchen plan that would be easily accessible from the nearby gathering table.
To preserve unencumbered sightlines throughout the cabin, and minimize concealing old log walls, all appliances are undercounter height, including the refrigeration.
Base cabinets of hardwood ply were designed by the architect to be simple and unobtrusive, with only a flourish here and there, such as the quirky tilt of the end cabinet. Glass cabinet doors are hardwood frames with slender stiles clad in copper. Appliance fronts are custom designed to match as well.
The sink is positioned on center with an original window location, and allows the user to view traffic coming to and from the main house in the nearby distance.
An outside corner of glass, free of any structural support, helps the kitchen engage the nearby panorama of trees and clouds.
Continuing the flowing contour theme of the kitchen countertop, the bath countertop sits on base cabinets designed by H&P’s architect to step back from the frontmost cabinet in regularly spaced increments.
The trough sink, vanity faucets, and Ceaserstone were specified by Barbara Hawthorne Interiors. H&P’s architect called for the backsplash of the vanity to be a vertical slab of glass, into which those faucets and matching shelf components are set. Also, a fixed wall mirror is also partially immersed in the backsplash.
The first cabinet element as one enters the bath is an angled, finned panel to the left that springs from the mass of the cabinetry, and eventually “dissolves” into the old log wall.
To the right is a curved expanse of shower glass, which sweeps to the right and brings one into the larger part of a fairly compact bathroom space.
Flooring was designed by H&P’s architect to create opposing “shoreline” of river stones, between which a stream of clear flooring flows over smaller stones. The stream leads one into the shower area, with its two showers, or to the vanity, or into one of two WC compartments. All the floor tile is laid over customized radiant heat mats, controlled by a nearby thermostat.
The shower is another opportunity to create another light/dark, old/new interface, with the clear glass walls of the shower enclosure basically putting the original old log walls “under glass” for examination and companionship during one’s shower. The glass panels in the shower are hinged to allow access for maintaining the old log walls behind them, as well as to allow access to one of the original window locations. The vertical chase that brings the two shower’s plumbing pipes up from the cellar also serves as an anchor for the hinges of the swinging glass panels. A bench in the shower will allow one to shower while the other sits and keeps company with the “wetter half”.
The concept of creating differing layers of transparency is exercised further in theWC compartments, which are built with obscured glass partitions and doors, again allowing maximum firsthand contact with the old log walls, but preserving some privacy as well. The owners and architect selected Kohler’s “Hatbox” fixtures as almost a “non-statement” counterpoint to the surrounding visual activity.
The owner suggested Seastones, similar to the stone handle for the side door of the game room, as wall or glass mounted elements that could serve as robe hooks.
One of the cabinet doors opens to reveal a laundry chute through which towels can be sent down to the new laundry room in the refurbished cellar.
Originally, the game room was a frame addition added to the original cabin structure many years ago. It was comprised of economy wood siding, and its fenestration consisted of deteriorating plastic sheeting at the outset of the project. There was an attic, reachable by pull-down stairs, that was completely removed at the owners’ instruction.
A new structural ridge beam, new laminated wood secondary beams, and new log collar ties, from logs salvaged from unavoidable demolition elsewhere on the project, were called for by the architect and set in place by the builder.
New copper clad skylights were framed in and installed, to continue the pattern of skylights already established in the adjacent entry hall.
The design called for modification and reinforcement of the roof framing throughout the cabin, in order that the new ceiling of the game room become an uninterrupted continuation of the ceiling plane of the larger main hall and cabin, which in turn would be the same ceiling plane shared by the small loft on the end of the cabin opposite the game room. Rafters were shaved down to create a flat plane, and then the rafters were doubled up to compensate for the resulting shallower structural strength.
The wall against which a simple flat screen TV hangs is built of horizontal slats of clear cedar, installed with a narrow cedar spacer between each slat that allows each slat to be blind-nailed, and eliminated any exposed fasteners. A chase wall to house various cables, as well as a low table to accommodate TV accessory equipment, are built with the same slat elements, and read as simple projections or protrusions of the larger slat wall behind them.
The spacing of the cedar slats changes when one looks at the gable end wall. Called the “map wall”, H&P’s architect embraced an opportunity to pay some homage to the nearby river. The architect drew an outline of the Potomac River on the end wall, with the shape of the river beginning at the skylight above, and wending its way down the wall, from ceiling height, down across the diagonal window, whose rotated square represents the boundaries of the city of Washington, D. C., continuing down the entire wall to almost floor level. The river was then painted blue, with surrounding areas a pale green, in muted colors that evoke both road maps and folk art. Intermittent horizontal cedar slats were then applied over the river image, so that the view of the river map is no longer ever visible in its totality at any given instant. Instead, the design called for the river map to be viewed in glimpses through the slats, from varying angles, distances, light and shadows, much as one might see the actual river through the trees.
The span of the river depicted represents the Potomac’s north-south run from the canal locks to the north of the cabin down past Fort Washington, Aquia, and beyond. A symbol will mark the location of the cabin on the map.
Because the game room originally never had any log construction, the design intended to evoke some of the rhythm and texture of logs, with the slatted, repetitive, horizontal vocabulary introduced. Similarly, the top of the end wall is stepped down to mirror the stepped down logs on the opposite end of the cabin. And, like the glass above the kitchen area, the glass above the top of this portion of the game room wall reveals more and more exterior view as it gets closer to the transparent outside corner of glass, and its eventual intersection with the floor to ceiling glass wall.
At the end of the map wall, the wider spacing of the slats continues across the side door, and then reverts back to the tighter spacing of the TV wall, where tightly spaced slats wrap a structural post. The widely slatted map wall is thus bracketed by the two more tightly slatted room elements.
Originally, as one entered the entry hall, there were three exposed logs overhead traversing the space and appearing to act as structural collar ties. In actuality, they were only attached at the ends to the cabin walls with just a typical single spike, and lacked real structural integration with the cabin framing to help prevent the gable roof’s weight from forcing the outer walls outwards.
Structurally, the design was to essentially leave the existing exposed overhead logs in place, but reinforce them with a _” diameter stainless steel tension cable tucked immediately above each log. The cable is then anchored through the log walls on either side with _” thick steel anchoring plates pressed against the logs’ exterior, and given the correct amount of structural tension.
The stainless steel cable, although partially obscured, suggested an opportunity to add a little visual counterpoint, by suspending two more steel cables above each of the exposed logs. These cables, more slender than the structural cable, would support low voltage light fixtures that could cast illumination up towards the ceiling and off to the sides in a more flexible, unobtrusive manner than the frosted glass dome lights that adorned the tops of the logs before the renovations began.
A massive stone fireplace and chimney with log mantel was completely refurbished, with a new hearth made out of a single slab of local stone.
Since the fireplace and chimney marked the gable end of the original cabin, to which a frame addition was later added in ensuing years, the fireplace and chimney were originally imbedded in two flanking log walls. Those walls were largely removed, emancipating the chimney and creating a dramatic freestanding element in the room.
With one of the flanking walls that were removed, the architect chose to keep the remnants of the log wall where they intersect with the logs of the cabin’s front wall. This was to preserve as many of the original intersecting log corners of the old structure as possible, as that feature gives the cabin much of its personality and punctuation. The cleanly truncated ends of that log wall now serve as a subtle demarcation between the original cabin space and the room beyond, that had been added years later.
H&P newly lined the chimney and added new flashing, as well as refurbished the fireplace hinges that presumably once held iron swing arms that held cooking pots. The owners called for gas burning logs, and the interior designer provided an elegant decorative fireplace screen.
The original steps and railings leading up to the open loft have largely been kept in their original location and configuration.
However, there was a design opportunity to integrate a new central hvac system with the structure by transforming each step’s riser into a return air grille for the new return air plenum tucked under the first flight of stairs. A fairly delicate looking series of slender horizontal hardwood fins, fabricated from sturdy maple, replace each stair riser, and serve as return air intakes for the new centralized high speed hvac system located in the refurbished cellar of the cabin. Hidden dimmable fixtures underneath the stairs allow a soft wash of light to emanate through the hardwood fins onto each step.
Immediately across the river from the cabin is an island, and a pair of eagles have built their nest atop one of the tallest trees on that island. The appearance of the two eagles, often overhead or skimming the water surface, sometimes even closer, have been a regular source of inspiration to those working on the cabin. Hence, the newel cap for the stairs is a small, hand carved eagle, perched alertly on a globe of unknown galactic origin. The cabin’s original newel ornament was missing at the start of the project, and its style and substance are still being researched. In the meantime, two new eaglets expected in early spring will impart even more [meaning] to the new newel ornament.
The stair’s intermediate landing, as well as the second flight of stairs that connect to the loft, have been left unchanged and in the original materials. They serve as a transition of materials from the lower rooms’ new flooring to the loft’s original flooring.
The consensus is that this long narrow closet under the old steps meets the most primitive criteria for what constitutes a walk-in closet, and is therefore referred to as the walk-in closet. As described above, part of the closet accommodates a return air plenum that is fed by hardwood slots in the stair risers.
A bank of wall switches, located in the closet, control a range of fixtures and devices, including the shades for the skylights and glass wall, and recessed ceiling lights throughout the cabin. Also, new wiring in an old log cabin often necessitates running the wire exposed on the surface, either in tube or molding. This hidden closet location avoids a clutter of wiring raceways, switches and controls in the more public areas of the cabin, keeping the array of visible daily-use switches to a minimum.
One of the directives from the owners to H&P was to completely avoid high tech whistles and bells for their own sake. Therefore, opportunities to employ highly engineered and sophisticated lighting/sound/staging systems and controls were passed by in favor of the directness and fail-safe beauty of having the owner enter the cabin, walk to a light switch, and simply turn on a light.
Also, because log walls have no internal cavities within which to run pipes
or wires, the closet accommodates some of the plumbing risers that emerge
from the cellar and enter the new bathroom.
Log cabin restoration experts were brought in to meticulously prepare, repair, clean, refurbish, and refinish all the exterior and interior logs and mortar. Damaged or deteriorating areas of logs were repaired or replaced. The original cedar logs were generally in good condition. All log surfaces, both inside and outside, were blasted clean with a high pressure application of cornhusk, and all mortar joints were repacked with new technologically advanced polymer log joint compounds. A very transparent and natural finish was applied to the logs, bringing them to a lighter, less oppressive shade than their previous dark brown.
Areas of the original exposed stone foundation that were failing were rebuilt
with local carderock stone. New carderock stone was also added to the front
face of the old addition to the cabin, and along the base of the addition,
adding a visual plinth to the cabin structure.
Ever perceptive to such nuances, the owners felt the initial idea of building a deck-like structure for the front porch floor obscured the front face of the cabin too much, taking away what little height the front log walls had. It was then decided that the front porch floor would instead be a concrete slab on grade, with a custom surface finish, perhaps acid etched or similarly treated to create a tie-dyed visual. The architect’s shape for the front porch slab is expressed as a single undulation, evoking a simple sine wave. The driveway, whose pavers and substrate will serve as a large french drain, will pass the front of the cabin at the same grade as the front porch floor. The arc of the driveway and the leading arc of the front porch floor will approach within inches or less of each other, but will not touch, much the same way an asymptote never achieves contact with the line it is approaching. The owners envision the central area that is circumscribed by the driveway as a small bucolic setting, with bench, and free of tranversing secondary paths.
The traditional front porch of a cabin is often a shed roof, pitching downwards to create a sense of shelter and shade for the occupants. In this instance, with the owners’ blessing, the architect chose to tilt the porch roof upwards, embracing a view of the tall trees directly opposite the front of the cabin, and capturing a large vertical wedge of space and light. A sense of shelter while seated on the front porch is preserved, while a more inclusive feeling of welcome and illumination is created for visitors.
The rafters of the front porch roof are cantilevered over an engineered parallam beam, supported by wood posts. The ceiling is clad in cedar planks that continue out the roof cantilever and end in a broad sweeping arc that traverses the length of the cabin.
Inspired by a suggestion by the owners that rain barrels be incorporated into the gutter and downspout design for the cabin, the architect devised a series of copper collection boxes at the end of each roof valley. Each box would serve as a traditional rain collection box, gathering rain and directing it to a downspout or chain that would carry the water down to a rainbarrel, a cistern, or away from the structure. In addition, each collection box would have a scupper-like overflow, so that downpours would not overwhelm the downspouts or chains. In a downpour, each box would send an arc of rainwater down to a stream of river rocks coursing away from the cabin and its foundations.
The raised wings of the roof planes, with the copper collection box at their vertex, and the beak of the overflow scupper, are an abstract of a bird in flight. The owners envision the rainbarrel or cistern reservoir would be used to irrigate nearby planting around the cabin and along the owners’ walking path, another ecologically sensitive gesture by the client to the property, with its recycled paving material and non-invasive contours.
The crest of the hill immediately outside the cabin overlooks the treetops and the river. It lends itself to being adapted into a natural stage, with the speaker or event facing the cabin, and their back to the river, trees, and clouds as a backdrop, with perhaps an occasional eagle passing through the panorama for added effect. The seating modules would be lowslung, following the contours of the land, and would be removable when un-needed. Curved bench seating, of slatted and finned detail, will arc around a central focal point, and embrace the small flat area of land behind the cabin, on either side of the steps.