A Three-Dimensional Puzzle
Prepared for the future and with an eye toward the past, architect Eric Chase constructs a home for life’s seasons
Maybe it was his mind reading, or a talent for description. Maybe it was both. In 2011 and 2012, when a Connecticut couple were building a home on East Penobscot Bay, they got in the habit of frequently updating their architect, Eric A. Chase, on what they wanted. “We’d present a design or lifestyle idea,” the husband remembers, and Chase would sketch the request on whatever came to hand: a napkin, an envelope back, a piece of paper. “Like this?” he’d ask. The answer was inevitably yes, he’d drawn exactly what they were imagining. “Eric could immediately represent anything we talked about,” says the husband. At day’s end, architect Scott Blanchard (a member of Chase’s five-person office in South Brooksville and similarly gifted at quick representations of the couple’s ideas) would collect the drawings and put them into a computer plan. By morning, carpenter Lennard Bridges of Penobscot had what he needed to start tweaking the home in the desired direction.
It wasn’t always that simple, of course, but in spirit it was. Atypically, the couple didn’t use a general contractor for their house. Instead Bridges and additional carpenters built with the help of subcontractors. “I enjoy carpentry,” Bridges says, “but I don’t like the idea of showing up and delegating jobs. I pick a task at hand, and I do it, until called off of it.” The day-to-day oversight and design detailing was handled by Chase’s office with Scott Blanchard as project manager and the homeowners as substantial collaborators. “Once construction started,” Chase says, “we had almost 40 hours a month of interaction.”
There was a lot of talk, because there was a lot to figure out.
The homeowners wanted a senior-friendly, energy-responsible house that would suit their social lifestyle. Although both husband and wife are active and in good health, they started the project when they were in their 60s, so they hoped that it would be a place to enjoy even if their health (or the health of their friends) declined. To that end, the design allows the couple to live entirely on the ground floor should they wish. The first level consists of a master bedroom, office for the wife, library/TV room, great room (with dining room, kitchen, and living room), and screened-in porch. There are no steps to negotiate, not even at the formal and informal entrances. The whole of the interior is wheelchair friendly, with plenty of space to maneuver, whether cooking or socializing, and grab rails in the bathroom. The house does have a second floor, but it can be reached by elevator if need be. Although the second floor includes an exercise room and office for the husband, the level is primarily for guests, in particular for those couples with whom the homeowners frequently socialize en masse. These friends travel to one another’s houses for “mini-reunions,” as Chase puts it, so the second floor is designed for such gatherings, with three en suite bedrooms that open onto a large landing with a comfortable sitting area. The social space allows guests to have a cup of coffee, read, or do a jigsaw puzzle while still being separate from the main activity of the house.
The couple has owned the 75 acres on which their home was built since 1972. For many years, they sailed up to the property, camped on a ledge above the water, and considered where and what they might eventually build. In the end, they picked a spot that offered immediate views to the east and long views to the southeast. They wanted to look directly at a small island with an osprey nest that was just off their property, but they also wanted to be near an attractive swimming beach and the anchorage where they kept their boat
Before they relocated full-time to Maine, the couple lived for 29 years in a 1930s stone colonial. They hoped to reproduce aspects of the old house in the new, including the arrangement of the living room with its built-in bookshelves and screened porch. A pine fireplace mantel (carved out of three barn boards by Samuel McIntire) was brought from their old house, refinished, and installed in the new. Beyond that, certain spaces were specifically designed for furniture from the Connecticut home, much of it inherited from the couple’s forebears, including a grandfather clock that now occupies the entry hall.
Because the house was going to be a year-round house, and not just a summer retreat, both the husband—a retired physician, enthusiastic singer, and sincere conservationist—and the wife—a retired nurse and active community volunteer—wanted offices. The wife wanted her space to be downstairs, near the kitchen and master bedroom. It is now “mission control,” the husband says. Meanwhile, he wanted his office to be soundproof, with bookcases for sheet music and long, shallow drawers for nautical charts. Chase designed the husband’s office so it occupies the second floor of an octagonal tower on the north end of the house. (The master bedroom is on the ground floor of the tower.) With a high, octagonal peaked ceiling of Douglas fir, a desk that wraps much of the room, and cove lighting at the break between ceiling and wall, the room is one of the most striking in a house full of striking rooms.
In the end, satisfying the homeowners’ desires and maximizing views meant figuring out a complicated 3-D puzzle, the results of which ended up improving rather than detracting from the design. For instance, among the charms of the exterior are the multiple heights and types of roofs, which are in part an answer to the conundrum of how to build a solar house on a site that has east-west exposure. Chase designed two south-facing roofs to be high and large enough to capture sufficient sun for the hot-water solar collectors and photovoltaic panels. The desire for the best views meant running the house along the shoreline while orienting rooms to the east and south. This, in turn, meant creating spaces with multiple corners. Thus emerged the intriguing octagonal tower and a great room that is stepped to feature glass on four adjacent walls. To keep the house on one level while linking barn to house, Chase designed a sizeable connector that serves simultaneously as mudroom, potting area, laundry, and storage space with large, freestanding closets.
The result could have been jumbled and confusing. Instead the house is well integrated with itself and the environment. “The house appears to have been dropped in by helicopter,” the husband says. “It fits the site so well.” Some blasting of the existing ledge was required to achieve this look (and to create single-story living on a site that was not level). The extracted stone was then used to build low exterior walls that now define the landscape. As with the stone, so with a maple that had to be removed to situate the house. Carpenter Bill Turner of Stonington made a kitchen island countertop out of one trunk of the tree and a four-poster bed for the master bedroom out of the other. To further unite the home with its surroundings, the couple spent a long time considering stain colors for the cedar shingle siding, finally settling on a gray-brown that struck them as of a piece with the site’s bark and foliage. Chase says that an advantage of approaching the 5,000-plus-square-foot structure by boat rather than car is that you can’t see it; it is unified with the shore, thanks to its low profile, colors, and siting. Another place from which you can’t see the house? Chase’s own property. He happens to live across the point. And although his ability to intuit the couple’s desires clearly reflects his 36 years working as an architect, there may be another factor: long-time acquaintance. When asked how the couple found their way to his offices in the first place, Chase laughs and says, “Oh, the husband’s my cousin. I’ve known him all my life.”