When architect Justin Seto and his wife, Amy, decided to move from Anne Arundel County to Baltimore, they found the ideal spot in Mount Vernon just north of the Washington Monument — a 20-foot-by-20-foot garage. With its roof burned down and its doors long gone, the pathetic old structure had long been the neighborhood eyesore.
"We were looking for a home in the city, and we like modern," said 40-year-old Justin Seto of Seto Architects. "But I didn't want to destroy a historic property."
So the couple purchased the deep lot where the dilapidated garage stood, paying $375,000 in 2008 for the property, which also included a three-story rowhouse in the front.
The Setos rented out the rowhouse's four apartments and then set about making the garage their urban home.
It took the vision of an architect (and an architect's wife) to see the possibilities inherent in the dilapidated garage and its placement at the end of the lot. One year after they bought the property, a new 2,000-square foot, three-story modern structure materialized on the site of the former eyesore.
"We spent a lot of time scoping out the materials for the house," said Amy Seto of the finished product that took $240,000 to build. "But the land was free."
Justin Seto's intention to build for his family a green, sustainable house has been realized with many conservation features, including energy-saving appliances, dual-flush toilets, a tank-less water heater and low-flow shower heads. One wall that rises 21 feet to the second level has large windows in a variety of rectangular shapes to provide additional natural light.
A completely open layout in the 20-foot-by-42-foot first level — with new garage — contains the essentials for a comfortable lifestyle built around clean minimalism. A fully equipped, streamlined kitchen is situated at the one end of the space.
"We're practical; we want functional, and my kitchen needs to be functional," said 38-year-old Amy Seto, CFO of the Baltimore Community Foundation.
Kitchen cabinets from IKEA are a deep brown veneer. The kitchen island is situated to look out at the rest of the first level, both dining area and sitting areas. Small blue-and-white tiles form the backsplash work area, and three hanging lamps over the island are sleek and stainless to match the appliances.
Windows throughout the home's three floors are equipped with privacy screens that can be opened and raised during the day and, while closed at night, allow the Setos to look out without others looking in.
"Not only is the house comfortable and functional, it makes a lot of sense to live near your work," said Amy Seto. "My office is on the same street." Both of the Seto children, 7-year-old Emma and 10-month-old Chloe, attend a nearby school.
The staircase to the second level features pine, polyurethane steps and handsome metal railings. Walls are white throughout most of the home, while the second-floor landing has been graced with two of daughter Emma's watercolor paintings. Splashes of color, each framed in black, reveal the subjects of these delightfully executed paintings as Emma herself and a well-proportioned snowman.
Here, on this second level, Emma Seto's bedroom has been painted pink and decorated in a princess motif. The master bedroom is spacious and painted a light shade of mauve. Justin Seto's office features a door to a small balcony.
The third level contains a family entertainment space complete with large screen and projector and a corner sink and bar area. The rooftop deck beyond the room wraps three-quarters around the home, offering delightful views of the neighborhood and the cityscape beyond.
"We're very lucky to have a deck like this in the city," said Amy Seto, who is entirely pleased with her husband's creation.
"I'm a happy client," she said.
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Making the dream
Dream element: In a most unusual contemporary home behind the century- old townhome that they own and rent out, the Setos realize two dreams. One is to enjoy urban living in the very vibrant community of Mount Vernon, the other to live in minimalistic fashion in a "green" earth-friendly, sustainable house.
Dream design: Justin Seto built the box-like, three-story home of cement board, which is both "green" and durable. Keeping consistent with the style of the red-brick renovated homes around him, he painted the cement board a deep burgundy.
Dream interior: Contemporary and minimalistic, the home presents a black-and-white motif with comfortable white leather sofa and chairs, basic wood tables and shelving units, deep cherry wood flooring, sleek stainless appliances and fabricated metal railings on two sets of stairs.