Have you ever walked into a house and instantly felt that you could happily live there? That’s the feeling I get when I walk into this house: It’s perfect for living. The funny thing is, it didn’t always feel that way. This project started with a priceless view and a wholly less-than-worthy house.
Our clients came to us with a tall order: Take a run-of-the-mill ranch on a property with a spectacular ocean view and make it into something worthy of a legacy. The house was a 1960s-era ranch that had bright blue shutters with heart cutouts. It was the epitome of cute, but our clients weren’t cute, they were creative, vibrant, musical, modern and sophisticated. It was the call of the ocean that beckoned them and urged them to see the soul hiding deep within the heart of that cute house.
Our company was both architect and builder and from the start there was much debate among the group regarding the value of the existing building. We went back and forth about whether we should tear it down and start over or work with what we had. On a Monday it was “tear it down” and by Tuesday it was “No, we can work with this; there’s value there.”
In the end, we decided to give it the makeover of a lifetime. During construction the debate re-emerged as we stripped the house down to its bones, but at that point we were already on a path. And we found comfort in our realization that whether we had torn it down or not, the final design wouldn’t have been much different than where we were headed. The pieces were in all the right places; the spaces and volumes were absolutely livable and, more than anything, that view was ever present.
The house also taught us a lesson that we wouldn’t understand until we were finished. There was an extra room off the rear of the garage that we all considered strange, and had we started from scratch it definitely would not have made it to the finish line. In reality, it’s one of the most remarkable spaces, offering the most dynamic views and receiving incredible light and air. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the winter light and the summer breezes. I can only imagine how it must feel to practice yoga bathed in the sun while smelling the salty ocean air. This is something we would have certainly missed had we torn down the house. Sometimes you get lucky in unexpected ways.
The family was downsizing and we knew they were searching for a place of refuge and comfort. The house was not a statement of fortune or status; it was to be a statement of family. To its detriment, though, the house sits quite close and at eye level to a fairly busy neighborhood artery that would put their lives on display. We were acutely aware of this so one day, I looked at Caleb Johnson and said, “Now, bear with me and keep an open mind.” He nodded encouragingly (he likes to consider the unexpected) to which I said, “What if we take almost every window off the front of the house? What if we give a couple of peeks, but nothing more?” And that’s exactly what we did. We gave a window at the kitchen and a glimpse at the entry, but nothing else.
Deciding on such a bold architectural statement while working in the studio is one thing, but pitching it to clients poses a different challenge.
To our surprise, they agreed to let us remove the windows from the front of the house without much hesitation. As it happens, I know some other people who live in the neighborhood and I remember one person asking me in a nervous voice, “When are you going to put the windows back on the front? You are going to put them back, right?” To which I simply replied, “Nope.” In all my years as an architect, it was a conversation I’ll never forget and, to this day, we all agree it was the right decision.
Over the course of working together, I cannot remember how many times I said, “bear with me,” and they did, even when they were unable to conceal skepticism. That kind of blind trust is truly humbling and it tells you, “OK… you better make this great!”
In another moment of trust, I told them that we wanted to extend the three street-facing skylights several feet beyond the roof to increase the drama from the inside. We wanted to create deep light wells that framed the sky from below in a dramatic way. Because of this depth, you cannot see the sky until you’re standing directly under them, at which point you’re drenched in sunlight. It was an unconventional move, but the skylights capture and inject dazzling light into those rooms without windows. The light is so impactful on the inside that you can’t help but feel dazzled by it; you just want to stand under them and look up. As an architect, you can’t always predict how a risky move will pay off, but in this case we were all thrilled with the outcome.
As I’ve looked back, I’ve often wondered why I loved this project so much. Did I love it because they let the design team have so much fun? Was it because, like us, the owners were committed to artful creation? Or did I just love working with them? I think it’s all of the above and I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it was both fun and artful, with people I greatly admired. I think the product reflects that.
I believe the real prize is that we met the brief; we did what we set out to do. The house is quiet, it doesn’t scream at you. It doesn’t try to brag about the immense thought that went into its creation or the great trust levied onto the architects by the people who live there. I think that’s what makes it feel so very comfortable; the house softly sings to you and invites you to take a breath, to gaze at the ocean and to quiet the noise of the world. The material palette is simple inside and out. A diverse and varied art collection is curated on clean walls and the arrangement of spaces always directs your gaze to the restorative ocean. It’s edited, comfortable and subtle. It doesn’t need to convince you it’s beautiful or good; you feel it’s true, because it is true.
Architecture + Interior Selections
Caleb Johnson Studio
Caleb Johnson, principal architect
David Duncan Morris, project architect and interior selections
Soren DeNiord Design Studio
Maine view? I never get tired of looking at the Maine ocean. I think it’s the most beautiful in winter. In fact, it’s how I decided on the color of my living room. I painted it the color of the Maine winter ocean.
Drink? A Hardshore gimlet.
Maine restaurant? Eventide and The Lost Kitchen.
Place you’ve traveled to as an adult? The Galapagos Islands.
Shoes? New Balance.
Way to relax? My partner and I really like to spend time with our dogs. We both love the water, so if can find a time and manner to be in and around it, we’re happy.