When Song and Sam Chung first arrived in the United States from South Korea, with 90 bucks in their pocket and an uncertain future, they may have had an image of a typical American home in their minds. But whatever that long-ago vision, it could not have looked anything like the metal-clad geometry of the Bridge House, their current residence in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C.
Straddling the crest of a grassy lot, the Chungs’ new home bears little resemblance to its traditional neighbors. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the cantilevered boxes that define its shape, and the striated anodized-aluminum siding are a long way from the pitched roofs and shuttered windows of nearby colonials. Yet, despite its appearance, it’s the way the family inhabits their home that makes it even more distinctive.
Song and Sam, along with their son, John, daughter-in-law, Saras, and grandchildren, Karis and Jaron, all live in the house. It was designed to accommodate three generations—a deliberate construct for a lifestyle that is traditional in some respects and, in others, a novel experiment. “It’s new for all of us—that’s part of the joy and challenge of it,” John, an assistant pastor at Christ Central Presbyterian Church, says, while standing in the family room, which faces a backdrop of towering trees. “It’s not just multigenerational; it’s multicultural.”
The Chungs bought the acre-plus property in 2003, hoping to build their dream retirement home there. They envisioned their children living with them as adults, in the Korean tradition. But John and his sister, Jane, are American-born kids, who grew up in nearby Fairfax. Song and Sam never knew where life would bring them or whether the traditions of Korea would take root in the next generation.
The couple lived in an existing ranch house on the property and waited for their children’s plans to take shape, before ultimately deciding on a form for their new home. They worked with the Boston-based firm Höweler + Yoon Architecture to develop options and received their first set of drawings in 2005. “They wanted the house to be designed in such a way that it would almost tempt their children to move back in with them, as opposed to just being a house with guest rooms,” says Meejin Yoon, one of the firm’s principals, who has known the family since childhood.
When it became clear that John, Saras, and their young children were moving back to the area from St. Louis, and that Jane would remain in Paris, where she had been living, the family decided on a design that would enable both couples to have subtly separated private spaces. For the elder Chungs to access their bedroom, they walk through a glass-walled living room, which serves as a transitional zone. “It almost feels like you’re going outside to access the master bedroom,” Yoon says. “Like it’s a separate cottage.”
Indeed, the landscape is impossible to ignore from within the house. A panorama of trees is visible from nearly every room, ensuring that the family can enjoy the perpetually changing backdrop of foliage. The patio and second-story terraces offer room for lounging al fresco during the warmer months.
The bedrooms belonging to John, Saras, their children, and Jane, when she’s visiting, are all on the second story, dubbed the Bridge since it traverses the two solid volumes that comprise the first floor. A steel staircase leads upstairs and snakes down to the enormous basement, where the kids play and the adults often work, in a boardroom-style office. “It creates that separation without feeling like a barrier, because it has a glass wall,” Yoon says of the stairs. “There’s transparency but a real sense of separation.”
Construction began in 2013 and took less than a year, with Sam acting as general contractor. A mechanic for many years, he has experience managing properties and overseeing construction projects. “For our kids to see how hard he worked was one of the coolest things,” Saras says. “Not many people get to live in a house their grandfather built.”
Sam hired subcontractors, many of them Korean, who had never constructed anything like the Bridge House but were willing to learn something new for the sake of the project—and who didn’t charge the rates usually associated with high-end custom detailing. Yoonhee Cho, an employee from Höweler + Yoon, served as project manager, even moving from Boston to the area for six months so she could be on site full-time, tracking down materials and translating. “That’s the type of care I feel we got,” Song remembers.
The family lived together in a three-bedroom apartment nearby, finally moving into the new home in April 2014. They sold or gave away their existing furniture and, with the guidance of Höweler + Yoon, picked new pieces just for the space, shedding old aesthetics and attachments along the way. “None of us had any furniture like it,” Saras remembers. “It was just: The house needs this.”
Certain possessions, though, were too meaningful to shed, and many of those are tucked away in the house’s generous storage areas. A set of china that Song painstakingly collected piece by piece when money was tight years ago sits inside a kitchen cabinet. An oil painting from their old house in Fairfax hangs on an adjacent wall.
But amid all the sleek lines and spare, carefully executed backdrops of this 7,500-square-foot spread is a little piece that says the most about the home. Sam and Song, upon returning from an overseas trip, found a little drawing, done in marker, by Karis. It’s a pink bow bookended with “Welcome Back” and is now the lone piece of art on the giant wall above their bed. “We had a dream that they would move back to Virginia,” Sam says. Song adds to the thought: “It’s the luckiest thing in our lives, to have our grandkids upstairs.”