Iron Fist Velvet Glove
A New York client inspires a Portland architect to design a new kind of cottage for Moody Beach
Caleb Johnson can cite a trio of criteria crucial to any project’s success. “The client, the site, and the studio—those three things are the vectors,” says the architect, whose Portland studio bears his name. “My job is to align them.”
But in the case of a beach house on Moody Beach in Wells, just over the Ogunquit line, the client and her husband played a major role in their alignment. She’s a Massachusetts native who’s been running a highly successful New York asset management company for the past 30 years. She knows how to make a project a reality and how to collaborate.
“She asked me questions about the studio, and I asked her questions about who she was,” Johnson says of their relationship. “The result here is about her management of it.”
He’s talking about her new three-bedroom, three-bath, two-story home sited on a dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. To begin, he and the client discussed the essence of what she wanted, who her family was, and why she chose this particular site. “We didn’t talk about countertops,” he says. “It’s a really intense thing to do—to create a statement about the owners.”
He took that statement back to his studio and started sketching and talking with one of his associates, seeking to refine design solutions. Then he went back to the client, engaging her in the ideas they’d come up with. “She said, ‘It’s not right yet,’” he remembers.
This was a client with thoughts of her own about the design’s direction. “We’d asked him for something that would be simple and streamlined and of the environment, to really take advantage of the views,” she says. “In many ways, we wanted the house to disappear and be in character and harmony with this area.”
The immediate landscape at Moody Beach is dominated by a series of one- and two-bedroom cottages built in the 1940s, each with a distinct New England feel: shingled, unpainted, and untreated. Some have been replaced, but even the newer cottages retain that rustic feel. The client knew she wanted that kind of character too—not necessarily with cedar shingles, but possibly with vertical planking. And she did not want to overpower her neighbors.
So she sat at her dining room table with her husband and Johnson while the architect sketched out his ideas and they talked about what they wanted. “We were communicating to him the concept; it was a very collaborative process,” she says. “We went through a few designs, and after the first real proposal there was a lot of back and forth, with drawings on napkins for concepts. And then everyone went, ‘Yes, that’s it!’”
Johnson’s solution was simplicity itself, totally rooted in the local vernacular. “He said, ‘I see two little lobster shacks,’” the client recalls.
“I came up with a two-volume structure to break down the building mass,” the architect says. “From that point on it became a more nuanced dance, back and forth among the studio, the client, and the budget, and in this case the budget was realistically aligned.”
And, of course, there was the site, which provided its own set of challenges. The lot is 50 by 100 feet and regulated in terms of building size and height. The home’s footprint could be a maximum of 1,300 square feet, with a total allowed living space of 2,600 square feet. “Given the size of the site, we didn’t want to do something oversized, but we didn’t want it to be too small a building either,” the client says.
Johnson grew up surfing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where most houses are built on stilts to survive storm surges. He suggested the same for this property and its sand dune. “The idea is about building up on it and letting everything flow under the house and back out,” he says. “Structurally speaking, it makes a lot of sense, and aesthetically, if you put in round poles, it makes a certain amount of visual sense.”
Builder Barry Chase of Wells-based Chase Construction excavated down five feet, built a concrete foundation, added base plates, then hooked up the pilings—telephone poles, really—and backfilled sand above the concrete. Cedar planking spans the poles, and the home rises from there. The new design, imported from the Carolina coast, was something he liked working with. “This house was out of the norm for us. It’s not what you usually see at the beach,” Chase says. “But it was fun.”
The owner and her husband own homes around the world, including one in New York and another on the Red Sea, but wanted this one to be their home base as they move into retirement. Offices for each are contained in the smaller volume, while living and sleeping spaces are in the larger. Both offer sweeping views.
“They said, ‘We’ve worked hard, we’ve been successful, and we want our dream home,’” Johnson says. “And they wanted to take advantage of this amazing sand dune.”
They were looking for a home that would feel attached to the outside and be quiet inside, while open to the vistas. “The views are not only of the Atlantic Ocean to the front, but also of the marsh to the west,” he says. “That was the brief: take the view and match it with their lifestyle.”
He designed a contemporary home that does exactly that, merging the flow of inside and outside spaces. “The way it unfolds is that the living room is thrust forward for incredible views,” he says. “The screened porch opens out to the deck, and from there out to the beach.”
He used natural materials: local white cedar clad- ding outside, Douglas fir from the mid-Atlantic region inside, white oak cabinetry built by Chase’s firm, and more white oak for the floors. At the landings for the stairway are giant slabs of Jet Mist black granite. “It’s a durable spot for water and sand, where you can take your shoes off or wipe off your boots,” the client says. “And they serve as a design function.”
The house is as green as it can get. There’s a full solar array on the roof’s southern exposure, LED lighting for a low draw of energy, and insulation that rates way above code. An all-electric heating system is offset by the solar panels. “The greatest impact we could have is not using nonrenewable fossil fuel; probably 60 to 70 percent of the energy comes from the sun,” Johnson says. “That’s the biggest impact, along with using renewable materials with the lowest amount of embodied energy.”
The finished product is easy on the eye, following the client’s desire for a quiet look and a restrained color palette. “We used colors and materials to blur the lines between inside and outside, because the landscape is unusually beautiful and ever-changing,” the client says. “We wanted to drive the eye outside.”
If she sounds like an architect’s dream client, that’s because she pretty much fits that bill. “She is one of the most capable, all-round people I’ve ever worked with,” Johnson says. “An iron fist in a velvet glove is exactly what she is. I think of her as a regular mentor now.”
“She’s a great woman,” he says. “And that’s how she got a great house.”