Life partners and business partners in their Portland architectural firm, Barba + Wheelock Architects, Cynthia Wheelock and Nancy Barba decided it was finally time to design and build their own home. An easy task for two women with a long and notable career designing homes for clients? Maybe …


At dusk.
Photo: Sandy Agrafiotis Photography
Photo: Sandy Agrafiotis Photography
Photo: Eliza Barba-Wheelock
'Wheelock Porch' screen porch with scrim.
Photo: Sandy Agrafiotis Photography
Screen porch.
Lower level with studio.
First floor.
Second floor.

Growing up, what do you feel led you to a career as an architect?

Cynthia Wheelock: When I was 11, my father took a year’s sabbatical in London. We moved to Hampstead and took a fourth-floor walk-up for the year. My bedroom was in the attic, with casement windows where I could get out onto the roof—of course this was not something I should have been doing, but the views across London were spectacular, especially at night. Our family traveled around Europe at every opportunity. I was struck by the ornamental architecture and landscapes. My uncle, Morgan Dix Wheelock, was a well-known landscape architect and he gave me drafting tools for one of my birthdays—I loved drawing with them.

Nancy Barba: I had a wonderful childhood, until about age 7¾, when my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I spent my 9-year-old summer casting about our neighborhood and was drawn to a wonderful neighbor, Mrs. Wagoner, who had a brood of five kids, one who was just a few years older than me. Mrs. Wags loved architecture, having had an architect design their modern house, which they left in favor of a farmhouse near us. She would set out Bristol Board and no. 2 pencils for her daughter (also a Nancy) to draw house plans. I fell in love with her mothering home and her love for design. I knew at age 9 that I wanted to be an architect.

Is this the first house you have designed for you both?

Cynthia Wheelock: Yes, it is the first new house we have designed together for our family.

Nancy Barba: We lived in a wonderful historic home in a Portland neighborhood not too far from our site. We loved our home and undertook pages of restorations, and one sizable addition of a porch and dormer to connect the house and upper floor of the barn, a nook for our daughter. It was really hard to leave our home of almost 20 years, but it was time for us to live in a home that fit us, rather than living in a house that we had to fit into. That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t see about historic houses—they have their character because of their idiosyncrasies. We worked with the house to make it livable, but it still retained its soul.

The design process took you two years. Why so long? Ups and downs?

Cynthia Wheelock: Many ups and downs and many iterations of different designs. Sometimes it would get so intense for both of us that we had to shelve it for weeks, and then one of us would take it back out, sketch something and entice the other person back into the process. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. That said, I would still do it again.

Nancy Barba: We intentionally took it slow. Some of the reasoning had to do with a counterbalance to our clients who mostly want their projects done as quickly as possible. That approach is fun, but it sometimes short-circuits the design process and options. We spent 1½ years getting to know the land, the flora and fauna, the way the sun moved throughout the day and looking at options that spread out or consolidated the floor plan. We also looked at whether we wanted everything under one roof or to have our house separate from a garage, a boat shed and a studio.

Then when it came to creating the form we knew we wanted something that represented our philosophy of innovative, yet familiar, and that was a challenge. We didn’t want it to look out of place, but on the other hand, we wanted to keep it modern and crisp. Once you create form, it jogs a memory in people’s minds and association. You have to decide what association you want to encourage and metaphors are better than actual.

So, it’s a lot of work, and the best work comes from a kernel of an idea and constant refinement—hence, two years!

As co-owners of Barba + Wheelock Architects in Portland, what challenges came with being your own clients?

Cynthia Wheelock: Each other, ha, ha!

Nancy Barba: Everything … It was less challenging than you’d think. We reveled in the construction, and being close by we were able to go to the site almost daily. The biggest challenge was keeping the design aligned with our budget. That’s one reason I started off wanting to design our own modular home. Once we signed off on production, it would be built to our design and specifications off-site and we would not have access to change things, “betterment” as we say. We would protect ourselves from our desires.

As it was, the construction market was just starting to see an uptick, and the size of our house had to be trimmed back to fit the budget. We were able to lop off (luckily in the design phase) a laundry room and guest quarters and find a way to incorporate them into the house.

Preservation and conservation are both hallmarks of Barba + Wheelock. In what ways did they drive the siting and design of your home?

Cynthia Wheelock: Maybe to the extent that we have wanted to design a modern-style house with contextual features. We wanted the house to feel pedestrian-friendly from the street, blending into the neighborhood even though we chose to set the house back on the lot by 220 feet with a winding road into the site. This allowed the house to unfold in its fullness as one drove into the site. Our knowledge of preservation gives us a repertoire of stylistic details to draw upon, so we tapped into that and created a modern renaissance of detailing like the oriel window on the front façade.

Nancy Barba: Conservation, for sure. We were very aware of touching lightly on the land. Especially from the first time we visited the land and saw a red fox looking back at us. We knew we had the responsibility to preserve the land and respect their habitats. They were here first, and have loved this field as a refuge for a long time. We knew that whatever we designed, it had to give back. So we created a bee-safe meadow with native plantings, we added two bat houses to our gabled facades, and are still working hard to remove invasive species such as the Norway Maples and Japanese Knotweed, replacing them 1:1 with new native trees (like birches), grasses and ferns.

What’s special about the site?

Cynthia Wheelock: Everything—the wildlife, the trees, the shape and the contours of the site. It had the perfect solar orientation for our program and the sloping site near the marsh allowed for a wonderful above-ground studio below the main floor.

Nancy Barba: Everything. Especially backing up to a 130+ acre sanctuary. It’s really unusual for Portland, and something we never, ever thought we’d find within 10 minutes of the peninsula. It’s really like living in the country, only we have fantastic close-by neighbors, a public bus line that runs not too far from us and easy biking access to town.

No garage … 2022 will be your third winter in the house. How’s the no-garage working out?

Cynthia Wheelock: Remote start on cars and a very large shed!

Nancy Barba: Well … It’s been fine, with only one exception: the January day last winter when we had two back-to-back large snowstorms, the worst being that the second one was really wet and heavy. Other than that, our electric car needs to warm up before driving it, so most of the snow melts off or is easy to remove. I don’t love snow blowing (I wish there was a good electric snow blower), but we kept the snow drop from roofs to a minimum so the snow shoveling is minimal.

I’m not sure I’d want a garage—it would take away so much of our field. It’s definitely a trade-off, but I think we have a good balance now.

How do you think your different personalities strengthened and challenged the design process?

Cynthia Wheelock: The answer to these questions is top secret and might incriminate me!

Nancy Barba: Ha! Well, I tend to charge ahead and work out the issues as I go, and Cynthia likes to throttle back and say, “Hey, let’s take a deeper look at that.” It worked … most of the time. I would jump on a problem and draw a couple of solutions. Cynthia would study what I did, then offer her own ideas and we’d go around again. If something wasn’t resolving we’d take a breather and come back to it in a week or two.

And the biggest challenges of this project?

Cynthia Wheelock: Like all projects, there were many challenges. Maybe for this project, it was in the waiting. We submitted for permit in August, and it took over 90 days for the permit to be issued. Then we were confronted with the added cost of winter conditions—such as more difficult excavation, snow removal, heating the interior and frost protection—so we decided to delay the start until March.

Another challenge worth mentioning turned out to be one of the most exciting. We had a blank slate to design from—without the boundaries and constraints that come with client projects. We were able to create our own, such as making a schedule and a budget, setting priorities and setting a design direction.

Nancy Barba: I can’t think of any. It all went so smoothly. Oh! Here’s one: I was hell-bent on protecting the field during construction, as it takes years to establish a good native field, but that just wasn’t possible without a different contractor and much higher costs. The width of the lot was only 50 feet at the street and we built 220 feet back. Contractors need to bring their trucks near to the site as they have everything they need in them and can’t just park across the street and walk in.

In the end, we re-established the field and ended up with happy contractors for providing them with good access. Still, I’m sorry to have displaced the native plants we inherited when we arrived.

Are there special design elements you have used in this project that you haven’t used in any other homes you’ve designed?

Cynthia Wheelock: Yes, we wanted to be playful with our design elements and not take ourselves too seriously. We have a bat house on each gable end and a pinnacle on the front gable that Nancy designed and built many years ago.

Nancy Barba: Probably the floor-to-ceiling glass that wraps the corners. In order to do that we had to create a steel structure that hung the windows’ offset to the outside. It allowed full glazing and no soffit above and no sill at the floor level. We also had to design two shear walls on the lower level that are fairly stout in hardware to keep the wall above as open as it is.

Nancy, what is the history surrounding the scrim detailing?

Nancy Barba:
Cynthia and I have always loved dappled light through walls, like the tobacco barns and corn cribs I grew up with in Maryland. We wanted to bring one organizing element into the house that would set it apart and give life to the north wall. The choice of having no corridors on the main level placed the stair next to the living room. A traditional approach would either close in the stair (taking away all the borrowed light from the stair), or open handrails with a baluster. We didn’t want either. We also wanted the light to filter into the living room so that the north wall’s light quality would balance the room, which had plenty of light.

The scrim design came from a sense of nautical detailing, working with the stair tread module and looking at patterns that could create a syncopated dynamic.

(Above: photography Sandy Agrafiotis Photography)

Cynthia, being the cook in the family, how is the cooking efficiency in your one-foot-pivot kitchen?

Cynthia Wheelock: I can essentially take vegetables out of the refrigerator, wash them, slice them, put the tops and ends and cores in the compost bin, recyclable bags and plastic in the recycling bin, grab a pan and sauté them with a one-foot pivot, while Nancy or Eliza take on an entirely different task across the kitchen and without bumping into each other (breath). Got to love that, and the family is happier for it.

Cynthia, tell us about the “Wheelock Porch.”

Cynthia Wheelock: We designed the screened-in porch, but we did not have it in our base contract. We had to remove it during our value engineering phase and planned on building it later. Then a check showed up in our mailbox from my parents for the porch. So, we refer to the porch as the “Wheelock Porch,” in honor of them. That porch has become the hearth of our home.

How does the house live for each of you?

Cynthia Wheelock: Sorry about the cliché, but it fits us like a glove. We move through it like we live life. Early in the design phase we charted out our daily walking path through our home. That gave us a lot of valuable information as to how we wanted to lay out the spaces in our new home.

Nancy Barba: It really breathes. I particularly love the play of sun throughout the day. Since creating this great southern expanse of glass I’d say, “Access to sunlight should be a human right in the northern climates.” It’s so wonderful to sit and watch the birds and to curl up for a nap in the late afternoons. The warmth and comfort are amazing.

Favorite rooms?

Cynthia Wheelock: That’s a hard question because I enjoy each space for very different reasons. But, I do love the Wheelock Porch. The screens are floor-to-ceiling, and it feels like we are living outside. We have a bird feeder strategically placed under the deep porch overhang, which keeps the birds and the feeder dry and it is in direct sight of anyone sitting on the porch. I love birds!

Nancy Barba: Living room, hands down. Oh, and yes, the screened porch. We live out there all summer and into the extended seasons.

First thoughts on moving in?

Cynthia Wheelock: Do we really need to fill these spaces up with furniture?

Nancy Barba: So clean, crisp and modern. I loved it. Could never have imagined living in such a wonderful house.

How would you describe the house?

Cynthia Wheelock: Sanctuary for family.

Nancy Barba: Airy aerie. Our friend Lee Dassler coined that.

If tomorrow you could choose a new profession, what would that be?

Cynthia Wheelock: A carpenter.

Nancy Barba: Writing and boat building.

Previous StoryNext Story