Traditional Heart, Modern Touch
PROFILE – NOV/DEC 2008
by Joshua Bodwell
Photography Irvin Serrano
A Blue Hill architect whose unique designs capture Maine’s spirit
Blue Hill Bay, late September, and the weather has snapped. The weak morning sun pushes back the season’s first frost, and the air is crowded with the crisp smells of autumn.
At the edge of the bay, a father and son carefully prepare to put up their small wooden sailboat for the season: the mast is unstepped, the rigging is stored, the ropes coiled and stacked in bright nests on the dock.
Across the street, in a turn-of-the-century Cape with a wide farmer’s porch and granite foundation, are the offices of Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture (EENA). Founding partner Matthew Elliott has just returned from a jobsite where an EENA-designed house is under construction. “I still love being on the jobsites of our projects,” says the 49-year-old architect with a smile.
Will this new project win awards from the Maine and New England chapters of the American Institute of Architects, as have two other EENA projects over the past year? If the new house were to be garlanded in accolades, it wouldn’t surprise those who have watched EENA’s rapid rise to national prominence or marveled at their uncanny ability to marry traditional forms with a contemporary touch.
Founded in 1993 as Elliott & Elliott Architecture by Matt and his wife Libby, the firm was renamed when Bruce Norelius became a partner in 2001. The three architects met while earning their master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. Known for their bold yet minimalist residential designs, EENA has been pioneering modernist reinterpretations of the New England architectural vernacular. And for the past decade, the firm’s designs have been earning awards on a nearly annual basis.
While Elliott’s firm, now comprising a team of eleven, is often lauded for their daring use of steel, glass, and other materials that are less common to Maine architecture, Elliott gently insists that EENA doesn’t have a “signature look.” In fact, even a cursory flip through their projects will reveal homes that could easily fall into several divergent categories, including Shingle Style, cottage, modern, and postmodern.
Although EENA does not ascribe to any particular architectural style, the firm does hold to a few core values and principles. “I want our buildings, first of all, to have a great relationship to their sites and capture great light,” says Elliott. “Beyond that, I want our buildings to feel like they are of Maine.”
This last thought may seem perplexing to those who only glance quickly at EENA’s work and dismiss it as too modern for Maine. In reality, Elliott’s designs are often sophisticated, brilliantly refined updates of classic architectural forms. “We like to wonder, ‘How would the people who built those old farmhouses build today if they had the technology and materials we now have’” says the architect.
Elliott’s much-praised House & Studio in Brooklin is a paean to lean Shaker starkness, yet it uses window sizes and materials that builders 150 years ago would have envied. EENA’s recently completed House in the Meadow honors the traditional white-clapboard siding and cedar-shingled roof of the Cape Cod that once stood on the property, but it infuses large planes of glass into the old formula.
Both the House & Studio and House in the Meadow were conceived as multiple buildings either directly connected or joined by pathways and courtyards. This too is an aesthetic that harkens back to the rambling additions added to New England farmhouses over generations. “I love multiple volumes for many reasons,” says Elliott, “but especially because of the spaces they create on a home’s exterior.” When Elliott designs a south-facing courtyard, he wants to provide a space that is protected from the wind, but that also catches the early spring and late-autumn sun.
“The hardest thing to design,” laughs Elliott, “is a new barn that captures that quality of the old barns we all love, but doesn’t seem contrived.” He marvels at the wild randomness of window placements in many old barns or the use of odd materials. While Elliott is endlessly interested in new materials and opportunities to build more efficiently, Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn—Thomas C. Hubka’s influential treatise on the evolution of interconnected farmhouses in Maine and New England—is an often-referenced title around his office.
Elliott says EENA never sets out to design a “modern” home—nor, for that matter, do they set out to design a traditional Shingle Style. A project, he says, develops naturally from the site and out of the collaboration between architect and homeowner. “The end result is always something we arrive at together,” says Elliott, “because the house is about them, about how they live, and we are discovering what they need during the design process.”
Elliott thrives on—in fact, insists on—the collaborative process, both with the homeowners and with his staff. The EENA offices are a vibrant living example of this ideal: an open-concept design with desks facing one another that allows ideas to flow freely around the room. “I see one of my major roles here as trying to create the conditions that allow each of the people working in this office to function at their best,” he says. Elliott even likes to have a contractor attached to a project before working drawings are complete because of the collaborative insights a builder will inevitably bring to the final design.
“It’s not just about the best design solution,” Elliott says. “It’s about the best solution.” That is, without doubt, Maine pragmatism perfectly expressed.
When asked for his thoughts on EENA’s recent streak of awards, Elliott deflects the question with humility. “It’s strange,” he says, shaking his head. He is less reticent when speculating on the secret to the firm’s success: “I think we have a reputation for being good listeners. We don’t design homes with awards in mind; we design homes with the homeowners in mind.”