Treading Lightly Above Terra Firma


By Joshua Bodwell

Photography Todd Caverly

Architects on what makes a deck dynamic


Eric Chase
atop the steep Brooksville Shore above Penobscot Bay

A deck’s ultimate success hinges on its details, says architect Eric Chase. The recipe for a great deck, Chase says, should include an exhilarating site, quality materials, and superior craftsmanship. One deck that meets all three criteria, he says, sits high atop a steep shore in Brooksville and looks west across Penobscot Bay to the Camden Hills.

The multilevel deck, Chase explains, wraps around three sides of a home that is “fit onto the rocks beside the bay.” The expansive, undulating decks are made from treated cypress boards and scribed to fit snuggly against the home’s jagged stone façade. Chase admires the connectedness of the materials. “You feel like the deck and the house are a part of the same composition,” he says. “The deck actually helps tie the house to the site.”

Chase, who runs an architecture firm out of Brooksville, says decks made from inadequate materials feel temporary. “The nicer the materials you can use in the beginning,” he notes, “the better off you’ll be.”

While the whole point of building a deck is often for the view, Chase says, many decks actually get in the way of the view. The simplicity of this bayside deck, however, allows it to stay out of its own way. Below the single, smooth mahogany handrail are six thin cable rails that practically disappear when someone seated on the deck looks out to the ocean. Chase says the five doors that lead from the home onto the deck, and three sets of stairs off the deck and onto the grounds, is “ideal.”

“It makes the deck work like an extension of the living space,” he says.

Bruce Norelius
on the cliffs of Deer Isle

Bruce Norelius is drawn to decks—and all forms of architecture, in general—that are connected to, but separate from, the landscapes they inhabit. There are very few decks in all of Maine, Norelius says, that exemplify this ideal more than the cascading decks at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

Located at the southerly end of Deer Isle’s appropriately named Sunshine Road, the Haystack decks tumble down the steep cliffs overlooking Jericho Bay. As the decks’ central staircase makes its descent toward the ocean, cedar-shingled buildings that house the school’s studios and classrooms flank each wide deck.

“They aren’t just little rectangles,” Norelius says of the intricate structures suspended on pilings, “they’re wonderfully complex.” So complex, in fact, because it was the prominent architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, who studied at Harvard University with the Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who designed the decks and the rest of the Haystack campus.

“The decks were very influential in how they responded so beautifully to the rugged topography,” says Norelius, who works with the Blue Hill–based firm Elliott Elliot Norelius Architecture. “They reach out toward the ocean and the sun, and just seem to float above the landscape.”

But for Norelius, the most im-pressive aspect of the decks is how integrated they are into the concept of the facility itself—they are artfully designed decks at a school where fine art is created. “There’s something almost theatrical about them,” Norelius says. “The decks create a big, blank stage for everything that happens at Haystack.”

Rob Whitten
over the ocean in Falmouth Foreside

 dod2.jpgFar too many decks, architect Rob Whitten says, hang like “arid and static” appendages on otherwise handsome homes. Whitten has seen few decks as “dynamic” as this one in Falmouth Foreside—with two live elm trees poking through the floorboards, the deck dramatically overhangs the shoreline at low tide and the ocean at high tide. “You feel like you’re sitting in the tree tops when you’re up there,” he says. Though no one is sure who designed the deck, Whitten applauds its energy.

Built in the 1980s, the deck represents, Whitten says, almost everything that today’s zoning restrictions will no longer let a homeowner get away with. “But if this deck were 100 feet back from where it sits now,” he points out, “the experience of being on it would be totally different.”

The deck’s southeast exposure catches the day’s first light and commands views of Portland Yacht Club anchorages in the distance. In the summer months, the harbor brims with boats and ocean-going energy; in the off-season, the view is serene and uncluttered. “The elms coming through the deck, and the other trees that flank them, emphasize the change of seasons even more,” Whitten says.

The deck’s proportions, Whitten says, give the impression that the house it surrounds is a small building on a large pier. It’s an aesthetic that Whitten relishes and one, he adds, that encourages the owners and their guests to treat the deck as an extension of the home. “We like to create that inside/outside living experience,” says Whitten of his Portland-based firm Whitten Architects, “and even though we didn’t design this deck, it embodies that philosophy.”

Carol Wilson
on a rooftop in Portland’s Eastern Promenade

dod3.jpgPeople frequently build decks, says architect Carol Wilson, to prevent damaging the ground below them. “Decks are often respectively suspended above a place where you’d want to tread lightly,” she says. “They make you very aware that there’s something fragile on either side of you.” But sometimes, Wilson says, the most successful decks aren’t the temporary-looking, earthbound structures most of us are used to. In fact, Wilson says, a rooftop feels like the perfect place to plunk a deck.

Wilson, who heads her own Falmouth-based architecture firm, discovered this particular rooftop deck on Portland’s Eastern Promenade while visiting a building that one of her clients was considering having renovated. Situated atop the fourth floor of a building already elevated by Munjoy Hill, the deck struck Wilsonas having the “perfect relationship to the ground”—it’s not so high as to be unsettling, but still high enough to command a dramatic view of the city. She was immediately enthralled with the vitality of the scenery surrounding the soaring deck. The Portland Observatory feels so close you want to reach out and touch it. And beyond that, Portland’s Downtown ripples out toward the Western Promenade. The harbor below the deck buzzes with boats and ships as they pass back and forth by Fort Gorges. “All the workings of a certain part of the city are spread out before you from the deck,” Wilson says.

“In one of Portland’s most compact neighborhoods,” Wilson continues, “decks like this give people such great light and views.” Wilson, who is one of only four Maine architects ever inducted to the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows, relishes the unpretentious quality of the Eastern Prom’s rooftop decks. “There is such a democratic nature to these decks,” she says. “Because of the zoning restrictions on how tall a building can be, no one’s view gets trumped by another.”