Details, Details


Architectural features are the elements of design that turn a ho-hum room into more than a space for living. They create an environment that speaks to the owner's lifestyle.

"They are the icing on the cake," architect Mike Ryan, partner in Luxenburg and Ryan Inc., says of design options that include glass block, columns, arches, stepping or curved walls, angled partitions, cove and back lighting, geometric windows, skylights, intricate moldings, French doors.

"I think most architects tend to design from the macro to the micro," Mr. Ryan says. "They address location, space and volume first. Then they begin to carve away, much like an artist would start with a lump of clay or a piece of wood, and then remove the unnecessary material, leaving behind the details." At this step in the design process, he says, architects often turn their attention to details of the ceilings, walls and floors.

To find out what notable features architects are using in Baltimore homes, we asked four firms to each identify a project that included such features.

Classical lines

Five years ago, architect David H. Gleason created a retreat behind his 1890s Fells Point town house. It included a colonnadelike structure consisting of classical columns.

Today, Mr. Gleason also uses columns in the interior and exterior spaces of his design projects for clients of David H. Gleason Associates Inc.

"Decorative columns are good for breaking up space and defining areas," says Mr. Gleason.

For an addition that doubled the size of a client's traditional living room, he used Ionic columns with elegant capitals adorned with graceful scrolls. The columns visually separate the old section of the room from the new.

Column design has been around thousands of years, reaching perfection under the Greeks, who established the three classic orders of columns -- the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian. Popular whenever design interest turned to the classical, columns returned to fashion about 10 years ago for residential design, says Mr. Gleason.

Today, columns appear in their traditional form, or have a less elaborate, more streamlined look for contemporary spaces. They can be structural -- supporting something -- or they can be decorative.

Mr. Gleason obtains his columns from A. F. Schwerd Manufacturing Co. in Pittsburgh, Pa., one of the few companies that manufactures them. Elmer McHenry, president of Schwerd, says his company has been making columns that are based on classical proportions for 130 years. Made from white pine, Schwerd columns cost from $250 for stock columns to $8,000 for custom orders.

Glass with class

When architects Mike Ryan and Richard Luxenburg created a large addition for a house in Mount Washington, they opted for an exterior design that blended with the Victorian ambience of the neighborhood. However, for the interiors, they wanted spaces very much in tune with the 1990s. Their choice for an interior trim element: glass block.

Glass block, in use since the 1800s, reached its zenith in %J popularity during the art deco period of the 1920s and '30s, says Ken Erickson, president of Glass Block of Baltimore, a distributor.

During the 1930s, Corning Glass improved glass block's strength and watertightness. It devised a new thermally sealed, milky-green glass block that was easy to install and provided privacy while letting some light into buildings. This was a favorite choice for commercial and industrial use after World War II, when was very inexpensive and readily available.

"Glass block sort of died out in the late '50s and early '60s," says Mike Ryan. "But architects rediscovered it about 15 years ago. By that time, it had been refined. It was clearer, more crystal-like, more transparent." Today only one company in the United States makes glass block -- Pittsburgh Corning.

Glass block had the high-tech look to give definition and texture to the contemporary interior Luxenburg and Ryan Inc. was creating in the Mount Washington project. It also appealed to Luxenburg and Ryan because it can be molded and shaped. It comes in many shapes and patterns and provides as much insulation as double-glazed windows. The architects used it extensively throughout the three-level addition.

Working with kitchen designer Lynn Abrams of Details Etc., they created a curved wall of glass block to divide the large pantry from the high-tech kitchen. They built walls of glass block in the foyer, and added glass-block sidelights to interior doors and glass-block panels in bathrooms.

"Glass block is extremely functional, but mainly we really love its texture," says Mr. Ryan.

A touch of drama

What architectural element will look as good from the inside as from the outside of the house?

When architect Jeffrey Penza added a kitchen and family room to a traditional Cape Cod house, he confronted that challenge by placing a round window in the gable of the addition.

It's now a focal point, drawing the eye upward while complementing the contemporary bay window below it. Mr. Penza, of Penza Baukhages Architects Inc., also added a round window to the foyer of the house.

"In the last 10 years, we've seen all types of window shapes being used for residential design, including round windows; arched windows; long, thin transom windows; and geometrically shaped windows," says Mr. Penza.

"These shapes enhance and add drama to house design."

At one time, architects who wanted to use a specially shaped window had to have it custom-made, he said. Today, companies such as Pella and Andersen stock windows in many shapes and sizes.

Letting in the light

The client asked architect Mark Beck to design a new bathroom addition for his 1960s contemporary-style home.

Mr. Beck, of Beck, Powell & Parsons, wanted to give the client plenty of privacy, but he also wanted to include in the design a sense of the outdoors and a good source of natural light.

He decided to use a custom-made skylight that ran the full length of the bathroom ceiling. It connects with a ceiling mirror to expand the sense of space.

According to Mr. Beck, today's skylights are improved over older models; leaking problems are more likely to stem from faulty installation rather than from the skylight itself. He says he's used skylights in just about every project he's ever done. About a third of those skylights are custom-made. Skylights also are stocked by several local companies.

Mr. Beck's skylight projects have included a sloping ceiling skylight that ran the entire length of a house; a skylight at the top of a circular stairway that filtered light down to the lower level; and a huge triangular skylight that helped to create an atrium in a country house.

"Lighting that comes down from high is always the best lighting," says Mr. Beck, "and skylights do a much better job of lighting than a window could ever do. But I also use them because to me they are symbolic of opening the heart to the sky or to some higher aspiration."

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