THE FARRIS HOUSE, BOOTHBAY HARBOR, ME 2003

THE SHUMAN HOUSE, LOVELL, ME 2003

I have always thought it good to have at least one house project in the office at all times. They are not really money makers, but they offer the opportunity to delve deeply into the design and resolve details at a very high level. They are small enough to get your head around the whole design problem and are great learning opportunities for young architects. The most difficult challenge is that they are also personal expressions of the owners and their circumstances. While it is sometimes difficult for large firms to stay in the single family home market, we were fortunate this particular year to have two houses in the office. They are interesting to consider together because the Farris House is a singular vision of one person and the Shuman House is a melding of the desires of a couple for a vacation home.

THE FARRIS HOUSE

There have been two times in my career when a woman has called and was unhappy with a house she had just bought for rational reasons that didn’t provide the emotional connection that makes a house a home. The Farris House was the second time, and I was better prepared for the process this time. Both were people that I knew well and I had earned their trust over many years on matters related to design. It is not often talked about, but trust in the architectural relationship is very important and is what allows people to take a risk into what is often a new realm for them.  I understood the need for reassurance that all could be made right.

I remember standing in the second floor bedroom of the existing house. You could not see the water because the skylights in the roof were too high. The owner was extolling on why she wanted to reuse the house and that it just needed a small addition of a couple of hundred thousand dollars. I asked her, “Are you going to stay within your budget, or are you going to do what you want to do?” She looked down at the floor and then looked up at me, and she knew that I knew her too well, and said, “I am going to do what I want to do.” That was all the clarity I needed. She used the existing house during our yearlong design process and came to understand its limitations and site much better.

Frustrated at the pace of design and not quite aware of her own role in setting that pace, she wanted to start construction early and so we started with where we were at the time. Little did I know that she would continue to acquire elements for the house and would call up and say “I bought a new chandelier in Santa Fe and we need place for it, a friend is giving me a sauna and I would like to put it on the second floor (which was already framed), I bought three barns and I want you to use the reclaimed wood, and oh yea, I have a fourteen foot long rug and I need a place to hang it.” Needless to say the design process continued virtually all the way through construction.

Left: Site Plan, showing the original house footprint in grey. Right: Aerial photograph of the finished project.

She purchased the house really for the site, a peninsula on Hodgdon Cove, and quickly recognized that the 1980s traditional Cape failed to take full advantage of its scenic waterfront location in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. It contained low ceilings, small windows and rooms, and you could not see the water from the second floor. Too practical to just tear down the 20-year-old house, the owner desired to keep as much of the original structure as possible, including the handmade cherry kitchen by a local cabinetmaker. She wanted something that would remind her of her Tennessee roots, but be of the Maine vernacular. The program called for an enlarged family retreat, with larger rooms and two-story spaces to give relief from the 7’ 10” ceilings in the Cape. As I mentioned, she lived in the house during the year of design and learned that one of the best views was from where the existing garage was located. This, combined with her desire to vacation in the original house structure as long as possible, led to the strategy of building an addition first before renovating the existing house.

Early concept sketch showing the addition on the right side.

The roof form (right) evolved during the design process to increase the ceiling height in the living room.

The entire house was reoriented by creating a new main entry and great room in place of the former garage and pushing it forward towards the main vista. The original house plan shown above was sealed at the exterior wall and everything to right of the kitchen was constructed anew, including a one bedroom apartment above the garage that she could use while the Cape was being renovated.  The following graphic tells the story.

The exterior colors were carefully chosen from the landscape.  The color of the body of the house was custom-mixed to match a piece of tree bark covered with soft green lichen and the window color recalls the leaves that hang on the oaks through most of the winter. Adirondack-style live-edge siding paired with dry laid local stonework was used on the home’s exterior, allowing the house to blend comfortably into its rustic setting, fitting in rather than dominating the site.

Staying within the constraints of the site setbacks (dashed line on the site plan), the house was expanded from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet of living space through a creative process of “pushing and pulling,” maintaining the existing roof outside, but at the same time varying ceiling heights inside to emphasize compression and expansion.  The highlight of the addition is a two-story great room big enough for a crowd, featuring soaring windows that bring the surrounding environment into the space.  The great room also features a split face granite fireplace that relates to the stone outcroppings on the site.  A spacious master suite for the new owner allows for one-floor living with universal design elements incorporated for aging in place.

The great room with reused barn beams and iron chandelier.

The old Cape lost a hallway and its stairs, but gained an expanded and updated kitchen, a more generous library, and a den.  And by opening up the second floor and rearranging two bedrooms and a bath, it was possible to make the dining room ceiling soar to the second story and provide a space for the large carpet wall hanging.  One of the old barn doors made a perfect backdrop for the owner’s antique tool collection.

A goal of the owner was to utilize local artisans and craftspeople to contribute and produce design ideas such as the granite fireplace, stair railings (above right), and heat shield for the wood stove. The doors are handmade and antiques are used as built-ins and vanities. Virtually every aspect of the house was carefully designed and came to fruition through close collaboration of the homeowner, architect, the craftspeople and the builder, Dan Harris.

As a final touch, a two-story screened porch was added to the house, capturing the breeze and providing a getaway on the second floor.

The house opened with a New Year’s Eve party for family and all those who worked on the house. As I approached the front door the owner asked, “What do you think of your house now?” As I surveyed the scene with all her things in just the right places, I responded, “It’s not my house, it is clearly your house.” It was a satisfying feeling that it had truly captured her spirit. At that point I realized that the house was just a backdrop for her stuff and what she had collected during her life. It communicates what is meaningful to her and through its authenticity enriches those who spend time there. I take great joy every time someone tells me they visited or stayed at “Gayle’s House.” The emphasis is mine.

SHUMAN HOUSE

One thing I have learned through writing this blog is the continuity of relationships that are the key to our architectural practice. From Rem first meeting the The Rivers School headmaster’s wife that basically started the firm, personal relationships have led to most of our commissions. And in many cases, these clients became friends, which led to even more commissions. Our first contact with Mrs. Shuman was during our renovation of the Blue Hill Country Club in the early 1990s. She was a voice of reason on the committee to select interior furnishings and colors. Peter Shaffer would again cross paths with her several years later at the Hebrew Center for Rehabilitation where we were doing work and she was volunteering. She casually mentioned to Peter that she was looking for a vacation spot away from the typical ones frequented by Bostonians.

Shortly thereafter, she asked Peter to take a look at a site that the couple had purchased on a lake in southwestern Maine. Aware of the firm’s reputation for custom houses and knowing Peter from several professional experiences, she asked us to design a weekend retreat for her and her husband. There was only one issue. He wanted a traditional house and she wanted a contemporary one. “I love a camelback sofa,” says the husband, “while I crave a Barcelona chair,” she counters. Always up for a challenge, the team went to work on the design.

Peter, working with Albert Cabre, a designer in the office, targeted a compromise between the two homeowners’ opposing design preferences – contemporary vs. traditional. The natural environment was used as inspiration to conceive of the design for a rustic country contemporary home that was a comfortable “fit” for both clients. The geometry of the house was developed to capitalize on the magnificent views of the surrounding lake, forest and mountains and also to preserve the property’s large rock outcroppings and mature trees.

The plan creates a welcoming south-facing entry courtyard that slopes down towards the lake allowing abundant light to bath the lower level of the house, especially during the short days of winter. The two “legs” of the house are conceived as solid volumes with punched windows, providing the privacy needed for their programmatic elements. The connecting central living section is virtually transparent, revealing the public areas of the house from both inside and outside.

Solid volumes at the ends contrast with a transparent center.

The façade of the house is a layered system of materials and textures that slowly unveil themselves as one carefully gazes upon the house. The house is anchored to the site by its stepped foundation of local fieldstone. Broad, light-colored horizontal wood beams, combined with dark vertical wood columns, provide a horizontal emphasis to the building relating it to the landscape. The solid portions of the house are constructed of wood clapboards and vertical boards stained assorted shades of browns and reds, allowing the house to co-exist comfortably within its forested setting. Large windows with upper transoms fill the home with natural light while providing a framework for the outstanding views from within.

The two-story-high, double-sided stone fireplace, built from local fieldstones by a local craftsman known for his natural design instinct, provides the visual and structural anchor to the house. Contrasting with the rough fireplace stone and providing necessary storage at each floor, a two-story birds-eye maple custom cabinet sits parallel to the floating staircase from the entrance to the lower living levels.

Low maintenance was another requirement of the owners, so the house has a standing seam metal roof with large overhangs and no gutters to clog. The landscaping is also designed for low maintenance using native woodland plants, perennials, and groundcovers.

The house appeared in New England Home in 2005 in an article titled “The Art of Compromise,” capturing the essence of a design challenge successfully resolved. “Thank God I didn’t get my New England Shingle Style; this is much more open, light, airy, and stylish,” noted the husband. “We trusted our architect and couldn’t be happier,” added the wife. Her comment making it clear that two people with differing taste both put their faith in the architect to use design to resolve the conflict in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Both of these projects benefitted from a trusting relationship between architect and owner and continued to develop the themes that the firm has followed for 50 years of custom home design. The designs flow from vernacular building traditions taking into account the materials of the site, the climate, and skills of local craftsmen. They have large sheltering roofs that protect the walls and give volume and light to the interiors. They are skillfully integrated into their sites through color and massing with large chimneys anchoring the buildings to the land. Though accomplished over many years and by many hands, we are proud of the continuity of the ideas and principles of our residential practice. But most important, as articulated by Rem Huygens, “is what the clients have in common: each has a house that reflects the way each one lives.”