Labor of love: Architect designs dream house for her mother

Jisoo Lee and Chong Doo Lee’s renovated home was designed with accessibility in mind without it being obvious. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
Large glass panels allow a full view of the striking scenery outside. To allow those views to be the focus, the architects chose quiet finishes for the interiors, including wide-plank white oak flooring. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
The home renovation started with a restoration of the original stone hunting cabin, saved for its historic value. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
Jisoo Lee’s bedroom has views of the stream, animals and trees and vegetation in Potomac, Maryland. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

For Christmas in 2019, architect Jennifer Lee gave her mom, Jisoo Lee, a book titled “A House For My Mother.” It’s a compilation of residential structures that well-known architects, including Charles Gwathmey and Robert Venturi, built for their loved ones.

“There’s a grand tradition of young architects building houses for their parents,” Jennifer says. “My mother supported me unconditionally through architecture school, so building a house for her someday was always a dream in the back of my mind.”

At the time, Jisoo and her husband, Chong Doo Lee, weren’t looking to leave their home in Potomac, Maryland. “I was comfortable here,” says Jisoo. “I love that it’s modest. If anyone has a small house in this area, they rip it down and put up a big house or a McMansion.”

The empty nesters had lived in the same house since 1998 and had many memories of family celebrations with their two daughters (Jennifer’s sister Michele Torrecilla lives nearby with her family). But the house, which consisted of a one-room stone cabin with a two-story addition, wasn’t feasible as a long-term solution as they aged.

“As they were getting older, we were anticipating the next logical steps, like eliminating stairs and making the house easier to maintain,” Jennifer says.

With that in mind, she started planning a full-scale renovation of the house with Pablo Castro, her husband and partner in the New York City-based firm Obra Architects. “The main purpose for the project was to create a place worthy of them spending their last years,” Jennifer says. “My mother was cognizant of the fact that she was in her late 70s, and she wanted to get this done so she would have some years to enjoy the house. That was back when we originally began — before COVID.”

Her parents moved into her sister’s basement while construction got underway. But on the night of Chong Doo’s birthday in May 2020, just as demolition began, Jisoo became sick with COVID. The next day she was admitted to the hospital, where she remained in the intensive care unit for 56 days. Jisoo moved to two other hospital facilities before going home on Sept. 11, 2020. Still unable to stand up or walk on her own, she and Chong Doo moved from Michele’s basement into her bedroom as the renovation project got underway at their house. Soon both Jennifer and Michele realized that talking about the house was helping to buoy their mom’s spirit on the darkest days. The renovation became a hopeful rallying point for the entire family.

“The start of construction on this house and the possibility of her recovery, which at that time seemed remote, somehow became intertwined,” says Jennifer. “We all felt that hope and held onto it. At the same time, there was this ever-present uncertainty around whether or not she would make it to the completion of the house. That became our biggest motivator to get it done.”

And so, while Jisoo’s recovery was underway, the renovation moved forward — at least as best as it could in the midst of a global supply chain meltdown. “Building during the pandemic was problematic,” says Jennifer. “We experienced all the delays and overpricing of construction materials, and labor was scarce.” Eventually they proceeded with Think Make Build as the contractor and Pillars Construction, who installed the home’s exterior cladding.

The architects’ plan was to restore the original stone hunting cabin and replace the two-story addition with a new single-level contemporary one, creating four zones: the main living area, a primary suite, guest quarters and a study for Chong Doo. “We wanted to preserve the cabin because the masonry would be hard to replicate today,” says Castro. “Plus, it’s a historic structure, so it has some real soul, which we didn’t want to lose.”

Orienting the addition toward the back of the hillside lot would take advantage of the scenery — the yard dramatically slopes downward to a small section of Piney Branch Stream. “The existing addition didn’t realize the potential of the property in any significant way,” says Jennifer. “You wouldn’t have even known the house bordered a stream. It was as if someone just plunked down a house without trying to enter into any dialogue with the surroundings.”

For the exterior of the addition, the architects chose an enamel-coated corrugated steel from Korea for its durability and the way its horizontal lines follow the landscape and evoke the overlapping siding of a more traditional house. To better connect the home to its lush woodland setting, they incorporated commercial-grade windows large enough to capture views of the property’s tallest trees.

“The windows were the most obvious luxury the house had,” says Castro. “When you’re in the house you feel this incredible connection with the outside.” Nowhere is that connection more evident than the primary bedroom, which sits like a treehouse suspended by thin steel columns above the creek.

The large glass panels shower the interiors with natural daylight and afford sightlines that extend from the forest floor to the sky overhead. To allow those views to be the focus, the architects chose quiet finishes for the interiors. Wide-plank white oak floors lend a warm glow throughout and harmonize with the kitchen’s custom white oak cabinetry, which was designed by Milan-based Giacomo Moor, a friend of both Castro and Lee.

While the home’s interiors were designed with accessibility in mind, it’s not obvious to visitors. “My mom, who was extremely fit before she got sick, didn’t want a house that looks like it’s for someone who’s unwell, but the provisions are in place,” says Jennifer.

Everything is on one level, and there are only a couple of steps in the home, allowing it to follow the lay of the land. Bathrooms are accessible, with widened doorways that can accommodate a wheelchair. And the primary bath has a curbless shower, but there are no grab bars on the walls — they can be added if needed in the future. Sustainability was also a consideration. The house features solar panels, radiant heat flooring and LED lights.

It took nearly three years, but by May 2023, the renovation was complete. Jisoo has settled into the house with Chong Doo and while she has come a long way in her recovery, she may never completely regain her pre-COVID energy. She can no longer travel long distances or participate in the yoga classes she once loved, though she’s getting stronger each day.

“Witnessing her recovery was inspiring to all of us because we got to see her fighting spirit in action,” says Castro.

In fact, while she was staying at Michele’s she threw out her walker the moment she could walk on her own. “We found it on the street curb of my sister’s house,” laughs Jennifer. “The same thing happened to the foot brace they gave her.”

These days Jisoo spends her days gazing out the windows at the wildlife and listening to the rhythms of the wind and stream. In fact, she’s become a bit of an amateur videographer: She loves to record the neighborhood deer coming out for dinner and the blue heron soaring through the trees. She sends those videos to her daughters with commentary.

“I love that I get to experience all the seasons in this house,” she says. “Since I got sick, I stay home all the time, but because I love it here so much, I don’t want to ever leave.”

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