On Mount Desert Island, a lot on a tidal cove drive the design of a rural retreat.
The inspiration for a new home nestled near a tidal cove on the western tip of Mount Desert Island came from nature itself.
The owner, Abby Rowe, is a rock climber, an outdoor educator, and a lover of the Maine coast. She honed her climbing skills first in college at Cornell, then by running a student outdoor program for 13 years at Colgate. She’d been trying to find her way back to Maine since she left in 2003—then she came across a cove-front lot on the island.
“She bought a beautiful piece of property,” says architect Eric Reinholdt, founder of 30X40 Design Workshop, also on the island. “We were inspired by the spruce forest.”
Rowe had questions, though. First, how could she respect the quiet nature of the spot? “I wanted to preserve the particular reflective properties that the land has,” she says. “People lower their voices when they get here, so I wanted a building that does not compromise that, but actually heightens it.”
The solution was to give her home the least possible visibility—to pull it down to the land as it descends eight feet to the cove. “We tried to keep the profile as low as possible. It’s not an imposing structure,” says Nate True of Black Crow Builders. “The lot drove the design.”
Rowe also wondered about how to create a series of spaces where friends could arrive, gather, and then retreat. “I had a vision that, if I could build a small village to house my friends who are nearest and dearest to me, that’s what I would do,” she says. “That’s why we have all these modules. They’re places where people can come and visit and also have their own space and time.”
For that solution, Reinholdt first envisioned a large, barnlike community structure and two smaller cottages for study and sleep. “I wanted to create a little village with a place to gather in a central space, and ancillary cottages where guests could retreat,” Reinholdt says.
The three-cottage concept that started with Rein- holdt had its roots in a project he’d designed earlier—two cabins connected by a deck—that Rowe discovered on his website. But her three-cottage village is definitely site-specific to the cove and all its attributes. “The site is progenitor for the architectural form, and then there’s the overlay from the client and her ideas,” Reinholdt says.
The complex of structures lines up visually with the cove, a small, uninhabitable island that almost disappears at high tide, and Mansell Mountain off in the distance. “Each module has large-format windows aimed right at that view and the mountain,” True says. “Standing in the kitchen, you’re cooking and looking at that mountain, and the guest bedroom, the owner’s bedroom, and the office on the second floor are all aimed at it.”
The owner’s space is farthest down toward the water. Her study is on the second floor, almost like a hawk’s nest overlooking the cove. The common space is contained in the barn module at the top of the hill, a place where people interact while they’re surrounded by nature. “There are floor-to-ceiling windows, and it feels like you can touch the cove,” she says. “With it built that way, you feel like you’re outside even when you’re inside.”
One major decision was to place the entry in the barn module up high. “We wanted the experience of the house to mimic the experience of the site,” Reinholdt says. “You come in at the top of the hill and enter down, turn toward the water and away, then toward the water again and away.”
In essence, the architect was modulating the human experience at the site. “Every time you turn, you get a different aspect of it,” he says. “It changes as you enter up high and come down the steps, and you’re presented with a different view.”
Walking through the structures also yields different slices of how the house interacts with its natural surroundings. “I love that it changes throughout the day and year as the season changes,” he says. “It’s like a lens for the site.”
True found daily inspiration from it as he worked on the project. “It’s an amazing lot. It’s in a tidal area that’s always changing, every day when you arrive,” he says. “It’s a peaceful and beautiful lot—and a great work site.”
The downside to the three-module village is that it’s spread out and thus not as energy efficient as a single structure might be. So Rowe and Reinholdt added solar panels, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and as much insulation as possible. “It’s not off the grid, but the goal is not to purchase energy from the grid,” she says.
Looking to the spruce forest, Reinholdt selected cedar shingles for the cladding of the structures, then added board-formed concrete for retaining walls and planters. “The shingles are reminiscent of the black spruce, with a muted, darker palette that’s filtering to the earth,” he says. “The board-formed concrete fits into the site as well.”
Inside, the flooring is red birch, a cast-off from the yellow birch tree and, importantly, a local material. Once considered waste wood, it’s now considered the poor man’s cherry. “It has rich tones, so there are beautiful red tones in the floors,” he says.
Interior walls are painted neutral colors, and corners are glazed to admit as much light as possible. “The light here is very blue, especially in the winter, so having that warm tone on the floor is important,” he says. “Winter is eight months long here, and handling light in winter is important.”
To do that, the architect took care to curate how and where that light enters the buildings. “The way natural light enters and changes is the result of the way the houses are posi- tioned, and how openings in the skin are cut into walls,” he says. “The big openings are designed for views, and the small openings are apertures to let light in.”
Outside, he created a series of decks that protect people from the prevailing winds. “There are little microclimates around the building that can change a lot during the day,” he says. “Some- times it’s cold, especially in springtime, and you can retreat from one microclimate to another so you’ll be more comfortable.”
Rowe may have started out wanting a small house that feels like a medium-sized one, but she ended up with one that’s medium sized but feels like a large house. The living space totals about 2,100 square feet, with a garage and gym (complete with two-story climbing wall) that bring it to 3,000 square feet total. “Most people think it’s 5,000 square feet because of the vaulted ceilings and the way it’s laid out,” she says. “You’re not walking by unused space all the time, and you have separation for guests.”
In addition to outdoor education in college, Rowe also studied interior design, working with architecture students and learning how to make those relationships work. “The theory is that you start with an architect you like,” she says.
Clearly, she did that here on Mount Desert Island. But it didn’t hurt to have a site that showed them both how to best work with nature.