FEATURE – August 2012
by Rebecca Falzano | Photography François Gagné
The classic farmhouse gets a modern-day take in Cape Elizabeth
In Cape Elizabeth, on a sloping piece of land with a peek of the ocean, stands a farmhouse with a red barn and wraparound porch. If you weren’t looking closely, you might mistake the house for a century-old Maine farmstead that had been slowly added to over the decades and only recently renovated. And you wouldn’t be the first to make this mistake. In fact, when the house was being built, people would stop and ask, “How long has the renovation been going on?” But there was no renovation. No long and storied history. The house was a new build just seven years ago. The timeless nature of the building was no accident, but the deliberate intent of architectural designer Linda Banks, of Banks Design Associates in Falmouth, to create an updated farmhouse for a modern-day family. A home that, in their own words taken directly from their wish list, “looks like it has been there all along.”
The homeowners are self-proclaimed “architecture junkies” who are as passionate about art as they are about the outdoors. They hit it off with Banks immediately. “The first thing I did,” recalls the designer, “was ask them things like ‘Where do you put the Christmas tree? How do you entertain? Are you indoors or outdoors people? Summer or winter? Sit-down or buffet?'” Their answers, and the discussion that followed, helped shape the master plan for Banks and Cape Elizabeth builder Craig Cooper of Rainbow Construction. The homeowners, who were moving from Virginia, made it clear that they weren’t looking for a summerhouse; they wanted an everyday house-house, a place with plenty of space for their two children, dogs, extended family, and collection of artwork. More specifically, their wish list had three major nonnegotiable requirements: a new home that looked like it had been there for years, an open floor plan, and one that allowed easy movement between indoors and outdoors.
While this was the first time Cooper and Banks worked together, they quickly learned that they “spoke the same language” and shared similar goals for their clients. Rainbow Construction has a team of accomplished finish carpenters, several of whom have worked with Cooper for more than 20 years. Banks had big ideas, and this highly experienced crew turned out to be the perfect fit.
Many designers have signature styles—unmistakable personal imprints that expose their involvement in a project. And Banks has a well-stocked arsenal: kitchen doors that lead directly to a patio (the “hamburger door,” she calls it), symmetrical kitchen cabinets, transition rooms in lieu of hallways, nickel-gap paneling, thick walls between rooms, double staircases—the list goes on and on.
Another one of her philosophies that informed the floor plan for this house is the special separation of nighttime and daytime functions. “I try to factor in where most of the activity will be taking place during the day versus the night,” she explains, “and then create the floor plan to follow.” In this case, Banks oriented the daytime spaces—kitchen, family room, mudroom, and terrace—toward the ocean views, and located the nighttime spaces—living room, dining room, and bedrooms—in an L-shaped layout on the inland-facing side of the home. “We appreciate that Linda’s design, while being relatively open, also provides areas that are ‘apart,'” says one of the homeowners. An example would be the library, where the family can escape for quiet moments. “Due to the design, you can have a noisy group in one part but still find solitude in the other, allowing everyone their own space and atmosphere,” he says. And with a playroom over the garage as well as an in-law apartment, even visitors can retire to their own private accommodations when they choose.
The articulation of distinct features continued on the exterior design. Taking cues from the “big house, little house, back house, barn” philosophy, Banks used ascending gables to break up the massing of the house. “There’s a high point, a medium point, a low point, and the barn,” she explains, “so the roof lines are all the same pitch but their different heights articulate the main mass, the secondary mass, and the tertiary mass.” By changing the height of the ridgelines and creating a cluster of gables, the house has the appearance of being added onto over the years. And by segregating the barn with a strong red paint, Banks visually separated it from the main home. A transparent mudroom, ten-feet deep and two-stories high, is the connecting thread that links the barn with the main house. The combination of these elements makes the house more accessible and contributes to the feeling that it’s been there for a long time.
The open floor plan is perhaps most evident in the combined family room and kitchen, a space that, according to the homeowners, has become the go-to gathering place for almost every get-together, from pre-prom parties to fundraising events. But the open plan is manifested in smaller, less obvious areas as well, for example, the “Mary Poppins” room outside the children’s bedrooms (another Banks signature), and a round vestibule between the adult wing and the children’s wing that Banks calls a poche (or “pocket” in French)—it’s the kind of architectural feature that you might find carved into a cathedral. The butler pantry provides a similar effect, connecting the family room and kitchen to the more formal areas like the dining room and library. These smaller rooms have big jobs: they create graceful transitions between rooms in place of hallways. “They give the house a great flow and feeling of spaciousness,” says the homeowner.
While the house has a rural character, its setting is a suburban coastal neighborhood. Integrating the home was paramount, which is why Cooper and Banks selected authentic materials and finishes that were respectful of the surrounding environment: long-length, white-oak flooring; rot-resistant Hardieplank concrete siding; stone fireplaces and terraces; standing-seam copper porch roofing; and oversized black windows. The black windows were a subtle choice that goes a long way—according to Banks, they move the house beyond the classic New England genre to design that’s slightly more fresh, spare, and updated. “You’ll see those windows two over two on many summer cottages,” she says. “It’s that sort of stark, austere look—like in an Edward Hopper painting. I wanted it to be really clean and spare.”
While the exterior is indeed beautifully spare with crisp lines, the interior is a vibrant mix of color that is grounded by classic white woodwork. The homeowners have a preference for strong colors, and they chose bright hues that beautifully offset their artwork. The pantry between kitchen and dining room created by Alex Hamilton of Tidewater Millwork, for example, was painted using buttercup-yellow milk paint. And the octagonal dining room makes a statement with its red walls. Throughout the home, the art collection, much of it from Maine, is on display, so that moving through the house feels like moving through a gallery.
“The homeowners had passion for color, they had passion for function, and they had passion for the art,” says Banks. And in their new house, they can have it all. While the original plan called for a year-round home, not a summerhouse, in many ways they have the best of both worlds. As Banks puts it: “Being in this house is like being on vacation.”
We have an intense interest in spatial design, both interior and exterior. We have explored that through the design and construction of two houses within 5 years.
One, to build a new home with all the modern conveniences but one that looked as if it had been built years ago. As evidence of how successful we were reaching that goal, to date the second most common comment we receive from those who visit our house is “What did it look like before you remodeled?”. Many people, from casual acquaintances to the postal man who’s been delivering mail to us for several years, assume that we took an older house and re-did it. For us, that’s a great compliment. (The first most common comment: “I love your red barn!”)
Having built a new home in Charlottesville, Virginia just three years prior, we were comfortable/familiar with the design/construction process. The combination of two very creative people in designer (Linda) and builder (Craig) working together to solve the many translation issues going from blueprint to actual house was among the more enjoyable parts of the process. Their flexibility and knowledge, as well as their ability to work as a team, was the single greatest contribution to a successful final product. People say our house has great “bones”, and while the interior can be styled a million different ways, the underlying design skeleton makes for a great platform.