Old Buoy Network
An innovative home on Isle au Haut interprets local culture and vernacular in unexpected ways
“He shanghaied me,” says 36-year-old Noel Fedosh, principal of LUNO Design Studio, feigning bewilderment.
“I wanted a return on my college investment,” counters his father, Mike Fedosh, good-naturedly. Their jocular ribbing concerns the off-the-grid house Noel designed for his father and stepmother, Ellen, on Isle au Haut, almost six miles off the coast from the mainland town of Stonington. The idiosyncratic design of the 1,500-square-foot structure has turned more than a few heads since its completion last summer, but its roots in the locale run deeper than might immediately be apparent.
Mike has been visiting Isle au Haut for over 40 years. “Since childhood I’ve been in love with Maine,” says the 64-year-old New Jersey–born geologist who, on a trip to Acadia National Park in his 20s, noticed “there was a part of the park out on this island that was pristine and wild.” He began regular forays to this rocky mass floating in Penobscot Bay, sometimes camping, sometimes staying at the lightkeeper’s house. When Noel and his sister were old enough, Mike brought them too, inculcating a love of this place in his children. “I’ve been hiking these trails since I was ten,” recalls Noel wistfully.
After earning his architecture degree, Noel settled in Los Angeles to work for a small practice in Venice before landing a job, in 2011, with celebrity architecture firm Landry Design Group (clients include Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, Mark Wahlberg, Sylvester Stallone, and Dr. Dre). Last year, he and fellow LDG alum Louis Polidori formed LUNO. But the Isle au Haut project actually began straight out of college when Mike and Ellen—a schoolteacher—invited their family to visit Isle au Haut in 2010. Walking the island’s ring road one day, Mike motioned them through some brush to a scenic spot on the rocks where everyone sat to admire the view. “So, what do you think?” asked Mike of the setting, who then announced he had purchased a ten-acre swath of the property and wanted Noel to build a house on it.
The resulting residence, an L-shaped structure with a volume on one side that appears to be tumbling over, explains Noel, “is a riff on New England gable-ended, batten-board-sided homes.” True to form, he also incorporated the cedar shakes typical of the style. Less expected is the standing-seam metal roof. “It’s more durable,” he observes, “and I like it because it’s a more contemporary choice.” Even more atypically, however—at least superficially—the exterior showcases irregular grids of color: marine blue, fire engine red, and sunflower yellow. “My father loves color,” says Noel. “The house I grew up in looked like it belonged on Saint Lucia: sky blue with canary yellow shutters and cherry red trim. Every room was painted a different color. I knew I could design a really cool house, but then I’d leave the island and, when I returned, he would have color all over it.” The impressively mustachioed Mike’s year-round wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts and Panama hats confirms that the young architect had reasonable cause for concern.
Noel’s solution was to extrapolate from the Maine tradition of hanging colorful lobster buoys on the sides of houses. “I told him, ‘You can pick a red, a yellow, and a blue.’ It would be his mark on the house,” says Noel of his dad. Mike’s palette selections were then worked into the irregular exterior grids, an idea carried indoors in the form of ceramic tiles sporting more muted or richer glazes of the same colors. Noel explains, “I wanted a consistency in the way you read a design choice that translates from outside to inside.” Thus the kitchen, located at the fulcrum of the L’s perpendicular wings, sports another irregular color grid. As that wall extends down the wide corridor forming the spine of the two-bedroom wing, Noel interspersed the colored tiles with ash gray ones that collect and store solar heat.
On an island where the ferry runs twice a day in the off-season and only somewhat more regularly in warm-weather months, says Noel, “It’s really a necessity to be off the grid.” In college, he had been part of Cornell University’s Solar Decathlon team, so he brought his knowledge about energy efficiency and independence to bear on the project.
“Noel did a really good job of orienting the house to the angle of the sun,” says builder Brian Burgess, explaining that the open end of the L faces east–southeast to capture maximum sun throughout the day. Photovoltaic panels line the roof over the bedroom wing and great room wing (kitchen, dining, and living area), which both feature floor-to-ceiling windows that maximize solar gain, and through which Mike and Ellen can gaze out toward Little and Big Spoon Islands. There is also a huge solar field that can power the house, with enough leftover energy for other homes. The corridor lining the bedrooms “is wider than it has to be,” says Noel, “because it doubles as a greenhouse for Ellen’s enormous collection of plants.” Clerestory windows above the greenery allow ventilation into the bedrooms and provide natural convection.
Island building, of course, is potentially a logistical nightmare. “Timing is everything,” admits Burgess. “There were days the weather didn’t allow us to go out because it was so harsh. You’re dealing with light restrictions, the tides, a mailboat that runs slowly and not often. You have to schedule two weeks in advance to have a barge bring over materials and make sure the trucks are at the beach at the right time to meet it. You can’t just go to the lumberyard and get what you need. It was a workout.” Burgess did use the mailboat to bring some materials, but eventually bought a boat to expedite the project and shuttle tradesmen back and forth. “The mailboat is a 45-minute ride; on my boat it’s 15. It only made sense for us to do that.”
Plants aren’t the only collection Noel had to accommodate. Mike and Ellen have amassed much in travels fed by the couple’s fascination with eclipses. There are souvenirs and artifacts from places as far-flung as Hawaii, Sweden, Libya, and the Cook Islands. There are also zeppelins; signatures of Civil War soldiers and other historical memorabilia; antique ivory; many things astronomy-related; and, of course, lots and lots of rocks (“There’s a ton of them in the basement,” Mike admits).
Mike also likes to shoot pool, but an earlier plan for a game room proved too costly. Solution? A cover now transforms the billiard table into a dining table. “I knew they were going to need a light fixture that fit the scale of the room,” says Noel, who designed the unusual upturned rowboat with netted glass fishing floats dangling over the table. Mike and Ellen were skeptical about this idea, but Noel won them over by convincing Ellen, who loves creating flower arrangements, that this would be “an upside-down floral arrangement.”
“He’s an island guy at heart,” says Noel of his father, admitting less planned color will eventually invade the rooms. But Mike seems appeased on the exterior: “On an overcast day here, the world is gray—the rocks are gray, the sky is gray, the water’s gray. Then I see the house and it satisfies my love of color.”