“A Sense of Place” is the term people use to express a special kind of endurance that certain towns, villages, and properties exhibit, despite the visible change in and around them. That old barn on the outskirts of town is gone, but the antique mart that took its place has a familiar feel to it. There are a few more stoplights in the village, but right outside of town that same herd of cows stares at you from over the fence. There’s a new development going up, but it’s hidden by a long line of old trees; and the entrance has been kept small and unobtrusive.
Kevin Ruedisueli is a Waterford architect who has experienced that sense of place, and now helps clients achieve it with their own building projects – a new wing and master bedroom for an old farm house in West Virginia, a seamless stone addition to a 19th Century brick home, a total rehabilitation of an almost lost log cabin in an historic district. He also works diligently with various local planning agencies and leaders to spread his vision of what Loudoun County can do as community to save its sense of place as it grows.
Ruedisueli knows that it’s not just growth and development that can threaten an area’s sense of place … it is growth and development that takes the lead as it comes in, knocking down and replacing, instead of enhancing and blending into, what is already there. Loudouners are very fortunate to have a guy like Ruedisueli in the mix – whether they are newcomers looking for the home of a lifetime, or long-term residents looking to do what they can to preserve the county’s rural essence.
Ruedisueli grew up in Falls Church, when it was still known as a rather wild suburb of Washington, DC. Falls Church was dominated for most of its natural history by the Potomac River, and dramatic geological and natural features such as Great Falls, Little Falls, and the Broad Run watershed. People whose family history is tied to the place see similarities between what was lost in Falls Church and what is under threat in western Loudoun. But, Ruedisueli, while very aware of the pressures to over-develop Loudoun, sees opportunity, too.
Growth can and does damage the environment, he says. But, professionals, including architects and planners, need to look beyond the politics, and see what they can do to make growth … better – for the environment, for architecture, for historic preservation, for quality of life. With the exception of America’s early city landscapes, the places where we live were all once a combination of rural and wild, notes Ruedisueli. “In my early years, I spent a lot of time on Staten Island, NY at my grandmother’s house. You look at the place today and can’t imagine that as kids we could walk down a dirt path to get to the water. Before it was developed, that’s the kind of environment we played in.” “Old Staten Island never left me,” continues the architect. “It also helped give me a knack for old homes, and inspired me,” he says.
Ruedisueli sees the home he built in Waterford on a pipestem lot with frontage on Catoctin Creek as an example of how to develop an area – in this case, one structure at a time – without erasing its prime or signature features.
In Loudoun, he explains, you have the suburban east, the Transition Policy Area in the middle – which he admits is under threat – and the rural west. The economy of the west is distinctly rural, says Ruedisueli. The thing that most people miss – the characteristics that make up its sense of place – is that it is a “rural economy that allows houses, not a series of residential communities surrounded by some remaining farmland. Residential is actually secondary to western Loudoun’s purpose.”
This point hints at Ruedisueli’s deep expertise and broad vision as both an architect and a planner.
The people defending Loudoun’s rural west, and people pushing for suburban-style development in the west, are coming from completely different places, and this makes for a very contentious planning atmosphere, says Ruedisueli. When suburban-style of development moves east to west, he explains, “You end up with projects that come in as isolated islands within a rural landscape.” There is no innovative blending, no new ideas, he argues. Even when a park is added to try to make it more compatible with the rural surroundings, designers send you plans for “an island of suburbia … with a park … surrounded by and unconnected to a beautiful rural landscape.”
In Ruedisueli’s experience, “We’re all part of the problem, and we’ve got to stop throwing things at each other.” In the vision of this architect/planner, the question we need to answer with respect to western Loudoun is not how to locate suburban-style development here, but how to preserve and enhance the features of the area that make it rural. This includes not only an individual building’s style and features, a 100-home development’s architectural style and features, or a transportation feature’s size and location, but how each functions within the rural landscape. What is their proximity to open spaces? How big are they, and in the case of the development, how dense? How do they connect to trails and roads? And how do they access rural economic centers, and community gathering places, such as farms, villages, churches, and community resources?
For his part, Ruedisueli cautions planners – and organizations that advise planners, such as Loudoun’s Zoning Ordinance Action Group – to pay strict attention to interconnectedness issues, and issues related to affordable housing – two things he hears about over and over again, and are right at the top of citizens’ agendas.
Here he goes back to the idea of avoiding the new-development-as-an-island pitfall, and preserving both the rural nature of the west, and the vibrant economy of farms and small towns that makes it such a special place to live.