Posted by: Scott McCullough | March 8, 2011

Thoughts on Finding Home

At the time when my wife Jessica and I got married in the summer of 2009 our lives together were not exactly as we had previously pictured it.  We were living in Woods Hole, MA while working for high-end architectural design firms on Martha’s Vineyard, as we had been doing for the past four years.  Our commute to work was by boat and took over an hour from door to door.  We lived in a tiny apartment where there was barely enough room to have people over for dinner.  For every holiday and regularly on the weekends we traveled to New Hampshire to spend time with family and friends.  We enjoyed living on Cape Cod, but were never really able and willing to make it our permanent home.  As soon as we were married in September of 2009 our primary goal was to move to New Hampshire full-time.  With the recession going on the most difficult part was finding work up north in a mostly rural area with little demand for architects.  Eventually we came to terms with the fact that we basically had to wait it out and take advantage of any employment opportunity that came up.

Since around 2007 we had been looking at real estate in central New Hampshire.  We had saved a good amount of money over the past several years, and continued to have stable income.  And we had the luxury of not needing to rush into anything.

For about the first 2 years that we were looking at properties we thought that the most feasible solution would be for us to buy a small house that needed a bit of work.  With both of us being designers, that would allow us to customize it for our own needs and tastes.  We had ruled out lakefront property pretty early on as we found out that we really didn’t want a ramshackle house on a quarter acre lot.  The only places that we were taking seriously were the ones on decent sized lots, with houses that had some redeeming values.  Usually those ended up being older homes built before 1940, before vinyl siding was invented.  We played with the idea of making an offer on a couple of properties that appealed to us but we didn’t end up really getting the feeling that we ‘had to have’ a certain property.

The idea of buying a piece of land had always appealed to us and we had always been open to it, but never really thought it was realistic financially.  Once we considered the benefits more carefully and looked at how we could phase the investment, it started to make more sense.  We had managed the construction of many residential projects from start to finish, many of which were be much more complicated than any house we would build.  And it would allow us to express our thoughts on architecture that we otherwise might not be able to do.

Jess and I met at Norwich University where we each earned our Master of Architecture degrees in 2004 and 2003.  Like most architects, we realized very quickly the distinct difference between designing in school and designing in the real world.  Architectural design is a game of compromises, where the aspirations of the designer collides with budgets, schedules, and conflicting opinions, every single day.  Countless times we have both experienced the feeling of having our design ideas being smashed to pieces because the person with the checkbook did not see things the same way we did.  Our ability to convince people to get behind a concept sometimes seemed to be more important than our ability to produce the concept itself.

So if we were ever able to build a home of our own we were determined that the process would be driven by the design concept and nothing else.  No way would we create something that in any way mimics the tiny catalog of house types that people commonly refer to; the ranch, the cape, the colonial, the split level.  The concept would come from us, and the building site.

 

We’ve been influenced over the years by a number of buildings, throughout New England and elsewhere.  Since considering the idea of building our own home, we both became more aware of buildings that offer insight into our own project.

In particular one house that we found ourselves studying was the house that we stayed in during our honeymoon in September of 2009.  Apart from the serene location right on the coast, the house had its’ own tranquility.  The simple gable shape, with no embellishments felt like it belonged there as much as the clams on the beach.  It was the Studio to the larger farmhouse located up the  hill, which with the barn formed a triangle around the roughly three acre property. The Studio was immediately surrounded by mowed grass, and unmowed fields beyond.  The cedar shingle clad building sat on a stone foundation with a metal stove-pipe sticking out from the north facing roof.

Most of the first floor space was made up of the Living Room with a ceiling that reached up to the peak of the roof.  The large fixed glass window curiously faced north, inland towards the farmhouse, with a few double hung windows and a solid wood door facing the water.  On the east end of the house was the Kitchen and the one Bathroom, above which was a Bedroom that is reached from a small stair open to the Living Room.  The smaller lofted bedroom was on the west side of the house reached by a ladder.   Outside the house was a picnic table and small Weber grill.  The best part of this house was in the simplicity and modesty that it had.  There was no walk in closet, jacuzzi, 6-burner range, sub-zero fridge, and no massive terrace.  The Kitchen was only as big as it needed to be to prepare modest meals for small gatherings.  The bedrooms were just large enough for sleeping.  When you step outside the only things to walk on are grass and rock.

 

Recreating some of those traits would be part of the design process for our own house.  But we will have to see how reality affects our desire to keep things simple.

During the summer of 2009 Jess and I and a group of friends traveled to the Outer Cape to take part in a house tour that was organized by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust.  We visited a number of houses, including a group of summer cottages in Eastham called the Hidden Village Cottage Colony.

Each building is identical and was designed by Rudd Falconer in 1960.  The butterfly roof cottages would at best be considered bare bones by today’s standards, but judging by how cottages were built in the 1950’s and 60’s they had everything you needed.  A small sitting room with a wood stove is separated from the Kitchen by a 6 foot tall divider.  The two tiny bedrooms are around the corner from the Kitchen, with a bathroom in between.  It took about 10 seconds to see every space in the cottage, including the porches.  The emphasis is obviously on being outside, with the cottage acting only as a temporary refuge.  You don’t look out the windows as much as you look from one wall that was opaque to another that happened to be transparent.  The deep roof overhangs allow indirect light to come in from every direction, without being baked by the afternoon sun.  There is a small deck to use on either side of the cottage that perch out from the foundation while staying within the roof overhang.  If you lived here full-time you would be closer to the realm a monk’s lifestyle.  Although much better off than the monk’s at Corbusier’s La Tourette.

But only certain lessons can be taken from projects like this for our own house in the woods.  A Hidden Village Cottage wasn’t meant to house a small family through a winter in New Hampshire, or have the family over for Thanksgiving dinner.  The modesty that we saw in these buildings would keep our own house small and simple.  Our budget would help us to do the same thing.

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Responses

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