California Modern, East Coast Agrarian
Contemporary and vernacular blend in a coastal family home
Before they moved to Maine, Brannon and Mandy Fisher lived in an Eichler home in San Rafael, California. “You lived in an Eichler home?” exclaims Rob Whitten of Whitten Architects in Portland. It’s been three years since principal architect Whitten and project architect Eric Laszlo collaborated on the Fishers’ Maine home; however, they hadn’t known this bit of the homeowners’ history. Mandy clarifies: for two years, she and her husband lived in an Eichler-style home, built by a contemporary and colleague of Joseph Eichler’s. To her mind, her Maine home was partially inspired by Eichler. So how is it that Whitten hadn’t been aware of this, given he and Laszlo actually designed the Maine house? Likely it’s because Joseph Eichler, a developer of midcentury San Francisco and Los Angeles homes, had ideas that have become, even on this coast and 70 years later, synonymous with thoughtful, modern design. Indeed, when the architects and homeowners talk about aspects of what they’ve created together, they could just as easily be having a conversation about an Eichler design.
It “brings the outside in,” Laszlo emphasizes and re- emphasizes. It “has an open-plan design,” says Whitten, noting that, in keeping with good passive solar practices, the south side of the house (the back side and, in this case, the ocean side) is dominated by glass windows, unlike the north (or street) side. There’s radiant in-floor heating, a single-story flank, vertically laid wood siding, and post-and-beam detailing. All true of Eichler homes. And yet, when it comes to style—“I hate the word ‘style,’” admits Whitten—the phrases that come up are altogether different. The conversation turns to how the house is inspired by loose agrarian elements, the Arts and Crafts movement, mountain architecture, and the “big house, little house, back house, barn” setup of classic New England farmhouses. The word industrial comes up, and the word historical. All of that might seem too eclectic—and Laszlo’s categorization of the home as “modern vernacular” too oxymoronic—to make sense.
The first thing one notices about the house is how well it blends into its surroundings. All of its colors—the green of the Maibec cladding, the red cedar trim around the dark bronze of the Andersen window frames, the cinnamon hemlock posts and brackets at the entry, and the airy gray, reflective standing-seam metal roofs—are the colors of the woods, grass, and sky above. Left to right, a single-story flank leads to a two-story gabled mass, which leads, via a single-story connector, to a three-car garage with a guest suite above. One shed roof flows into a steep roof, which flows into a low shed roof and then a barnlike roof. This massing, along with the substantial roof overhangs, creates interest while adding to the sense of the home’s solidity. Inside, the rooms wind into each other, the horizontal axis of the house snaking along the property to provide the best views of Brunswick’s Mere Point Bay. A large L-shape forms the primary space, which consists of a living room, dining room, and kitchen. The living room features a gas fireplace with stone surround, which is part of a custom bookshelf and entertainment center, but the room is arranged to encourage looking out the windows or from room to room instead of toward the screen. The open-plan idea plays out, as Laszlo notes, vertically as well as horizontally, since the foyer stairwell that leads to the bedrooms of the Fishers’ two young daughters is open to the great room. One can easily peer from the landing’s reading nook bench down into the living room below.
Site orientation and sight lines are particularly important throughout the house and represented a challenge for builder Peter Warren of Warren Construction Group in Freeport. He was tasked with digging out grades in order to allow for a walk- out basement, and constructing to suit a design that consider solar orientation, prevailing breezes, topography, storm winds, and views. The house both blocks and reveals the water, so the charms of the site unfold incrementally. On the one hand, the windows are arranged so that even from the driveway one can see through the house to the ocean beyond. On the other, the full drama of the coastal views is delayed until one actually walks into the house. With other homes, “The big event is the front door, and then it’s all downhill from there,” says Whitten. In contrast, with this one, “You enter the dark side and move into the light.”
Although the house is designed for open communication between most rooms, the owners’ bedroom is purposely sited to offer seclusion from the public rooms, and the window-wrapped sunroom is also separate, located off a hallway in the connector between the main home and the garage/guest house.
The Fishers themselves were actively involved in designing the interior. Mandy’s father was an architect, and her mother has a strong design sense. Another factor: Mandy works with animal rescue, and there are often dogs in the house. This meant the floors would take a beating, and the animals would need a place to sleep and play. Warren left an area under the secondary staircase—a spot that might otherwise be used for storage—open for what Mandy calls a “dog apartment,” a place where the dogs can rest and where animal crates, if needed, can be stored. Meanwhile, the sunroom and mudroom/entryway is finished in a dog- friendly polished concrete, which is hard to scratch and good for paws and feet, which appreciate the floor’s ambient, hydronic heat. In keeping with Mandy’s preferred aesthetic, the house has Old World touches, including a thick, wood countertop on the kitchen island and an antique hutch, around which Warren designed a nook and custom lighting. Contemporary details and industrial touches, which represent Brannon’s design leanings, include concrete countertops in the kitchen and above the black-walnut bathroom vanities, industrial-style lighting and furniture for the kitchen, oversized dining room pendant lights fashioned from a factory catwalk, and living room lights made from metal funnels.
There are high-efficiency systems throughout the well-insulated, well-ventilated house. The utility room is tucked into a room adjacent to the basement. The basement itself leads directly to a grassy patch behind the house, which goes down to the water in one direction and up a set of granite stone steps (with a stainless-steel railing) in another. The steps lead to a stone patio that runs the length of the home and is fronted with a bed that includes sedums, lavender, hellebore, and rudbeckia. An ipê deck is laid into the stone so that outdoor furniture has an even surface on which to sit. Near the basement door, shampoo bottles rest on the boulders of a retaining wall that also serves as partial screen for an outdoor shower.
The Fishers “could not be more fun,” says builder Warren. The architects concur. The little girls had no argument about who would get which of the upstairs bedrooms: one daughter wanted to face the driveway, so she could see when her friends arrive for visits; the other daughter wanted the serene water view, as she likes to curl up in her room and read. The feeling Warren has for the Fishers is mutual. “The girls gravitated to him,” recalls Laszlo. In celebration of the good mood during building, Warren called the entire family over as the concrete between the garage and mudroom was curing. Father, mother, and two daughters each pressed a hand into the concrete, and the date of building was added. This private tribute is not in the formal entryway or mudroom but just beyond the door that leads from the garage into the home—the most often-used family entrance. “I would love,” says Whitten of the final product, “to do more homes like this.” And then he goes one step farther: “I’d love to live in a house like this.”