A 2,000-square-foot home is a beautiful exercise in restraint
It’s one of life’s sweet little ironies: you spend decades working and raising children to send them out into the world, and then plan your retirement around trying to be with them again. At least this was the case for one retired couple building a house along the coast of Maine.
The couple had been vacationing on the midcoast with their three children since the 1970s. Coming from large extended families (he has 5 siblings, she, 10), they were looking for a space upon which everyone could descend, not unlike in family vacations of their past. The only trouble was, their three children—grown now—had scattered to different parts of the country. “We knew there was only one way to entice everyone to visit,” says the husband. “Build a house.”
First they needed an architect. The couple’s introduction to Matt O’Malia of GO Logic in Belfast happened rather serendipitously. They had originally met with Jay Fischer of Cold Mountain Builders, but his busy schedule meant he wouldn’t be able to start their project for at least two years. Fischer suggested a young architect, “a rising star” whom he had never actually met but had heard great things about. After a bit of a wild goose chase (Fischer had mistakenly turned O’Malia’s Irish last name into an Italian one), the couple finally tracked down the architect. “We knew the minute we met him, we had struck gold,” says the husband.
The site was also a fortuitous find, albeit more from a natural-beauty standpoint than an architectural one. At the head of Hornbarn Cove, across the road from the Meduncook River, the site was filled with views and wildlife. From a design perspective, however, it was less inviting. Irregular, triangular, and bound by a slew of constrictions, it had a buildable area that left few options for the house’s footprint. “The resulting footprint had to nestle itself into these confines,” says O’Malia, “presenting a simple, traditional face to the driveway, and then shifting in plan to work with the building setbacks.” In other words, form follows buildable footprint.
This also meant a challenge for builder Marc Lorraine of Lorraine Construction in Rockport. “We had to build in a very restricted wedge-shaped footprint in order to respect the shoreland zoning laws and not disturb ground cover too close to the ocean’s edge. This, along with maintaining proper restricted distance from road and property lines, made for some very careful planning and placement of men and construction equipment,” he says.
O’Malia’s solution: design a simple story-and-a-half volume that would house the public spaces, with an open entry, kitchen, and living room accessed by an upper-level entry. “The building massing was based on the ‘Big House, Back House’ concept,” says O’Malia, referring to the traditional New England architecture of connected structures—big house, little house, back house, and barn. “And the siting of the building, with its articulation to the site, maximizes the interior and exterior relationships.” The kitchen and living room volumes are oriented on axis with a south-facing view and glazing to accept passive solar gain. In order to scale the kitchen and living room spaces, a wooden architectural element is suspended from the kitchen ceiling. This maple-clad shell provides material warmth and doubles as a location for the lighting.
Due to site restrictions, the private bedroom wing was designed at an oblique angle to the kitchen and living room wing. The result is an interesting triangular stair connection between the two. “The shift in plan on the interior creates a knuckle for circulation where the stair accesses the walkout basement below,” says O’Malia. The bedroom area is a simple stacked volume, with circulation along the north facade and the master bedroom at the end facing east. Ample windows perforate the narrow building, allowing a tour of the beautiful coastal setting without having to leave the house.
The couple wanted a home that draws heavily on the Yankee architectural tradition, but with a contemporary twist, especially inside. “The clients requested that the exterior style of the architecture reflect the simple and restrained peaked-roof vernacular surrounding it, but that the interior style have a mind of its own,” says O’Malia. The simple clapboard exterior and standing-seam roof with its restrained detailing give way to several large windows facing the bay—the only hint of a spacious yet minimal interior. “We wanted a house that was family friendly and yet Shaker-like in its simplicity,” says the husband. “Clutter was the enemy.” To that end, the house was designed to be no larger than it needs to be—roughly 2,000 square feet with three bedrooms and two and a half baths—with strong visual connections to the outdoors. The predominately white interior is crisp and clean, with minimal trim and detailing and a maple floor.
The home is also efficient, making use of an improved insulated building shell, passive solar gains, and radiant floors. The husband’s brother-in-law, who has a background in construction, once commented that the house is so well insulated they could “heat it with a candle.”
On a mid-March day, several months ago now, things are quiet and the homeowners are by themselves. As we tour the house, they tell me how they are excited for the coming summer, when their three children, as well as numerous brothers, sisters, and cousins, will come to stay. Another bonus of such a guest-friendly home, they tell me, is that it allows their extended network of close friends, some of whom have retired to distant places such as Florida, to come and stay with them. “In many ways, the house has actually allowed us to become even closer to these lifelong friends of ours.” And as for their grand plan of enticing their kids to visit often? This is exactly what has occurred: “Like us, they have come to love the house and will use any excuse to visit,” says the husband. “Which, of course, delights us.”
They knew it all along: if you build it, they will come