The Journey of V House: Creating a Contemporary Palladian Villa
All photos courtesy of Gordon Beall Photography. An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Building Stone Magazine.
Although 500 years have passed since the construction of the Palladian villas of Italy’s Veneto region, this architectural style is still a source of inspiration in the design world. In Albemarle County, Virginia, a couple whose lifelong dream was to have their own Palladian villa sought to create a structure that also incorporated contemporary touches and seamlessly integrated current technologies and practices.
Re-envisioning a Classic Design
“The residence is comprised of three buildings joined by curved colonnades, a classical design that brings human scale to a large home and connects the buildings to the landscape,” explained Robert Paxton, principal at Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton Architects in Charlottesville, VA. “The five-part composition allows abundant daylight in every room and capitalizes on magnificent views to the south, west, and north. The contemporary glazing at the two-story west wall engages the portico’s classical architectural detailing and the panoramic views beyond. Landscaping ties the house to the setting and provides a multilevel progression from the entry courtyard to the west lawn that features cascading terraced gardens, fountain, pool, sculptures, and stone walls and pyramids.”
The expansive home, built to last for centuries, embraces the characteristics of a classic Palladian villa. Several varieties of natural stone were used to create the three-story structure, including limestone, marble, granite, bluestone, sandstone, and slate.
“Stone’s timelessness and versatility make it a natural fit for this home inspired by history,” said Paxton. “Its sculptural qualities enhance classical detailing, evident in V House’s entablature, pediments, columns, and mantels. The stone’s cut and color range differentiate the residence’s layers of sophistication; finishes grow more refined moving from the landscape walls to the structure’s exteriors and then to the interiors.”
8,000 square feet of stone was used on the interior floors, with over 5,000 square feet of Antique French refined limestone comprising the main rooms’ floors, elliptical stair tread risers, and stringer. Refined European-cut limestone crafted the mantels in the sitting room, living room, and gallery; the unique mantel in the dining room/library features Statuario and Sienna marbles. Countertops throughout the house are made of granite, marble, limestone and soapstone. 1,500 square feet of mosaic marble and limestone adorn the floors in the bathrooms and dressing areas.
Contemporizing a classical appearance
Palladian villas traditionally see functions distributed both vertically and horizontally. Kitchens, storage rooms, laundry rooms, and cellars were located on the low ground floor, while the more public rooms, such as the loggia and living room, were on the main living floor near the center of the home. The left and right wings were generally symmetrical suites of rooms, which lengthened the overall layout.
V House adheres to this traditional layout, which presented some hurdles for the architects. “Even though the house is multiple levels, the biggest challenge was trying to achieve the one-level floor plan,” Paxton explained. “We were trying to maintain proper proportions of the house. As your plan gets bigger, to maintain proper proportions, the house has to get taller for it to look right, so it was a real struggle to try and make the house not look so big, although it is a big house. When you approach it, it appears more as one-and-a-half stories. However, as you go to the wings, the scale of the home breaks down to something smaller, with stone growing out of landscape and building up to the main block.”
To achieve the correct scale, careful attention had to be paid to the land grading. “We worked with the grade, in the sense that the house opens up to the grade on the lower level,” Paxton said. “You can’t perceive that at all as you drive up the driveway. It’s a sloping site, so we worked with the lay of the land as much as we could to make the house look smaller. It looks like it has a walkout basement — called the ‘terrace level’ — which is something that most people can relate to. On the main block, we brought the grade up so you could walk out from the terraces. Big bluestone stairs cascade down on each side.
“To make the house look right proportionally, we also had to squeeze the floor system using concrete planks,” Paxton added. “This is mostly seen in commercial construction; however, it allowed us to have an 8-inch structural system for the floor, which helped a lot.”
A thin 8-inch precast concrete plank was used for both the main level and the second-floor framing systems, which allowed dimensioning the entry pediment as a square and the overall proportion of the main block as a root-2 rectangle. “The resultant 12-foot, 8-inch interior ceiling height in the main public rooms is appropriate for the size of the spaces,” said Paxton. “The use of precast planks also led to a structural steel framing system with prefabricated insulated steel panels for the exterior walls. This energy-efficient exterior wall includes 7 inches of solid foam insulation.”
The architects also combined the dining room and library into a unique two-level space to accommodate the one-level plan — shaped around a 178-year-old wooden table from the owners’ antique collection. “That room was designed around that table in its largest dimension [10 feet],” said Paxton. “That informed the size of the floor plan and size of the house.”
The owners’ vast architectural book collection also aided in this room’s stature. “If our clients have important pieces, we’re always trying to think about that in our initial sketches,” said Paxton, who is no stranger to designing homes around particular items of importance for clients. “We’re always trying to think about interiors, landscape, and architecture all working together as one in each of our designs.”
Taking advantage of the landscape
The exterior design of V House is integrated with the interior design, with rough-cut Ohio limestone veneer cladding the majority of the facade and retaining walls. Distinctive Indiana limestone was used to craft the entablature, columns, pediments, balustrades, and window and door surrounds.
Ballasted slate roofing — which required 13,213 square feet of slate— was also implemented, along with stainless steel flashing, 6-inch stone veneer, and bronze windows and doors.
To create the sprawling landscape walkways, terraces, stairs and pool coping, 525 square feet of Pennsylvania bluestone was hand-placed. Hand-molded brick was also utilized for various accents in the traditional Palladian style, while tumbled Iowa sandstone shapes the driveway cobbles.
“Stone acts as a unifying design element at V House, creating a layered and harmonious transition between interior and exterior spaces,” said Paxton. “The visual appeal and texture of stone complement a palette of enduring materials. The roughest cut and most varied color range are found in the reclaimed fieldstone site walls, which seem to grow from the landscape. The narrow color range of the natural cleft limestone utilized on the buildings is complemented by classical detailing executed in highly refined cut Indiana limestone.”
A custom installation
Broocks worked closely with the fabricators from 3D Stone, Inc. in Bloomington, IN, who shaped 12,000 cubic feet of stone for the project. “The architect, fabricator, and installer were all on the same page from day one,” said Kurt Sendek, owner of 3D Stone. “The details on the drawings were superb, and the installers from Empire Marble & Granite knew what they were doing. The team worked seamlessly from the beginning of the project.”
During the construction of the home, there were many intricately crafted pieces that needed to be transported almost 600 miles, which was done with ease, according to Sendek. “There were less than five pieces that needed adjustments,” he said.
“Out of my 30 years of experience, this was the smoothest project we’ve ever worked on,” added John Cunningham, 3D Stone’s head estimator and project manager, who was on the jobsite throughout the duration of the project.
After the home’s completion, the team from 3D Stone engineered a 22-foot-tall obelisk at the owner’s request, which Kurt described as a “great feat.” “There were three pieces that had to match identically on each side,” he explained. “We had to lay that out in the factory to make sure all four sides, as it tapered, were perfect — and as it went up, it would be perfect. This was a very unique part of the project that stood out as being grandiose. It was the first time we’ve ever done something like this.”
“We’ve done some small projects on the property for the owners over the past couple years since we finished,” Broocks added. “They’re very happy with how everything turned out.”
V House took four years to complete, with equal amounts of time focused on the design and construction. The project was the recipient of a 2017 Pinnacle Award in the Residential category. “It was our first time constructing something like this,” said Paxton. “It is custom from the ground up. People don’t come to us for something they’ve seen before.”