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Wall Street Journal

“After Her Husband’s Death, She Rebuilt Her Life by Building a New Home.” Keates, Nancy. April 6, 2023.
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Sue Deagle spent more than a year scouring neighborhoods nestled in a forest on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., before buying a 2-acre property in Great Falls, Va., in January 2019. It had a small A-frame house for $900,000 on a steep hill that backs up to a tributary stream of the Potomac River called Difficult Run.

An apt metaphor, she thought at the time.

She then hired an architect, Robert Young, of New York-based Robert Young Architects to design her a house with lots of glass that made her feel like she was living in the trees.

Finished in August 2021, the 5,200-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bathroom house cost $2.8 million and took two years to design and build. The goal was to make the house feel like it was part of the forest. But the real goal of the project was to help Ms. Deagle start a new life with her two children after a tragedy.

On a Monday night in November 2016, she found her 50-year-old husband, Mike Deagle, lying unresponsive upstairs in their home. He was fit, ate well and had just had a physical exam that showed no sign of cardiovascular disease. The couple and their two children, who were 13 and 11 at the time, had recently moved into a 7,000-square-foot, six-bedroom home in McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. When she got to the hospital that night, she was told he died of a heart attack.

“It broke my world view,” says Ms. Deagle, 54, who is now the chief growth officer at a defense contractor that operates military bases and maintains aircraft around the world. “My perfectly healthy, happy husband just disappeared.”

Ms. Deagle took six weeks off from work to rebuild. She spent a lot of time in nature at Great Falls Park, across the Potomac in Virginia, just walking and sitting among the trees in the forest.

Then she decided to literally rebuild. “I wanted a house that was more reflective of me, in the woods,” she says. Continuing to live in the McLean house was just too painful, especially when she had to go up to the spot where she had found her husband. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” she says.

Mr. Young says he relished the opportunity to use architecture to help someone make a transition in life. “To have it be so explicit, that she wanted the house to move into another chapter, was a really exciting challenge,” he says.

Her new home is flat-roofed and its windows are strategically placed to frame views of the trees. The main living area has a large glass wall and a screened-in porch. The window in the kitchen goes from the counter to the ceiling, looking out into the tree branches. The main bedroom is at the top of the four-story building, where the sunlight filters through the tops of the trees.

The home has been placed at the edge of a steep slope, where the land drops down to the river. “She didn’t want to be hunkered down,” says Mr. Young. That required extensive structural engineering and a deep foundation.

The exterior is black, to merge into the landscape as much as possible, but Mr. Young says he kept the interiors light, using oak finished with white oil for the floors and cabinetry, white quartz counters and neutral colors, allowing the changing colors of the foliage to shine through the windows in contrast.

To help cope with her husband’s death, Ms. Deagle did a lot of reading. Her office in her new house has a wall of books. Many helped her in her healing process, including works by Joan Didion, C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Alexander. A Type-A person with an M.B.A., Ms. Deagle says she had to learn how to allow herself to depend on others more. Building a new house was crucial to that process, along with the connections she made with the architects and builders. “We were building my dream together,” says Ms. Deagle.

Ben Sandell, who was a project architect with Robert Young Architects, now with New York-based Studio MM, says Ms. Deagle’s openness about how the house played a role in her healing process made the process more personal for him and increased the urgency to achieve the experience she desired from the design.

For example, Mr. Sandell says, Ms. Deagle talked a lot about how she wanted a reading space, or, in her words, a “poet’s corner” in the main room that was warm but separate. That led to the creation of an elevated, floating bench next to the fireplace that had a corner window, allowing her to be surrounded by trees on all sides. “We became good friends,” says Mr. Sandell.

Another lesson Ms. Deagle says she learned from her husband’s death, which she blogs about on her website called “The Luminist,” was to stop trying to control every experience and instead recognize the mystery of life. “You make an ecosystem out of whatever circumstances you’re in,” she says.

In her case, creating her own ecosystem included not having to compromise on the style of architecture, since her husband didn’t like modern design. “I wouldn’t be sitting in this house if Mike hadn’t died,” she says. “I was able to do something specific to my style.”