REMARKABLE – SEPTEMBER 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
Styling Basha Burwell
Simplicity and sustainability sparkle on Blue Hill Bay
Ideas often strike like random sparks of lightening. With a burst here and an explosion there, our thoughts on any given subject can be scattered across the landscape. So went the discussion between veteran homebuilder John Ruger and his stepson, the architect Zach Provonchee, when the pair sat down to bounce around ideas about how they might fulfill Ruger’s dream of building a modern home on the shore of Blue Hill Bay
The two men schemed and dreamed for many hours over the course of several days. Yet just two weeks after these intense talks—which Ruger remembers as a torrent of exciting but scattered ideas—Provonchee had already sketched up a set of rough plans and elevation drawings. “Breathtaking,” was Ruger’s first thought after looking at the plans—and after living in the home for two years, this feeling has only grown stronger.
For Ruger, Provonchee’s design represented his desire to blend traditional Maine values into a modern home with an untraditional look. For Provonchee, who was just 36 years old at the time, the home was the first residential project in his young career to afford him an unusually high degree of artistic license.
The Three Rules
For the past three decades, John Ruger has been at the helm of the Blue Hill–based building firm Ruger Associates. A soft-spoken man with bright eyes, a quick smile, and gray-flecked hair, Ruger has earned a reputation over the years for high-end custom construction in a broad range of styles, from post-and- beam to postmodern. While having an architect in the family can prove to be either a blessing or a curse for a builder, the relationship could not have been a more perfect fit for Ruger.
After growing up in Maine, Provonchee graduated from the rigorous architecture program at the Rhode Island School of Design. Today, Provonchee is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited and a licensed architect in Maine, New York, and Tennessee, the state where he currently lives and practices, at the Nashville-based firm of Hastings Architecture Associates. Though his days are filled mostly with commercial and civic projects, Provonchee’s Blue Hill design shows his instinctive understanding of the house as home—though the exterior may be visually exciting and challenging, the home is no superficial exercise in flashiness, but a space designed for comfortable living.
The finished home is also a result of how Provonchee interpreted three directives that Ruger gave him when the two men first sat down to discuss the project. “I told Zach that I wanted the house to be simple, clean, and efficient,” Ruger says. Perhaps no three words are more representative of Maine’s time-honored values.
The Shape of Things Outside
The outskirts of Blue Hill are awash in narrow, rolling country lanes. The long strips of worn tar are punctuated by bending dirt driveways that branch off into the woods or across open fields. The houses that lie at the end of these driveways are rarely visible from the road, and such is the case with Ruger’s home, which serves to heighten the visual drama of Provonchee’s design.
As you bounce down Ruger’s winding, 700-foot-long dirt driveway, you are surrounded by a meadow of tall, wild grass rippling in the breeze. At first, you don’t even see the house, since Provonchee strove to site the house as far from the road, and as close to the shoreline, as possible. As you continue down the driveway, the home’s massive, three-story wall—which Provonchee calls the “spine” of the house—rises up like the gray screen of a drive-in movie theater. In the lower right-hand corner of the wall, a protruding two-story cube painted an autumnal orange draws your eyes toward the entrance, which is accessed via a bridge-like set of cedar decks.
The 36-foot-high and 80-foot-wide “spine” defines the house when it is approached from the road. The towering wall is clad with 5-by-2-foot Kynar-coated aluminum panels made from 91-percent recycled material. Provonchee utilized the low maintenance and virtually indestructible panels with Ruger’s efficiency directive in mind.
“In a perfect world, without a budget,” Provonchee says with a chuckle, “we would have used siding made of titanium.” The Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry’s curving buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, are famous for their use of gleaming titanium. Coincidentally, Provonchee’s Kynar-coated aluminum panels reflect the day’s changing light in ways quite similar to Gehry’s titanium-clad structures.
At 3,200 square feet, the house is neither diminutive nor ostentatiously large. The bigger-than-life sensation of the home’s exterior is the result of Provonchee’s two-sided design. “I think of it as the ‘meadow side’ and the ‘ocean side,’” he says, “so I played up the duality between the serene meadow on one side and the rugged coast on the other.”
Before getting to the home’s ocean side, you must first walk around a lower, aluminum-clad wall that meets the “spine” at a 90-degree angle. Tucked behind this smaller wall is a guest wing. Each of the two guest rooms has its own private entrance, though they share a bathroom and outdoor shower. Beyond the guest wing, the wildflower-spotted lawn slants gently toward the rocky shoreline. On this side, a voluminous, two-story wall of glass juts out to the ocean at bold, sweeping angles. “I just love Zach’s play of shapes and proportions on this side,” says Ruger.
Above the juxtapositions of varied window shapes and sizes, the porch’s cool metal beams, and the dark eastern-white-pine clapboards, a massive roof opens like a pair of broad osprey wings in flight. The nearly 2,500 square feet of roof area requires a ten-inch downspout, which is roughly the same diameter as a metal stovepipe, to handle the rainwater that rushes off.
Provonchee says his intent with the multiwindowed ocean side of the home was to make the house “as airy as possible, but still appear anchored by the wall. When you’re inside the house, I wanted it feel like there was a connection to, but protection from, the outdoors.”
The Feel of Things Inside
Perhaps the great, overarching achievement of Provonchee’s design is that, although the home is filled with exposed steel beams and defined by a sturdy, locked-to-the-earth quality, it is also imbued with a sense of light and openness. “With all of the nature surrounding this house, it can get pretty lively outside,” says Ruger’s parter, Dee Knisley. “But even if there’s a storm blowing, you’d never know—it’s absolutely calm inside the house.”
“I wanted people to have a shocking feeling as they approached the house,” Provonchee says, “but then when they entered, they’d find that what they thought was one thing is actually another.” In fact, there is a Zen-like serenity to the interior that is only emphasized by the abundant yet muted light—a thin tree line along the shore was left intact to shield the home from the glare reflecting off the water. The kitchen, living room, and master bedroom above are often dappled in sunlight and shadow. “I’ve never been in a space that makes better use of light,” Knisley says decisively.
“I tried to make it as elegant as possible, but still keep it simple,” says Provonchee. And when it comes right down to it, he has an even simpler explanation for the home’s austere interior: “You’ve got the Maine coast right outside the window,” Provonchee says. “I wasn’t going to try and compete with that!”
What Provonchee did create is a home that impeccably balances its public and private spaces. Ruger says that the flow of the kitchen and dining room into the many-windowed, high-ceilinged living room makes the space perfect for informal gatherings and dinner parties. But adjacent to these public spaces are several secluded nooks that are perfect for quiet conversations or a bit of solitude.
Just such as a serene space is found inside the autumnal- orange cube that catches your eye as you approach the house. On the ground level is a cozy, couch-filled leisure room that’s perfect for reading or movie watching. In the corner, a metal spiral staircase leads to a small office and library above. Since both spaces are on the meadow side, tucked away from the awe-inspiring ocean views, they are eminently suitable for quiet time or internal reflection.
While the interior certainly delivers on Ruger’s simple and clean directives, it’s also brimming with his desire to be efficient. Many of the floors throughout the house are made from highly renewable bamboo, though both guest rooms feature wall-to-wall woven vinyl flooring from Chilewich. On the custom-built, floating steel staircase, Provonchee utilized Parallam for the stair treads, a composite material made of rapidly renewable woods. The many windows on the home’s south side are made from Low-E glass, which allows the sun’s heat and light to pass through but blocks heat from leaving the room. The walls and roof are insulated with Corbond, an expanding polyurethane foam designed to keep homes cool during warm weather and warm during cool weather. At every turn, it seems, the house is a model of energy-efficient design.
The Difficulty with Simplicity
After 30 years of building homes with custom detailing, and after living in a traditional Shingle Style home himself, Ruger relishes the simplicity of his Blue Hill house. Getting there, however, required that both he and Provonchee learn the same lesson: simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
“It can be hard to do simple,” Provonchee admits, siting the work of famed Mexican architect Luis Barragan. Considered by many to be the preeminent Mexican architect of the 20th century, Barragan’s minimalist designs often featured bold fields of color and fountains of water.
“People might disagree, but I actually think there’s a quiet reserve to this house,” Provonchee says. “It’s not trying to be flashy—that in itself is a very Maine ideal.” He couldn’t be more right on both points: reserve is a typical Maine trait, and people often disagree. But for anyone who takes more than a peek at Ruger’s Blue Hill home, it would be hard not to agree that the design is nothing less than impressive.