At-Home Havens

Everyone needs a sacred spot. Sometimes it’s a place to relax or catch your breath. Other times it’s an area to seek out distraction, to zone out. From media rooms to wine cellars, Northern Virginia homeowners are indulging their interests.

Media and wine rooms carve out a space for calm

By Jennifer Shapira

Everyone needs a sacred spot. Sometimes it’s a place to relax or catch your breath. Other times it’s an area to seek out distraction, to zone out. From media rooms to wine cellars, Northern Virginia homeowners are indulging their interests.

When her family moved into a new home in Fairfax, Christine Harvey laid down some ground rules. She would, in no uncertain terms, be in charge of all things aesthetic. The house would have her well-appointed, creative touches.

In exchange, her husband could have the top item on his wish list: a home theater, tricked out with a 106-inch movie screen, powerful surround sound, even eight deluxe, movie theater-style seats, set on risers. The 14-by-22-foot room has all the makings of a mini-movie theater, with privacy as its biggest plus. The space is where the kids play video games, where friends come to watch the Super Bowl, and where high-definition movies take on a life of their own. Another non-negotiable? Harvey didn’t want to hear a peep from anywhere outside the room.

Courtesy of Tom Wells/IMVSA
Courtesy of Tom Wells/IMVSA

Theater Envy
The home theater had to be a boom room, but that didn’t mean it had to look like one. Harvey wanted tasteful, without sacrificing high-performance sound or image. Everything would have its place, and not necessarily an obviously apparent one. In the Harveys’ media room, a projector suspends from the coffered ceiling, almost camouflaged, merely suggestive of the room’s purpose. Additional speakers are set flush into the walls, painted the same cranberry as the room itself. Pretty sconces handpicked by Harvey brighten the dim space. Crown molding adds to the room’s classiness; velvet curtains are tied back with fabric cords.

Just outside the theater’s French doors, an entirely separate space houses the home’s data center. Here, in this back storage room, dozens of components, from TiVos to cable boxes to receivers, are meticulously labeled “theater,” “master bath,” etc., and sit atop one another on otherwise ordinary shelves. PlayStation 3 games are neatly stacked, along with frequently played DVDs and CDs. No boxy equipment, no plastic cases clutter the theater space; the only indication of the electronic device’s presence is the remote control.

Courtesy of Tom Wells/IMVSA
Courtesy of Tom Wells/IMVSA

The Whole Shebang
“It was really a whole-house audio system we did for the Harveys,” says Thom Barrett, president of Fauquier-based Odyssey-Millennium Custom Home Theater Designs, a.k.a. “You have different zones in the house and [everyone] could be listening to different things, controllable by these very cool in-wall touch screens,” says Barrett. Those touch screens also tie to a front door camera so you can see who’s ringing the doorbell. The high-tech combination is “a way of integrating all these disparate, standalone systems: in-house stereo system, intercom system, doorbell.”

With the push of a few buttons, the touch screens that Barrett’s team installed can play music from the family’s iPods, select a station on satellite radio or tune into TV throughout the house, or in a specific zone. Again, Harvey insisted on concealing their appearance. When activated, the panels light up, but in their “off” mode, they literally recess into the walls.

Courtesy of Tom Wells/IMVSA
Courtesy of Tom Wells/IMVSA

Tech It Out
As consumers become more and more tech-savvy, Barrett says he is seeing a move toward a need for an additional component at home: a computer server. It can “store all your DVDs, all your CDs, MP3s, all your photos—and each TV can independently access that server,” he says. “So you could have four different TVs showing four different movies off of these servers. That’s starting to gain some serious traction as the cost of memory continues to come down.”

Another trend in media rooms, says Tom Wells, owner of Integrated Media Systems in Sterling, is the concept of creating a shared space. “I’m personally seeing a lot of folks wanting to do home theater rooms that aren’t dark caves. They want a room that has good lighting, [where] they don’t have to sit in pitch darkness,” he says. “They want, a lot of times, to take a room that might be a multi-purpose room, like a billiards room, and tie a space together where you could be doing different things … but still watch a large image.”

Media rooms also foster the idea of family togetherness. Hook up the Wii or the PlayStation to the projector, and lounge space transforms into a den of activity. It’s not just about sitting around watching a movie, says Wells, who adds that it’s important for families to be active as a unit.

Going Green
Susan Gulick, owner of Reston-based Susan Gulick Interiors, says the focus for her firm is to make media rooms more multi-functional. “In other words,” she says, “not theater seating, but just comfortable seating, so that if the TV’s off, the room can be used in another way.”

It becomes one more area to spread into, and for kids and adults to hang out. But “it doesn’t shout ‘media room,’” Gulick says. “If you have more of what I call residential-type lounge seating, you could be in there to do a lot of other things.”

Gulick kept the concepts of family togetherness and individual activities in a shared space in mind when working on a media room for the carbon-neutral McLean CharityWorks GreenHouse, a designer show house that opened to the public in October. The enviro-challenge: to create a lounge space around a TV in as green a way as possible.

After much research, Gulick’s team started with a cork floor, incorporated energy-saving LED lighting and centered the room around a super-slim Samsung LED TV that uses 40 percent less power than conventional LCDs. The TV is built into the room’s paneling, “so it’s going to be completely flat, and of course, the 1-and-a-half-inch depth is awesome. Pretty soon they’re just going to disappear, aren’t they?”

The sectional, with its pair of chaises, is covered in bamboo, and the seat cushions are filled with another renewable resource: soy.

All that increases the space’s wow factor—in a number of ways.

“My goal was to take this as far as I could,” says Gulick of the project. And while a media room seems an unlikely spot for energy-saving, Gulick wanted to show that creative, green options can abound, without forfeiting performance or comfort.

For oenophile Kevin Morse, his love for wine grew out of something familial. After his brother read a number of Robert Parker articles praising the 1982 Bordeaux, the sibling bought “several hundred” bottles, then needed an environment to store and age them. Enter Morse, a skilled builder, who was called on to construct his first wine cellar.

Morse’s brother had limited space in his Maryland home, so the cellar was small, yet perfectly functional, says Morse of the 5-by-5-foot space.

So how were those ‘82 Bordeaux? Fifteen years ago, in the late ‘90s, Morse and his brother did some celebratory uncorking. And? “The ‘82 Bordeaux were wonderful,” Morse says reverently. “Absolutely phenomenal.”

Courtesy of Kevin Morse
Courtesy of Kevin Morse

Merlot Mechanics
Since then, Morse, owner of Cellar Master Wine Vaults in Virginia Beach, has created elaborate, high-end spaces throughout the D.C. area; his first was modest by comparison.

At one time, cellars might have seemed exclusive, but now even condo owners can carve out spaces to stock a temperature- and humidity-controlled niche. Whether on a home’s lower level—traditionally the most popular spot—or a penthouse, Morse says location doesn’t matter. Any spot can become a properly working space to store your vintages.

From custom cabinetry to the installation of cooling units, companies like Morse’s mount rows of hardwood racking, put in countertops and coordinate with artists to create murals—all in homage to the grape. Some residential cellars include tasting and/or decanting areas, countertops for bottle organization, or windows to peer inside, avoiding the need to open the door to the elements.

When it comes to proper storage, the vapor barrier is paramount, says Morse. Additionally, proper installation of the cooling and humidity unit will keep your bottles at a steady 55 or 56 F, and 60 to 70 percent humidity—the optimum conditions for storing red wine.

Lisa Weiss, owner of McLean-based Wine Cellars by Lisa, agrees. “The most important thing about wine cellars is room preparation—preparing a room correctly for refrigeration.”

Weiss, like Morse, helps her customers winnow down their concerns about which cooling system would work best, consults on flooring as well as lighting, and designs racking.

Lisa Weiss' wine cellar (Courtesy of Kevin)
Courtesy of Lisa Weiss

Years ago, she built a small stunner off her kitchen to serve as showpiece for interested clients. Her space has capacity for 300 bottles, is lit by tiny LED lights and is entered through mahogany door with a beveled glass window.

“I built a cellar so that I could go through the process myself,” Weiss says. “For me, it was a passion that grew out of my business, not necessarily the other way around. For most people, they have a passion and they want to build a place to store their existing collection.”

One of Weiss’ current projects is the CharityWorks GreenHouse, for which she is fashioning a greener wine cellar by using reclaimed wood and copper on the walls as a coolant. A 6-inch threshold will allow the cellar door to open without the rush of warm, moist air from the rest of the home. Such is the case with any home cellar: The door must be well sealed to minimize fluctuations from the surrounding environment.

Collector’s Item
Still, at a steady 55 or 56 F, most agree that a cellar is hardly the place to party—at least without a jacket.

But it’s inviting. Just ask Susan McHenry, a Sterling homeowner and wine collector. One of the best things about having a cellar, she says, is the social aspect it provides. There’s just something intimate, something special, about being able to take friends down to pick out a bottle or two for dinner parties, she says. She believes wine is meant to be shared: “That’s the fun of it!”

McHenry’s space is categorized by varietal. With capacity for 1,500 bottles, the redwood racks are sorted vertically; she ticks of rows of cabernet franc, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot, syrah/shiraz, French Bordeaux, white burgundies, sparkling whites, viogniers—and so on. “I use every bit of space in here,” she says, and you know that’s true. Just outside her cellar sits a 280-bottle EuroCave for spillover.

Her cellar includes magnums, champagne and local labels. A cascading waterfall of bottles allows her to showcase some of her most interesting purchases—from artistic labels to bottles with autographs.

The room’s walls are stained an appropriate merlot, and a painting commissioned by a local artist of McHenry’s favorite Sonoma winery graces a prep area. A wall of diamond bins allows for additional bottle storage, and for keeping vintages together. Riedel glasses hang at the ready by their stems, should McHenry and friends feel moved to uncork a bottle in the modest tasting area. But for the most part, McHenry, who loves to entertain, simply enjoys taking guests downstairs to make selections.

Like most enthusiasts, she’s educated about her choices and collection—but she’s no snob. McHenry sips local wines, loves learning about them, belongs to wine clubs and takes part in social events. She is a cheerleader for Virginia wines, frequenting Linden, Rappahannock and Breaux vineyards.

Virginia Is for Wine Lovers
In terms of winemaking, Virginia is a state to watch, says Jennifer Breaux, director of sales and hospitality at Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville. Breaux, who has a cellar in her own home, is a big believer in Virginia vino. So much so that she almost exclusively collects wine from local vineyards.

Sure, she’s shelved Bordeaux. But “most of my cellar is Virginia [wine] just because I believe in the product so much, and I really want to educate myself in the ageability of Virginia wines. For me, it’s a collection, but it’s also an education,” she says. “My cellar is an active cellar—I don’t buy anything just for the sake of putting it away, unless it’s a Virginia wine.”

In the past 10 years, says Breaux, Virginia has emerged as an important winegrowing region. “The beautiful thing about Virginia is that we’re still a hidden gem. The world is just now hearing the buzz about Virginia.”

Let’s drink to that.

Courtesy of Christine Harvey
Courtesy of Christine Harvey

Q&A: Media Room
Christine Harvey, Fairfax homeowner

Why did you decide to dedicate this space for a media room?
My husband really wanted a home theater. The room was wasted space. I think we had an exercise bike in there gathering dust.

What did you do to transform it?
I told [my husband] I’d pick out all the aesthetics. I picked the carpet. I found the pattern for the chairs online. I didn’t want cheesy black leather seats.

What do you love about this space?
There is no equipment in the whole place. Everything is invisible. The speakers are behind the drywall. The components are elsewhere. I like neat. I don’t want to see any of it!

How do you feel about the end result?
We love it. We have a constant flow in the house. We love entertaining. It’s just a hot spot. It gets a lot of use, from basketball games to video games.

Q&A: Media
Tom Wells, owner
Integrated Media Systems, Sterling

What are the ideal dimensions for my home theater, and what is the ideal screen size?
The size of a home theater is dependent upon the number of people that you wish to seat. Because it is important to preserve proper sight lines, it is crucial to make sure that seating is arranged to allow everyone an unobstructed view. To seat a lot of people, the room needs to be deeper, wider and/or have multiple levels (risers). Because the size of the screen depends on viewing distances, it is important to size the screen according to the first row.

Pay attention to this acoustic formula: Your room’s width, height and depth should never be even multiples, or each other. Example: A 10-by-20-by-8-foot room would not be a good choice.

How do we make sure that the sound from our theater stays in that space?
Proper design/construction of your theater and some basic common sense will go a long way towards keeping the sound in the room. Holes, gaps, spaces, cracks all allow sound to escape the room. Just having a good, solid core door, with minimal clearance between the bottom of the door and the carpet will alleviate a great deal of sound leakage. Low-frequency sounds make up 80 percent of the audio energy in a movie. Those low-frequency vibrations are not inhibited by normal sound absorption materials (like insulation). To reduce low-frequency sound transmission, isolate the walls, ceilings and floors from the surrounding structure; otherwise these vibrations will travel to adjacent, adjoining and overhead spaces. Again, consult a professional.

What should I budget for my home theater?
That depends on your desired level of performance, comfort, ease of use and style. In today’s world of high-definition audio and video, good-quality components have come way down in price. A budget of $10,000 will buy you three times more performance and ease of use than it did five years ago. Choosing the right components, seating and control systems can be daunting. Research as much as you like, but when you’re ready to start planning, talk to a professional.

Q&A: Wine
Susan McHenry, Sterling homeowner

When and how did you become interested in wine?
I started learning about wine in the 1970s when I was working in Richmond. I went to a number of tastings and tried everything.

When did you decide you needed a cellar?
I didn’t have any choice! I had so much wine in the basement where it was cool. But I needed to bite the bullet and get it done.

What are the best parts of having a wine cellar at home?
I love being able to share it. And having a hobby where I’m always educating myself. There’s so much to learn!

How do you keep your cellar organized?
I use an Excel spreadsheet (but I don’t update it constantly) and make notes about which bottles I’ve opened.

Storage Tips
You don’t have to have a cellar to maintain proper wine storage

Bree Ann Moore, Owner/Winemaker
Loudoun Valley Vineyards, Waterford

Bree Ann Moore, owner/winemaker at Loudoun Valley Vineyards, offers her advice:
> Store your wines horizontally, either on the floor or on a rack. This ensures that the cork will remain wet. No wine will escape and air will not be able to prematurely get into the bottle and spoil the wine.
> Keep a constant temperature (around 55 F) wherever you store your wine. If you store your wines in a place where the temperature will fluctuate, wine can age too quickly.
> Keep your wines where you have some humidity. That will keep the corks from drying out. If a cork dries out, wine can escape and air enters, thus spoiling the bottle of wine.
> For the novice wine collector: Store wines on an inexpensive wine rack in a closet (on the lowest level of the home, or the darkest area).
> If you are starting a wine collection and do not have a closet that maintains a somewhat constant temperature, consider purchasing an inexpensive wine refrigerator. You do not need to purchase one with a digital temperature reading as long as you keep a thermometer inside and an eye on any drastic temperature fluctuations.

(November 2009)