November-December 2021 | Home & Garden

Love, marriage and a new home

How a Chevy Chase couple managed big life events during the pandemic

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Andy Karellas and Lauren Nalu Karellas with their dog, Mia, at their new home in Chevy Chase. Photo by Michael Ventura

When you’re planning a wedding, you’ll usually visit vendors to sample cake or scope out ceremony sites. It’s a similar deal, in normal times, when you’re choosing appliances, paint and tile for a new home. But Andy Karellas and Lauren Nalu Karellas, who were married this past June, weren’t dealing with normal times when they took on both tasks in the midst of last year’s COVID-19 restrictions. “There were so many things we couldn’t physically see, from furniture and fixtures to wedding decorations,” Andy says. “We had to rely on our wedding planner in Michigan as well as internet shopping for so many things.”

The couple met on the dating app Hinge in the spring of 2019. “He’s Greek, and I’m Middle Eastern, so we bonded over that,” Lauren says. “Both cultures are really grounded in family and food.” On one of their first dates, they went hiking and discovered a mutual passion for exercise and the outdoors.

By March 2020, Lauren had moved out of the townhouse she owns in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood and into Andy’s Capitol Hill rowhouse. “We’d only started living together, and then it was like, surprise, you’re going to be quarantining,” says Lauren, 36, a cybersecurity expert.

All of that forced togetherness went well. The pair got engaged on a chilly May 2020 day over an indoor picnic by their fireplace, a salute to one of their earliest dates, an alfresco meal at the National Arboretum. “I was in tears of joy as I said yes,” Lauren says. “Andy had also prescheduled a Zoom call with our families and closest friends for shortly after to share the great news.”

The couple knew they eventually wanted to have children, and also more space to host their large extended families. So they began looking for a larger home in a good school district. “We love walking places and being close to downtown, so we started searching for houses in Cleveland Park and Upper Northwest D.C.,” says Andy, 41, who runs a nonprofit focused on international development.

In the pandemic-fueled real estate boom, the couple kept seeing older homes that cost the same as new ones. “Plus, there was no inventory, but builders were putting up new houses like wildfire,” Lauren says. “That’s when we started to look for companies who had land for sale near Metro stations.” House hunting during a worldwide health crisis came with challenges. “Everything was masked up, appointment only, and you couldn’t touch anything,” Andy says.

The great room features a coffered white-oak plank ceiling. Photo by Erin Rehman/courtesy of Douglas Construction Group

Lauren and Andy finally zeroed in on a five-bedroom, 5½-bath modern farmhouse from Douglas Construction Group and Studio Z Design Concepts architecture that was about to be built in Chevy Chase.

They loved the proposed home’s cozy and welcoming-but-modern vibe, with its Craftsman-inspired dormers, outsize first-story windows and stone front porch—the last made from Stoneyhurst boulders salvaged from the midcentury Cape Cod that once stood on the site. Plus, the house was going up on a prime lot just a few blocks from the Bethesda Row shopping and dining area.

They had first seen the house’s location online. “We emailed and called incessantly, because it was exactly where we wanted to be,’’ Andy says. They scheduled a meeting with Douglas Construction Group founder Doug Monsein, who gave them the specs for the house, and then they signed the paperwork to prepurchase it.

“We build about 12 homes a year. Typically, four or five of them start as speculative concepts like this,” Monsein says. “We presell them before the building starts, and depending on when the client comes in, they can do quite a bit of customization.”

The couple bought a four-level, 4,525-square-foot shingle, wood and stone structure in October 2020, and construction began two months later. By purchasing the property before a single shingle or length of drywall went up, Andy and Lauren were able to put their own touches on the floor plan and the interior.

The biggest changes to the architect and builder’s original vision were opening up the kitchen to the great room and dining room, and adding a coffered white-oak plank ceiling to the great room. The dramatic ceiling is cozied up with a stone fireplace built from more rocks salvaged from the razed house.

Lauren and Andy also requested other tweaks to the plan, including a doggie door in the mudroom for their Lab-husky mix, Mia, and turning a first-floor bedroom into Lauren’s home office. “As the pandemic continues, it was important to us to have ample spaces to work in that are separate from other living spaces,” Lauren says. Andy has an office on the home’s third floor.

“As corny as it sounds, it was a real collaboration,” Monsein says. To help with that, he gave the couple “homework” in the form of a binder full of choices for everything from door hinges to kitchen cabinet styles to carpeting. “We put in photos, commentaries and more, kind of spoon-feeding them information,” he says. “It helped that Lauren and Andy both knew what they wanted and that they engaged an interior designer, Jodi Berger, to reassure them about their choices.”

The couple wasn’t in agreement about every choice. Lauren originally wanted marble countertops in the kitchen. “I love the look of natural stone, and I wasn’t sure we’d find a quartz that was comparable in beauty,” she says. In the end, concerns about the marble chipping or staining didn’t fit the couple’s family-friendly vision, so Berger helped them find a gray-veined white quartz that mimics marble but is far more durable.

The home’s stone front porch was made using boulders salvaged from the previous house on the site. Photo by Erin Rehman/courtesy of Douglas Construction Group

Green building choices abound in the project, from Energy Star kitchen and laundry room appliances to multiple ceiling fans that make it easier to run the thermostats a few degrees warmer in the summer.

“A big part of making a house eco-friendly is the insulation and how well we seal it,” Monsein says. “Forty percent of energy loss typically happens with heating and air conditioning, and what we call a tight thermal envelope in this house means this house doesn’t leak air and has a lower carbon footprint.”

Berger, of JLA Designs in Potomac, took the couple to local showrooms to assist them with flooring and other finishes. “They wanted a kid-friendly home for their future family, so that meant a lot of tubs in the bathrooms, neutral finishes and durable materials,” Berger says.

In the kitchen, the trio chose sleek white cabinets and a French blue island topped with quartzite in a snowy white with graining that resembled marble. A custom stove hood with white oak trim (to match the pale, 4-inch-wide plank floors throughout the first level) and a mix of brass and black hardware complete the farmhouse-gone-modern feel. Berger steered Lauren and Andy toward painting all the window frames (inside and out) black for a crisp, citified look.

Chef-worthy appliances—including dual ovens, a six-burner Wolf stove, and a Sub-Zero fridge concealed by panels that match the cabinets—help make the kitchen “somewhere you want to hang out and cook,” Lauren says. “We’re big foodies, so we needed a big island and lots of space. I’m excited to make Greek food or homemade ice cream here.”

Berger also helped her clients outfit the home’s five full baths and single powder room. For the baths on the second floor, the designer suggested a mix of grays to go with white tiles in both hexagon and rectangular shapes, varying the combinations from room to room. “It’s like tradition with a twist,” Berger says.

The master bathroom got a navy blue vanity and marble-look porcelain tiles. It includes a walk-in shower and jetted tub. A sliding barn door at the entrance provides privacy and style.

The first-floor powder room’s walls are covered in Phillip Jeffries’ “Vinyl Square Dance,” a durable wallpaper in a blue and brass checkerboard pattern. “It’s got shades of blue that bring in the kitchen island,” Berger says. “I used a vinyl because it’s washable and great if you have kids around.”

The couple tweaked the architect and builder’s original plan, making the main floor living spaces more open. Photo by Erin Rehman/courtesy of Douglas Construction Group

“We watched a lot of HGTV to get inspired on colors and finishes,” Andy says. “We’d end up doing a lot of pausing and rewinding.”

Besides the his-and-hers home offices, the couple installed other details with the pandemic in mind. A home gym in the spacious basement boasts cushioned vinyl plank flooring that looks like wood; the couple keeps a Peloton and hand weights in the space. And on the covered back porch, space heaters and fans—all mounted on the ceiling—allow three-season entertaining. “I’m getting asked to do a lot of covered or screened-in porches since COVID happened,” Monsein says. The slender yard, with enough grass for the dog to run around, features a stone patio.

Andy and Lauren got married this June in the lake country of the bride’s native Michigan. “I’m from the Detroit area, and we used to vacation up north as kids,” Lauren says. “The wedding weekend had a family vacation vibe.” True to the couple’s modern farmhouse style, the reception was held in a restored wooden barn with vaulted ceilings. Floral garlands were strung from chandeliers, and light filtered through the barn’s open slats.

Back in Chevy Chase, Monsein and his crew finished the house in August. Pandemic supply chain issues mean a few final items—doors, doorknobs and furniture—are still on order. Andy and Lauren are combining furnishings they already own with new buys like a Crate and Barrel mango wood dining table.

“We’ve already hosted our families for a weekend lunch, and there was such a great flow between the kitchen and the other rooms,” Lauren says. “My mom made bazalia, a traditional Iraqi-Assyrian sweet pea stew with beef and rice.”

Jennifer Barger is a local design and travel writer. Follow her on Instagram @dcjnell.