A contemporary home in Cape Elizabeth uses traditional building techniques and natural materials to create a serene shelter for its outdoorsy owners
As the coastline unspools north from the sandy beaches of Massachusetts and New Hampshire and up through Maine, it becomes increasingly harsh, rugged, and untamed. These cliffs and raw rock formations contribute mightily to the state’s appeal—they seems to speak, somehow, to the Maine character. So when Caleb Johnson of Caleb Johnson Studio in Portland set out to build a property on just over an acre of particularly craggy land in Cape Elizabeth, he knew better than to attempt a design that would tower over black shale and white waves. Rather, this home would meld into the landscape, married to the land through local materials, unadorned architectural features, and a general sense of simplicity.
The first time Johnson came to the homeowners—a retired couple from Cape Elizabeth who were looking to downsize— with a preliminary design, he was hesitant to show it. “It’s very plain,” Johnson cautioned. He revealed a sketch that showed three refined but unfussy structures (a main house, a free-standing garage, and a small office) each constructed without overly decorative touches. “We were going for a design that would feel clean and transparent,” he says. “Every structural element is right there, in your face. Everything you see does a job and serves a purpose.” The resulting home is contemporary (with large windows, an open floor plan, and exposed steel beams) yet classic (thanks to the steep pitch of the standing-seam metal gable roof). It was exactly what the homeowners wanted; Johnson, they say, “understood our vibe.”
Builder Andy Herbine (director of operations at Caleb Johnson Studio and Woodhull of Maine, their construction wing) emphasizes the use of natural materials, which “bring warmth into the space.” He says that simple materials, such as wood walls, metal support beams, and stone accents, “blur the line between indoors and outdoors.” This not only fits into the homeowners’ active and outdoorsy lifestyle (they both like to kayak, swim, and hike) but also pays homage to the history of building in Maine. Building this way “ties us back to our ancestry and our heritage,” he says. “Our forefathers used horses to bring stone to build foundations. Even now, when you see stones in a house, you get a sense of history, of longevity.”
While many of the materials were purchased locally and reflect the natural resources of New England, the house also speaks to a larger, global tradition of elegant practicality. Although the Cape Elizabeth home isn’t overtly Japanese in style, Johnson drew inspiration for the design from a book on Japanese architecture he purchased secondhand at Yes Books on Congress Street in Portland. “I have always admired Japanese architecture, and this book really showed how traditional Japanese architecture stacks structures in clean, transparent ways,” he explains. “There is a hierarchy visible within the designs.” Larger beams carry more weight, both visually and structurally. Johnson used the load-bearing features of the Cape Elizabeth home (such as exposed beams made of Maine hemlock) to help define the space and impose a sense of order on the open floor plan. On the first floor, the kitchen is the “command center,” says Johnson, and the rooms flow “logically through the house.” He adds, “If you think about it sequentially, the house goes entryway, kitchen, sitting area, lawn, ocean—with no big railings or steps in your way.” He used ceiling heights and floor levels to set the living room apart from the kitchen, installing a single long granite step that puts the sparse and casual living area just a few inches lower than the busier realm of the kitchen. In this room, as in the rest of the home, purpose comes first; style is secondary.
A sense of practicality is also on display in the layout of the property and its three buildings. As you enter from the main road, you first encounter a stand-alone garage-cumoffice that houses the homeowners’ original Ford Model T automobile on the first floor and the husband’s work space on the second floor. As the driveway winds downhill, you begin to glimpse the garage (located slightly higher on the landscape) and the house (located closest to the water). When Johnson was designing the layout of these structures, he says, he was highly aware of the “reality of modern life”: “The majority of the time, when you come to a home, you’re arriving in a car,” he states. “I didn’t want to try and hide that fact, to make the garage somehow less visible. I’ve seen that done before, and that denies our reality and forces buildings into weird circulation patterns and redundant entries.” Instead of trying to disguise the garage, Johnson created a carport with an ocean view in front of the main entryway. Then, to connect the two buildings (both visually and physically), he created a cascading covered walkway held up by galvanized steel beams set at an angle. This not only mimics the natural growth of young trees but also provides additional stability against the bracing wind. Landscape architect Todd Richardson of Richardson and Associates in Saco planted birch saplings around the steel columns to help “blend the steel into the landscape,” Johnson explains. “The trees have a similar diameter and act as little vertical poles that parrot the galvanized poles that hold up the roof,” he says.
To the north of the carport, the homeowners put in raised beds and created a flourishing vegetable garden, where they grow salad greens, tomatoes, and crisp string beans. For Johnson, the homeowners’ well-kept garden is just further evidence of his clients’ predilections and tastes. “Any good house will always be some sort of reflection of the owner,” he says. “This house has an agrarian feel. To live there means that you are on the land, that you are outside. You walk from the office to the house; you have to walk to the garage or the garden. You can’t just hole up and turn the air-conditioning on.” In the summer, the couple uses their indoor–outdoor spaces, such as the patio, for dining and entertaining. In the winter, they watch the sea change color from their living room, where a cast-iron stove emits warmth, flickering light, and the comforting scent of woodsmoke. (Herbine admits that having a woodstove in an energy-efficient home such as this “isn’t typical.” But, he adds, “Our client loves the smell of burning wood and has since he was a child. He was adamant, and so we made it work.”)
Like the modest exterior, which makes the most of its natural elements, the interior of the home is composed with optimal comfort in mind. Interior designer Krista Stokes of Kennebunkport says the house was a “dream to work on” even though the clients didn’t come to her with any clipped pictures or Pinterest boards. “They came to me with words and ideas,” she says. “At our first meeting, I wrote down what they wanted: raw, refined, strong, quiet, rugged, and peaceful.” These, Stokes says, make up the “dichotomy of the house.” To achieve this look inside, she collaborated with Herbine and Johnson to pick out bleached poplar wood shiplap, which makes a “simple, understated statement” on the ceiling and staircase. Stokes also helped the clients select neutral-colored rugs from Angela Adams and Mougalian Rugs for the living room and bedrooms, as well as a black kitchen island countertop that, when juxtaposed with the white cabinets, gives a “sense of sturdiness.” “When you have a view like that, it’s hard not to have objects look fragile when compared with it,” she says. “Everything in the house had to have weight, interest, and presence to hold up to the landscape.” Although Stokes did help the homeowners select some new furniture from Youngs Furniture in Portland, she says they brought many of their old possessions into their new house. “They’re just practical people,” Stokes says, “Plain and simple.”