The Rixey Scale: Design Mix of Modern and Classic

It’s a gut renovation, costing upwards of $1.5 million dollars. The windows are covered in plywood and the whine of power drills makes it hard to think, but neither Victoria nor Douglas Rixey seem to notice. Well-dressed and thoughtful amidst the dust and clatter, they are comfortable here. Until the client moves in in March, this is their space.

And this house on Q Street in Georgetown will be quite a space. It is Victoria’s project. She’s putting in geothermal heating and air conditioning via three wells 320 feet deep in the backyard, solar panels and LED lights. Victoria says she expects the house’s owner will be able to sell excess electricity back to Pepco. The floors have radiant heat built under them, and the hot water comes on demand. Gone are the energy-inefficient days of tanks holding gallons of hot water. The row house’s new owners are downsizing from a grander space elsewhere in the neighborhood, and they, like many of the Rixeys’ current clients, want to live in a green, sustainable house.

Rixey-Rixey Architects has been operating in Georgetown since 1985. They’ve been around for so long, Douglas jokes, that he sometimes works on houses he’s already renovated—three or four times. The firm’s staff consists of Victoria, Douglas and their Irish Jack Russell, Dex, whose main contributions include sniffing and walks to construction sites. Not all their work is in Georgetown, though. Victoria just finished a horse stable in Marshall, Va., and Douglas has built two new houses in Sanibel, Fla.
“We trusted Douglas enough to turn to him for sensible advice for our Little Compton [R.I.] and Concord [Mass.] houses,” says Kate Chartener, a former client in Georgetown. “His design for the back half of our [Georgetown] house was pitch-perfect, and we still felt that way 10 years later.”

The Rixeys, who work separately on their projects, says they’ve designed upwards of 100 houses in Georgetown. Their signatures include staircases and soap dishes. The house on Q Street boasts a three-story staircase, capped by a skylight, a way to bring light into tight Georgetown spaces. The soap dishes are a Victoria specialty, one that drains the soap properly and has a distinctive look.

The couple says that Douglas is the big-picture guy and Victoria best on details.

“Douglas gently presses clients to define what they truly like and need, and he has a great knack for delivering a product that shows style and design integrity,” says Robert Chartener, Kate’s husband. “He designed a 2001 extension that looked like an original part of our late 1890s house. Douglas Rixey is one those rare men who can drive a large motorcycle, while explaining the difference between Queen Anne and Georgian mullions.”

The houses are as diverse as the Rixeys’ clients. They’ve done work for a race car driver on N Street, for D.C.’s permanent ruling class of lawyers and for various government chiefs. One or two of the government honchos have requested elaborate security features that range from cameras, panic buttons and bullet-proof glass to doors bad guys can’t break down.

Aside from the elaborate security, the Rixeys have managed some interesting design requests. One client wanted leather walls and floors — for a library, Douglas says, not a bondage chamber. Another asked for sterling silver doorknobs, about 20, costing upwards of $2,000 each.

Business is pretty good, they say. Not quite up to pre-recession levels, but 2012 was one of the firm’s best years ever. Some years, they do four or five projects a year; other years, 20. They have a front-row seat on the latest fads and trends in architecture and design. Right now, master bedroom suites are in high demand, suites complete with fireplaces, big bathrooms and dressing rooms. The Rixeys, however, caution against taking out all the bedrooms. One huge bedroom and no others make for a tough re-sale, and they try to keep re-sale in mind as they work on current projects. Other trends for the master suite include mini-bars, vaulted ceilings and screened porches with sliding doors that can open up the whole room to the outside.
Other changes in luxurious living include a strong push for sustainability. The couple designed their own vacation house in Virginia’s Northern Neck.

“We set a budget for ourselves,” Victoria says. “But one of the really important things we just had to have was geothermal heat and air conditioning.” With solar panels, the whole house will be off the electrical grid, she says. More and more, they find themselves using recycled material in kitchen countertops and bathrooms and glass instead of marble. “We just used some glass on a lovely master bath in the East Village,” Victoria says. “The white glass tiles are a dead ringer for Thasos marble, a gorgeous clear all-white marble that’s becoming harder and harder to find because it has been over quarried.”

Technology has become a key part of designing a house now. Douglas describes a client who, he says, “can manage his house on his iPhone. The house is wired so that he can see who is at the front door, unlock it, turn on the air conditioning, play music in the kitchen and open the pool cover. From Paris.” A new idea is a swimming pool cover that disappears below that water level. “Every week, there’s something new,” Douglas says.

Some of the changing trends reflect a changing clientele. The Rixeys say more and more young families are moving into Georgetown, and often they ask for more casual, flowing spaces: houses where the kitchen, the living space and the backyard all melt into each other. Outdoor kitchens are hot. Formal dining rooms, Victoria says, are on their way out. The Rixeys have also noticed that more and more people are thinking about the future — and about “aging in place” — with some clients asking for elevators and wheelchair-accessible rooms.

Digging down has also been an important part of the Rixeys’ work in Georgetown. Because of a shortage of space and because of historic preservation rules, clients often can’t built out or up, so they go down. “Underpinning,” or taking basements lower and making them more livable, is part of many Georgetown renovations.

Finally, the Rixeys say the constraints of working in Georgetown make any project challenging. Yet, even with tight spaces, shared walls, nosy neighbors and tight parking, they say they’ve faced no more than one or two complaints over 25 plus years. And, though they moved out of Georgetown a couple of years ago, to renovate a house in Old Town, they’re looking at a new house in the East Village, figuring it might be time to move back home.

The Langhornes’ Contemporary on N Street, NW

Douglas Rixey began working with a son of past clients to begin a modest renovation. An international race car driver, the son had purchased a historically non-contributing house from his parents in the heart of Georgetown. Shortly after design work began, the eligible bachelor became engaged and — during the design process — married. What began as a very modest renovation turned into something much more, a high-tech modern house (shown in photos here) for a young family. It was completed just last year and was a star of the 2013 Georgetown House Tour. Recalls Rixey: “It was a tremendously dynamic design process, but also great fun, as the husband and wife were constantly bringing new ideas to the table.” The house has an in-home theater, smart-house wiring, geothermal heating and air conditioning and open living spaces that wrap a four-level floating stair, next to a glass elevator.

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