Sister Act

Two siblings build a waterfront home for the future and share it with their families in the present

For a pair of sisters and their spouses, architect Phil Kaplan designed a home that was modest in size, but big enough for two families who are active in the landscape and on the water
The clients wanted a place where they could gather as a family, enjoy meals together, and seat ten people at the table, which they say they’ll soon outgrow.
One requirement from the clients was that one owner’s bedroom suite be located on the first floor and another on the second floor, on opposite sides of the house.
A large, eat-in kitchen is attached to an equally large screened porch that provides protection from mosquitoes in summer and serves as a hangout space for music, napping, and lunch.
The house is oriented north to south, with the living room on the south side.
A guest bedroom is on the second floor.
The cedar-clad home is environmentally conscious: it’s passive solar and super insulated, with walls that are one foot thick and roofs set up for solar panels.
The clients asked for a net-zero house that they could live in year-round, and for four bedrooms and four baths.

An almost-century-old college get-together—one that led to a purchase of waterfront land in Harpswell on Cundy’s Harbor—has now evolved into a family-centric pair of homes.

“Ninety years ago, my great-grandfather on my father’s side went to a Harvard reunion, and one of his buddies was trying to unload some land in Maine—about 75 acres,” says Louisville, Kentucky, resident Meg McDermott. “My great-grandfather drove up and bought it.”

He converted the property into a boys’ surveying camp that thrived for years. The land was passed from one generation to the next, until it was split up a couple of generations back. “My grandmother had three siblings, and it got divided,” she says.

That meant McDermott and her sister, Anne Gatewood, would grow up summering on one of the waterfront parcels in and around the house their parents built on its 12 acres. “We’ve always gone there, my sister and I,” McDermott says. “There are two of us in the family, and my parents said that if we ever wanted to build, we could.”

It was an enticing offer. But the sisters, along with their husbands and children, were scattered in different parts of the country. Still, they religiously came back for summers on the Maine coast. For years, the exigencies of their lives—school in Colorado, jobs in Kansas City, Boston, Arizona, and Kentucky—conspired against any kind of new construction. Financial considerations and their children’s education played a role as well.

Then the two sisters and their husbands started up a serious discussion, one they’d all been thinking about for a while. “My sister and brother-in-law and I said, ‘What about building a house together?’” Gatewood recalls. “That made it much more financially feasible.”

They realized the arrangement could prove mutually beneficial to each sister and her family. Their parents were willing to give them the land to build on—half of their 12 acres, located right down the cove from them. The families would split the costs (design, construction, and even groceries), move in for summer vacations, and share the new house until their parents passed away. At that point, a retired Gatewood and her husband would live in the newer residence, and the McDermotts would set up shop in the original house.

So far, it’s working. Today, they share the new house during the warmer months without a glitch. “Now there are four of us—my sister and her husband, and me and my husband—and we spend all summer in the house,” McDermott says. “The kids come in and out—they’re graduates and undergraduates, and everyone is off doing things. They’re here for a week or two, and it all works out remarkably well.”

Part of the reason for that is because the foursome initially contacted Phil Kaplan, principal at Kaplan Thompson Architects in Portland. The Gatewoods had known him since their college days at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Better yet, he’d already been spending time with them at their parents’ cottage for the past decade. “He’d visited the property a number of times, for big family dinners, swimming, and sail- ing,” she says. “He knew it much better than the average architect.”

Still, designing a home for two families to share is not exactly a walk on the beach. To begin with, there were site-driven challenges. A flat area set above the water at first seemed an ideal solution but would have placed the home too far above a natural ledge on the water, without views of the cove for everyone to enjoy.

So the architect suggested moving the home’s site 100 feet closer to that ledge, down and away from the flat area. He placed it on a long, skinny piece of land that slopes 75 feet to the water, with a design that is oriented south to north.

“Now it’s a linear home that lives along the water with the house connected socially and visually, one end to the other,” Kaplan says. “Inside, there are very different things going on in different spaces, and the two families are often doing two different things. But everyone gets a view of the water.”

To be sure, designing the home itself was complex, but remarkably, the two sisters and their husbands all agreed on a single idea out of a number that the architect presented. “My husband was traveling, and I was in Kansas City, and my sister was in Boston. We were in four different places, but we all agreed on the same design,” McDermott says. “Phil said, ‘I can’t get two married people to agree, much less four people in four different places.’”

As it turned out, the concept they all chose was the most progressive. “If you hire an architect, you might as well go for it, they told me,” says Kaplan. “They didn’t want something with a gabled roof.”

He’d presented a design that was driven not just by the site but by the elements inside, specific to each couple’s needs. “They wanted a program that would accommodate both families when they’re there at the same time and have them still stay friends,” Kaplan says. “There are two owners’ bedrooms, with a large living room, dining room, and kitchen space.”

There was also the requisite screened porch, harking back to the nearby home where the sisters had grown up. They did want a few twenty-first-century updates, however. “We hang out there and listen to music, and our husbands smoke cigars there on occasion,” Gatewood says. “You’ll find people napping there during the day, and eating lunch too, and the bar is really a great transition from the kitchen to the porch in summer. We leave it open all day long.”

The form Kaplan created not only works much better with the landscape but also gives the clients a large first floor and the potential for aging in place, with the screened porch and an owners’ suite located there. On the second floor is the second owners’ suite, because the two couples didn’t want them stacked atop one another. “The smaller second floor is offset from the first floor, primarily because the two suites were to be on opposite sides of the house and different floors from each other,” Kaplan says. “And the third floor is much smaller—just enough for a workout area.”

All in all, the architect was trying to achieve a fun, soulful, bright, and summery space that would be connected to the outdoors, with bright birch paneling inside and silvery cedar shakes outside. “I wanted to take the way they were used to spending the summer and make it even better,” Kaplan says. “They live outside in the screened porch, and inside they feel more intimately connected to the ground than in their parents’ house, where the screened porch is on the second floor. We wanted it grounded for the connection.”

Sadly, the sisters’ father passed away before construction started, but not before he could sit down and discuss drawings with the architect. So what was his reaction? “He was excited,” says Kaplan.

And why not? He was looking at his family’s future, for generations to come.