NADAAA Masterfully Renovates 1920’s House With Simple Plywood
Despite a reputation, among consumers, as some kind of cheap laminate, plywood is adored by many architects for its versatility, tensile strength, warm color, and low cost. Perhaps no one has explored the artistic potential of this humble material as deeply as NADAAA founder and principal Nader Tehrani. The latest evidence is his complete transformation of a straitlaced 1920’s house in Washington into an eye-popping showcase of plywood ingenuity.
Originally, the center-hall colonial consisted of two stories, plus a mechanicals basement and attic storage. While the views of Rock Creek Park were lovely, there wasn’t enough space for a family of five, two household staff members, two dogs, and two guinea pigs. Expanding the footprint was not an option, due to zoning restrictions. Instead, NADAAA doubled the square footage to 8,800 and increased the bedroom count to eight by lifting the roof to create a full-size top story and converting the basement into an entertaining zone. The latter’s floor-to-ceiling windows connect it to a terraced garden with an infinity-edge pool that seems to drop off into the trees below.
“This was truly a renovation, a redistribution of existing conditions,” Tehrani points out. It was also a laboratory for his innovative materials research and computer modeling. Both areas of expertise find expression in the project’s extensive use of plywood, which serves as a unifying element from top to bottom. To underscore the integrity of the unpretentious material, he used no glossy sealants or finishes. “The more you touch the wood, the more the oils from your hand will create a natural patina,” he says. “It retains the language of rawness.”
Most striking are the two staircases, both constructed entirely of plywood. Rising from the center hall, the winding main stair is a bold architectural statement. Balustrades are composed of pickets tapered slightly to lend a playful note and a sense of transparency, while end-cut sheets produce a striated effect on the steps. While the main stair experiments with angles, the secondary one, down to the garden level, pays homage to curves. Tehrani deployed one of his signature techniques in lining the stairwell with plywood ribs. Each is milled with a slightly different profile to create the effect of an undulating golden grotto, which culminates by framing a small irregularly shaped aperture. Along the way to this mysterious void—through which the entry hall is glimpsed—the ribs are spaced to allow light and air through. An end-grain banister runs down toward the garden level’s sitting area and formal dining area, served by a dedicated kitchen for the family’s cook or a caterer. The heart of the house is a double-height study containing a pentagonal table that NADAAA designed for the family with five plywood wedges, so everyone has a place, and is looking to put into production. Overhead, an Alexander Calder–esque mobile bobs languidly. The room’s architecture is streamlined to calm and focus the mind. To contain clutter, tall closets—plywood-fronted, of course—line the walls. A window seat offers views down into the garden as well as up to the sky. “The study is a private sphere where the family comes together at the end of day,” Tehrani explains. “The house reflects a gradient of activity—noise around the kitchen and dining areas, followed by homework, then maybe there’s a late romp in the playroom before going to bed.”
Outside, the traditional pitched roof is gone, but the rest of the street facade retains some of its neo-Georgian DNA, including weathered red brick and the “requisite symmetries, order, and tone,” he says. “It’s all about the eradication of details through curated minimalism.” Come around the side, however, and he has imposed a new architectural order punctuated by more than a dozen windows including several glass boxes. “We flushed out the relationship between glass and brick. Sometimes the windows are set in, and sometimes they pop out. It’s like a game,” he says. With so many windows, in fact, it’s almost like a curtain wall—complete with steel frames that assume the load-bearing function of the missing brick. This simple strategy not only brings in much more sunshine but also allowed Tehrani to leverage the usable space without gutting the house or building an addition.
For Tehrani, design is about anticipating day-to-day choreography and the continual improvisations of life. This house speaks to that give and take.
Project Team: Katherine Faulkner; Harry Lowd; Sarah Dunbar; Remon Alberts; John Houser; Stephen Saude; Jonathan Palazzolo; Lisa Lacharite?; Parke Macdowell; David Richmond; Dane Asmusen; Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh; Mehdi Alibakhshian; Sina Mesdaghi; Tom Beresford; Daniel Gallagher: NADAAA. Hinson Design Group: Lighting Consultant. Bethesda Systems: Audiovisual Consultant. Landworks Studio: Landscaping Consultant. Simpson Gumpertz & Heger: Structural Engineer. Allied Consulting Engineering Services: MEP. C.W. Keller & Associates: Woodwork. TRU Windows and Doors: Window Contractor. Abdo Development: General Contractor.