Fed up with land costs and zoning constraints inside the D.C. Beltway, architect Jordan Goldstein decamped to a piece of raw Virginia farmland.
By Jeffrey Lee
Jordan Goldstein and his wife have lived in a cottage in Bethesda, Maryland, since 1998, but they’ve always wanted to build a larger, modern house.
Building in the dense suburbs near the Washington, D.C., office of Gensler, where Goldstein is managing director and co-regional managing principal, has its drawbacks, however: finding the right piece of land, enduring frequent bidding wars, and navigating zoning constraints that might limit a modern design. “We realized we probably wouldn’t be able to build the home we wanted to build, the way we wanted to do it, in the right timeframe, and in a process that was going to be stress-free and enjoyable,” Goldstein says.
So the Goldsteins changed course. Inspired by a friend who had built a family retreat in the Virginia countryside, Goldstein went out searching for property. “I came upon these 23 acres of raw, rolling, Rappahannock County farmland surrounded by beautiful mountains,” he says. “The zoning constraints are really liberal there, so it allowed us to go forward with a vision that was frankly pretty liberating.”
While the raw land had no ready access to power, water, or natural gas, Goldstein didn’t want to make sacrifices in design or comfort because of the location. Working with his contractor, he quickly settled on the right solution. “Putting a propane tank in and still being able to use the gas appliances that I was hoping for seem a natural fit,” he says.
Because Gensler is a commercial architecture practice, Goldstein hadn’t had the opportunity to try his hand at a small-scale residential project. His house became his design laboratory — an experiment in creating a clean, simple, and modern home that would serve as a retreat with outdoor amenities for his family.
The layout of the home promotes the idea of togetherness. “It wasn’t a bunch of segregated small rooms,” he says. “It was a large great room, with some bedrooms to the wings and some great play spaces there in the basement.”
The land around the house became a natural amenity, with fields where the kids could throw a Frisbee, run with the dog, or even practice archery in a designated area. With no road to the house, Goldstein could literally blaze his own trail. So he sculpted a driveway that created a narrative for guests to experience the property and that also became a great path for hiking.
Goldstein designed the outdoor swimming pool to be remote from the house, providing a clean view from the home without tanks, filters, or meters. The pool has a digitally controlled propane heating system to extend the swimming season and keep the pool pleasant on breezy country nights.
On the interior, the five systems in the Propane Energy Pod were critical to achieving Goldstein’s vision. “I definitely wanted to do a really modern fireplace, where you have a long, linear flame, and that could be something that is very sculptural and a signature element of the house,” he says. “That would be gas-fed, and in this case, that would be propane.” Similarly, propane fuels the clean, modern cooktop he wanted in the kitchen and the Samsung clothes dryer in the laundry room.
“I definitely wanted to do a really modern fireplace, where you have a long, linear flame, and that could be something that is very sculptural and a signature element of the house.”
Goldstein wanted a smart house, with controls he could manage from afar, and propane space heating and water heating fit right in. “A perfect example would be last weekend was a cold weekend in this area, and we wanted to go as a family. We have a Nest thermostat, so I was able to use the app to turn the heat up prior to our arrival. With the propane furnace set up, I knew it would happen — I knew I could do it two hours beforehand and it would be fine when I walked in.”
The home uses a 50-gallon tank with a propane-fed accelerator for water heating. “I didn’t want to do an electric heat pump or electric furnace,” Goldstein says. “I just felt like I would see that in the cost already. I was going through extra gymnastics just to get power to the site.”
Goldstein is most proud of the fact that the home is achieving what he hoped for — getting some quality family time — but he’s been pleasantly surprised by the exposure it’s received in the media. It was recently featured on the cover of Dwell and in Home and Design. “We did it for personal reasons, but the fact that it can be inspiration to others is exciting.”
His pleasant construction experience with propane also shows that good architecture and modern design aren’t reserved only for locations with typical municipal amenities, he says. “For those that are looking for something similar to this, whether you’re by a shore or by the mountains or where we are in these fields, you can create these pieces of architecture that don’t necessarily need to be plugged in to an urban grid of everything.”