Architect Chris Snowber on design and renovation | Home Front

Chris Snowber
Apr 27, 2017

Washington architect Chris Snowber established Hamilton Snowber Architects in 1990 with his partner and wife, Cynthia Hamilton. Snowber, who focuses on high-end residential work, recently created a colorful, small climbing wall in a garage for a Washington family whose daughters are into indoor rock climbing. The climbing wall is featured in an Washington Post Magazine feature, read it here.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Thanks so much for doing the chat today, Chris. Washington architect Chris Snowber established Hamilton Snowber Architects in 1990 with his partner and wife, Cynthia Hamilton. Snowber focuses on high-end residential work. He recently created a colorful, small climbing wall in a garage for a Washington family whose daughters are into indoor rock climbing. Post your questions now for Chris to answer on designing and remodeling and renovating your home. Let's chat.

Happy to be here today to talk with everyone about this somewhat unusual project, as well as any other general questions you might have about renovation projects for your home. You can see more of our work

Jura, I have 2 bathrooms with no windows. The floors are white with a little bit of a black accent and the tiles, sinks, tub and shower are all white. What would be a good gray (preferably Benjamin Moore). I'm not afraid to go dark. Thanks!

Revere Pewter by Benjamin Moore is a great gray that's not too dark but has a beautiful look. Check it out. It's a favorite on Pinterest too.

It must have been fun designing that wall. Have you ever tried rock climbing yourself?

It was great fun, partly because the clients, the young women who are the climbers, were so excited about it, and also because I used to climb myself, when I was in college.  

What is the most unusual renovation project you've done?

So, this one falls into the unusual category, for sure, maybe the most unusual.  But all of our projects end up having unique challenges and opportunities, stemming from the ideas that clients bring to the table, or the context for the construction, whether it be an existing home or an empty site.  The trick is to listen well, develop a good range of options, and move toward solutions collaboratively.

Chris, will architects or design/build firms help a client create a long-term plan for renovating several areas of their house, even if they can't tackle them all at once? We want to re-do several rooms in our house (kitchen, bathrooms, basement) and they could all potentially affect the others (plumbing placement, adjoining walls). I want a smart, long-term plan so that we do everything right the first time, in the order that makes sense, even if we may only be able to afford the projects in phases.

For our firm, this is a very common request.  All of our projects are master plans, to some degree, since once we have developed a design, and gotten pricing, we might exclude certain parts of the work, possibly to be done at a later time.  But for many projects, we go through exactly the scenario you describe, developing an overall design, and then perhaps developing complete drawings for only part of the work.  That way, there aren't fees expended for work that may happen months or years in the future.

Hi, We are planning a basement renovation. I work as a project manager in IT, issuing requests for proposals with detailed requirements, and I'd like to take a similar approach for this project. Is there some kind of template or tool to help me work out my specs for the basement renovation? I would like to use it to get bids for basement renovations so I can compare apples to apples? I think you are going to say "hire an architect," but this is a pretty low budget project and my plan is pretty simple. However, I don't know a lot about construction so it's hard to know my requirements. Any advice would be appreciated!

You're right, an architect is the right source for developing a clear set of drawings and specifications that can be accurately priced on an apples-to-apples basis:  this is certainly the way we describe our services to clients.  Short of that, if you were willing to do it with full disclosure, you could find one builder who would meet with you, hear your goals and put together a scope of work and price for you, and then use that for the basis for other proposals, using documents (written) that you create.  That would have to be done with the full understanding of the original contractor with whom you spoke.

Hi there! We are planning an extensive home remodel part of which will result in an open floor plan in order to make the most of the somewhat limited square footage in our early 80's ranch that is a maze of walls and tiny rooms. Are there any interior architectural details we could add that would both define the space and add height to the room? The ceilings are only 9' in here and can't really be raised. Similarly, when we get ready to upgrade the outside (it's next) what details can we add to make the house look more modern? It's currently painted siding with lime washed brick on the front porch and around the basement, and of course, those terrible shutters. I know you know the ones. Thank you, K. T.

As you consider walls that you might be removing, you should first get a good understanding of which might be structural.  While a structural wall may not be able to be removed entirely, it could perhaps be opened quite extensively, and the posts and beams that result can often be used to provide just the kind of spatial definition that you mention.  As we do a great deal of renovation work, we find ourselves using partial walls all the time as a space definer.  A few projects on our website use this extensively:  Palisades, Woodley Park and Barnaby Woods, all at  Also, 9' is a pretty good ceiling height to be able to work with!

On the exterior, a more modern exterior would probably start with losing the shutters, and perhaps a window replacement plan, with more open areas of glazing and much greater energy efficiency.  A new element, like a modern covered front entry, can greatly alter the look of a house.  On our website, our "Mid-Century Modern" project used these elements to update a home in Somerset.


I live in a community decidedly stuck in the 1970's. It seems to me the house designers went down some inadvisable directions originally (split level and bi-level TUDORS!) and I'd love to mix things up with a really modern improvement. But I worry about sticking my fingers in my neighbors' eyes, so to speak. Thoughts?

Well, you're probably not the only person with some concerns about the aesthetics of the neighborhood, and I really think that good design, regardless of style, will only help the neighborhood.  We also always encourage our clients to keep their neighbors informed ahead of starting a project:  it can break down for neighbors a disturbing feeling of surprise about what's about to happen.  There are limitations of course, you don't want them to think they have veto power over your work, but some level of communication is important.

I'm thinking of exposing the brick on the fireplace in our 1897 rowhouse. Right now it's plastered over, with a carved wood fireplace surround that's interesting but not original. Do you have any advice/opinions on exposing the brick, and what kind of mantel would you suggest?

You've got two questions here.  About exposing the brick, I would think about how that aesthetic, which is probably not the original one of the house, fits into other changes you are making.  Also, beware that not all brick is beautiful when exposed.  You have to get started and see what you find.  Regarding the mantel, again, you want to think about the overall look for the house, so a well-done traditional mantel, either new or re-cycled (there are a lot of old mantels from the era of the house to be found in DC and Baltimore, or even on the internet), or something very modern.  Several of the projects on our website have examples of all of the above, including Mid-Century Modern, Cathedral and Cleveland Par at

Rowhouses can be so dark, only having windows on two sides. Any recommendations for lightening things up?

Some obvious moves:  use lighter paint colors, particularly the trim on the windows themselves, and opening walls up to get the light as deeply into the house as possible.  Lighting can be used to extend the bright feeling into interior spaces, particularly using some of the new LED fixtures which offer you a choice about the color temperature of the light. Not to get too tech here, but traditional incandescent lighting tends to be overly warm, yellow/orange in tone, with a temparature of about 2700k, whereas if you use 3000k fixtures, things brighten considerably.  The light is more white, without getting "cold".

I plan to remain in my townhouse for about 5 more years. It's 16 years old. I've replaced all of the kitchen appliances with stainless steel. I want to update counters, sink and backsplash next. But should I bite the bullet and replace the in-good-shape-but they-they're oak cabinets too? Will I get back that investment when I sell?

Good question about payback after renovation, the kind of tricky ones that homeowners face all the time.  One big question to answer is:  how long do you intend to be in the house?  

In general, I optimistically think of cabinets as having a longer life span than 16 years, but that would depend on the quality they started with.  If they have some functional problems (bad slides or hinges) in addition to your aesthetic issues, it could be worth the upgrade.  Additionally, you get to enjoy them in the meantime! 

We live in a classic 1970s split foyer. There is an addition of the back which gives us some more space but we struggle with the crowded foyer. Any suggestions for how to mitigate this and make the front (plain brick with shutters) more interesting?

Unless there's room to expand the space around the entry within the home (there probably isn't), building out towards the front with an enclosed or possibly just covered entry can go a long way towards making the front hall less tight.  And, it could also help with the overall curb appeal of the house, as well.

Check and make sure you don't have a HOA that has strict architecture guidelines regarding exterior changes and modifications. Also use common sense do you really want to be the eye sore/or pink elephant on the street or neighborhood.

We have a two-part patio, with a cozy, smaller area under a raised screened porch, and a larger, more exposed brick patio in the back. I want some loungey furniture and some dining furniture, but I don't know which to put where. Any suggestions?

A first question would be:  where are these two patios relative to the kitchen?  You don't want the dining area to be TOO far away.  In general, a cozy space sounds good to me for dining, and lounging in the open, where you might have more sunlight (manageable) may work better.

My parents are redoing most of their downstairs because the ice maker in their freezer broke, flooding everything. The house is a bit older (1980ish), so each room is pretty separate from the next. The kitchen cabinets my mom is considering are a light, warm grey color (Hampton Bay from Home Depot is a current consideration), and would go in a room that mostly relies on artificial light sources. 2 of the 4 walls would be mostly cabinets, but there would still be a few walls showing significant painted surface. Do you have suggestions on coordinating colors for the wall or the flooring (wood)? Thanks!

So, they really are re-doing every surface.  Regarding the walls, a lighter paint or even some tile could brighten the walls.  You said "downstairs",  by which I'm thinking this is in a basement, which means you may working over a concrete surface.  That also could direct you towards tile, possibly one of the faux wood ceramic tiles which can be found everywhere today.  FYI:  you can do a wood floor over concrete, you use "engineered" wood, which is a layer of real wood (stainable and re-finishable) over a plywood base.  This can be glued directly to the concrete, or floated.  

Thank you Chris for doing the chat today. Great advice on designing projects and remodeling. Don't miss this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine Luxury Issue to see the article on Chris' climbing wall as well as other interesting articles about life in Washington. Next week my chat guest will be Holly Simmons chatting about  budget apartment decorating. She also knows a lot about terrariums and potted plant life!  Post your questions now. Thanks for being with us today.


Thanks, everyone, for all of your great questions, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to exchange some ideas.  

Thanks also to Jura Koncius at the Post for her great article in the magazine this Sunday and the opportunity to do the webchat!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Chris Snowber
Washington architect Chris Snowber is cofounder of Hamilton Snowber Architects.
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