Surfin’ USA

A Montreal family of three heads home to Higgins Beach for ocean waves and lazy days.

“It’s still not a simple form because of zoning constraints, but the house makes a clean, bold statement instead of a convoluted one,” Johnson says. The second-floor volume on the left is the addition.
A bamboo lattice light from IKEA hangs over a scarred wooden table from Blanche and Mimi in Portland; while the kitchen’s one window is not large, a giant skylight keeps it bright.
Just past the modest entry, the house opens wide. “We maximized views of the beach with corner windows,” Angst says.
The surf room, which doubles as a mudroom, is right inside the front door.
Midcoast Marble and Granite in West Bath fabricated the Italian soapstone sink in the surf room and Rondeau Woodworks, which did all the millwork in the house, made the stand; a mix of Dots and Bars tiles by LiLi Cement Tile Line purchased from Old Port Specialty Tile covers the floor.
Zoé can catch a glimpse of the ocean out her parent’s window by looking through the shared Jack-and-Jill bath.

Many flock to Maine for lobsters, lighthouses, and lazy days. Dominique Fortier and Fred Lalonde adore that quintessential #MaineLife, but what drew them to buy a place on Higgins Beach was a more niche enthusiasm. “Higgins Beach is the Malibu of Maine,” Lalonde, an avid surfer, says. “It reminds me of an isolated West Coast surf town.”

The couple, who live in a red brick house in Montreal with their eight-year-old daughter Zoé and a golden doodle named Sirius, had been visiting Cape Elizabeth for about 15 years before they sought out rentals at family-friendly Higgins Beach in Scarborough. “Around the time Zoé was born, we crossed the Spurwink River on paddleboards to Higgins and immediately liked the feel of the place,” Fortier says.

In 2016 they purchased a shingled three-bedroom just shy of 2,000 square feet, where they spent two summers getting a sense of what worked and what didn’t. Then they hired Caleb Johnson Studio to reimagine it, inside and out. This was easier said than done, given the community’s building codes. “Higgins has a rigorous stylistic code to maintain its character; you can’t just drop a modern house on the beach,” Lalonde says. “We asked Caleb to draw a home that looked like it had always been there.”

Johnson describes the couple’s design statement— clean, bright, simple, and relaxed—as fairly straight forward. Landing on the right combination of classic Maine and modern style required exploration to see how far they wanted to go toward either end. Early iterations skewed more modern. When the couple decided to pare down the size of the second-floor addition by removing a guest suite, the current design fell into place. “We fell in love with the roofline when they took away that space,” Fortier says. “It went from being a bit of a monster to quirky and interesting.”

There’s some quirk inside too. To the right of the front door is a bespoke surf room—essentially an enormous shower room where Lalonde’s surfing equipment, Zoé’s boogie board, and the family’s shaggy, beach-loving pooch can be hosed down. “Wet suits have to be cleaned or they smell like dead hermit crabs,” Lalonde says. “I wanted a space that would be completely impervious.” That space is as stylish as it is functional, with cement floor tiles sporting cerulean blue dots and dashes, along with an Italian soapstone sink akin to those used by oyster farmers.

Lalonde, who surfs in the wintertime to catch the best swells, also appreciates the radiant-heat floors. “My wet suit freezes on the short walk back to the house, so the indoor shower and warm floors are very nice.”

The surf room absorbs all of the family’s seasonal accoutrements, allowing for an uncluttered entry that features a simple stair with maple treads and a spare, sculptural steel rail. “It has a light touch,” says Bud Angst, the other architect on the team. “Discreet details take the longest to design; we spent a lot of time with that curve on the end.” The vertical balusters pop against the white nickel-gap paneling, which was a must-have for the couple to achieve an authentic, been-around-a-while, New England feel. “We wanted the builders to install the maple floorboards with gaps too, to make the floor look old, but they said it wasn’t a good idea,” Fortier says.

One of the project’s biggest challenges was balancing the desire for ocean views with the need for privacy. The solution? Using large windows on the corners that face the beach and smaller windows set higher off the ground on the sides of the house that face the street. In the main living space, oversize two-over-two windows flank an expanse of plate glass. “We used windows without muntins where the view of the beach is the strongest,” Johnson explains. “It’s a nice way to juxtapose modern with traditional.”

The kitchen exudes what Angst calls “cool beach house vibes” with its classic white subway tiles paired with gray grout, apron-front sink, cantilevered ash shelves, and Shaker-style cabinets painted Benjamin Moore Wedgewood Gray. Fortier chose the color based on the sample that most closely resembled the color of a cloth-bound hardcover that sits on her bookshelf in Montreal. She says the shade echoes the Higgins Beach sky right before sunset as well as the subtle hue found on the inside of an oyster shell.

Although the kitchen is completely open to the sun-filled dining area and sports a skylight, Johnson notes that making the back wall solid was a major move. Also, a necessary one. “Many of our projects have solitary water views,” he says. “This one has a practically Miami Beach– like level of activity.” He didn’t miscalculate. Fortier reports that, even when it’s cloudy, there’s tons of light. Plus, the design granted space for the giant fridge they wanted to fill with lots of lobsters.

A narrow hall leads from the kitchen to the guest quarters that run along the street side of the house. The tucked-away location of the bunk room, spacious guest bedroom, and bath with vintage claw-foot tub affords privacy to the hosts and their numerous visitors. “We have people all the time,” Zoé says animatedly. “Just as someone leaves, someone else comes!”

As much as Lalonde heads to Maine to catch a wave, as the founder and CEO of the travel app Hopper he also spends a fair amount of time working. Since zoning regulations prohibited expanding the home’s footprint, the architects added an office for him on the second floor. Corner windows capture the ocean view and, when the room’s ten-foot-long accordion door is open, pull in natural light that bathes the core of the house via the stairwell. When the door is shut, the room is sound-proof. “It also prevents Zoom from catching people in bathing suits wandering by,” Lalonde says.

Fortier, who is a writer, works in their bedroom, an airy space with a cathedral ceiling, exposed rafters, and a killer view. “We maximized the view from the corner out,” Angst says. “At no point is the bed exposed to the street or the next-door neighbors.” The room is dreamy even when it rains, thanks to the new standing-seam metal roof. “It sounds like a meditation app,” Lalonde says.

By absorbing the balcony overlooking the beach, the team was able to reconfigure the primary bath into a dressing room and sunny Jack-and-Jill bath with a freestanding soaking tub, a walk-in shower, and a double vanity. It connects to Zoé’s bedroom, a setup that works perfectly for the tight-knit family of three.

Like her parent’s room, Zoé’s room has a cathedral ceiling and exposed rafters, a design that took some doing. Before the architects raised the gable roof, it was an attic-like space just seven feet high at the peak, filled with toys. Although it lacks a water view, the new room has large windows that peek at the tops of the nearby houses, but not into their windows.

The couple visited the site just twice during construction and chose the finishes remotely by reviewing material swatches that the builders shipped across the border. “We also created a digital photo album we updated weekly with descriptions of work that had been done, along with what would happen next,” Josh Morrison, project manager at R.P. Morrison Builders, says. “As Maine is ‘Vacationland,’ we have many clients who aren’t local, so we have found ways to bring them on-site to ensure they will not be disappointed.” Lalonde says it was a crazy gamble, but one that paid off. Fortier likens move-in day to a TV show reveal: “We opened the door, and it was like, this is home.”