A contemplative modern cabin set in the Kennebunkport woods.
The story of this home starts in a yurt. For three years, that was where Jeb and Adriana Burke, along with their two sons, Lucas and Mateo, would camp when they came up from New Jersey to vacation on their three acres of property in Kennebunkport. And it was what they were staying in when they first met with architect and principal Caleb Johnson, project architect Michael Chestnutt, and project coordinator Shannon Richards of Caleb Johnson Studio and, later, with Peter Floeckher, the head of Woodhull of Maine, Johnson’s general contracting company. While the home that stands here today is at the opposite end of the design spectrum from the Burkes’ original dwelling, the two structures do share one significant similarity: the feeling of being connected to the land. “We love the woods here,” says Adriana Burke. “We just gave Caleb a concept of big windows and the feeling of being outside, and right away, when he did the first sketch by hand, we knew he understood what we were looking for.”
Johnson and Chestnutt created a one-of-a-kind three-bedroom residence composed of various rectangular volumes punctuated with expansive floor-to-ceiling windows. “We were trying to do a modern retreat, a unique cabin in the woods for a couple who work in Manhattan,” says Johnson. “The big goals here were to provide lightinfused, interesting spatial relationships and a connection to the outdoors.” The first floor has an entryway, mudroom, open kitchen/living/dining area, den, powder room, and owners’ suite, while the second floor has the two boys’ bedrooms and a shared bath. Tucked off to the side of the kitchen/living area lies the dining nook. This placement “gives it a little bit more intimacy, while also including it in the other spaces without it being this old-style, closedoff formal dining room,” says Chestnutt. The owners’ suite is also situated for privacy, at the opposite end of the home from the open living area. Upstairs, one of the boy’s bedrooms is cantilevered over the den so that it seemingly floats among the tree branches. Each bedroom features modern built-in closets, which were crafted by Woodhull of Maine, and they are connected by a Jack-and-Jill bath with a separate shower/toilet chamber.
From the exterior, the various volumes seem to be pushed and pulled and even suspended over the L-shaped floor plan, creating boxy forms enhanced by a flat roof. On the inside, these extrusions are reflected in fluctuating ceiling heights that playfully rise and fall, depending on whether one is entering a more public or private space. The ceiling height over the open kitchen, for example, is 11 feet, while it soars to 15 feet over the connected living area, helping to subtly define them as two distinct spaces even though they’re one room. Throughout the home, the windows—some tall and narrow, others filling the entire wall of a room—perfectly frame the trunks of the pines, birches, oaks, and maples that ring the property. “The windows open up a whole slice where you can connect ground, trees, and sky,” says Johnson. “And you really get a feeling of the woods always coming in.”
The windows’ placement also means that, any time you enter a new space, you’re always walking toward a view—looking outside rather than facing a wall. The combination of the window sizes and placements along with the fluctuating ceiling heights creates an experience that Chestnutt likens to a walk in the woods. “It’s kind of like the expansive views of a vista and then you get more intimate and special glimpses—say, the way some rocks are piled and you can see underneath,” he says. Head up the staircase and you see the sky; turn around to go down, and you see a tree trunk rising up from the ground.
In both the owners’ suite and the dining nook, one wall is made entirely of glass. “There the room seems to dissolve, and it becomes like an intermediary within the landscape,” says Chestnutt. In the owners’ suite, the glass is opposite the bed, so that the Burkes wake up and immediately see the graceful long lines of white birch trees. What’s it like to have that as your view? “We sleep very well,” says Burke. “It’s an especially nice feeling when we come from the city. When we wake up, it takes a little bit of time to figure out where we are.”
For Johnson, creating that simple, peaceful feeling was paramount. “A lot of architecture and design is trying to make these big style statements or show complicated detailing or something,” he says. “For me, it’s more about quieting down the noise. Just let the outside be the outside. Let the wood be the wood. Let the stone be the stone. Just keep it quiet. There’s already enough noise going on.”
Indeed, the home’s use of materials—including white oak and pine—is kept natural and simple, and the overall palette is decidedly calm. The Burkes were open to color, however, so David Morris, the architect in charge of interior design, used it selectively. In the kitchen, tiles by Patricia Urquiola create an overscale backsplash. With more than two dozen different designs installed in a random pattern, the backsplash becomes almost an art feature. Below it are navy cabinets and a bright orange Bertazzoni range—a bold contrast that, despite Jeb’s background as a retired corporate chef, was the only kitchen request that the couple made.
The Burkes also opted for color on the exterior. The eastern white cedar is painted a dark green rather than left to weather. The color lets the home blend into its surroundings, as do the vertical lines of the siding, which was milled specifically for the home in varying widths that builder Company Nineteen, led by John Haskell, installed at random. Because the home has double-stud wall construction for energy efficiency, Company Nineteen was able to set the windows back. “That creates this beautiful shadow line and gives you this depth,” says Johnson. “In a lot of beautiful, old buildings, you’ll see they paid a lot of attention to this. We were very careful about the shadows that are being cast.”
The home is filled with those types of careful details: small touches one might not even necessarily be aware of, but that all help to create a sense of harmony throughout the home. For example, the horizontal trim around the doorways is always inset into the vertical trim, which draws the eye up and enhances the feeling of verticality felt throughout the house. The treads and risers on the staircase meet in neat 90-degree angles—without any type of ornamental overhang—in order to create the cleanest look possible. Also continuing the simple look is the white oak stair railing, inspired by Shaker design. “Their railings are just serpentine beautiful things that aren’t interrupted,” says Johnson.
Although the story of building the Burke’s home begins with the family camping in the yurt (which still stands just steps away), their connection to Kennebunkport goes back much further. Jeb grew up spending summers at his grandmother’s house nearby, working as a waiter at the Colony Hotel as a teenager and at the Kessler shoe factory. The Burkes continued to visit the area every year, staying with friends or family until one friend in particular—someone Jeb had known since his teenage days and who has three sons— sold him part of his land. Now that the two are neighbors, the five boys all surf, take out ATVs on the properties’ trails, or go out boating together. “It’s exactly what we were looking for,” says Burke. “It’s private and somewhat secluded, yet you’re still very close to Kennebunkport. When we are here, it’s like, ‘Okay, we can take a break and disconnect.’ It’s a little oasis in the middle of the woods.”