Every July for five years, Martha Pilgreen, Michael Hays, and their young son, Henry, spent their summer vacation in a rented antique cottage in Truro. But unlike most "summer people," as year-round residents call the throngs of vacationers who pack the Cape during the peak tourist season, the Pilgreen-Hays family rented their little cottage during the off-season, too, heading for the Outer Cape every weekend they could get away.
Pilgreen and Hays, both architects, have demanding work schedules, and these escapes allowed the kind of down time that seemed impossible at their residence in Boston's South End, where the fully equipped home office was always beckoning.
So satisfying were their off-season getaways that the couple decided to look for a house to buy, preferably a cottage like the one they had been renting. After a year of searching, they were about to give up when a real estate agent suggested they consider buying land and building a house. There wasn't much in Truro that they could afford, but there was one lot that other buyers had passed up. The property was so steeply sloped that to less well-trained eyes, it might seem a house would have to be built either on the sharp incline or at the bottom of the hill. However, Pilgreen and Hays quickly saw that there was just enough level land at the top of the slope to build a house that could take full advantage of light, air, and view. They bought the lot that day. While Pilgreen and Hays are both architects, their professional paths have been quite different. Pilgreen is president of Perry Dean Rogers/Partners, a Boston firm that has been designing academic buildings for more than 80 years. Michael Hays is the Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory at the Harvard Design School.
Pilgreen designs large, complicated projects for institutional clients. Hays instructs graduate students in the vagaries of architectural history and theory. Until now, they had never turned their vast architectural knowledge on themselves. As have many architects before them, Pilgreen and Hays found that coaxing clients' wishes into built form or guiding students in their search for great design ideas are far less daunting tasks than designing a simple house for themselves. Well aware of this, Pilgreen put together a team from her office to help make the vision a reality, with Julia McMorrough as project designer and Warren VanWees as project architect.
"Because we were looking for an antique cottage to buy," says Hays, "I just assumed that we would build a generic Cape. But Martha knew from the beginning that we would build a modern house." And so began the collaboration. The result is a hybrid -- the house is modern, but it is built of traditional materials, which give it a warmer character than what some modern architecture offers. The form of the house is simple: two side-by-side long, narrow, rectangular boxes with roofs sloping in opposite directions. One is the "service" zone and houses the kitchen, baths, storage, hallways, and stairs. The other is the "living" zone, which contains the living room, dining room, bedrooms, and screened porch. One box is sheathed in clapboard, and the other is shingled.
The house faces south, in order to take advantage of the view of the Pamet River Valley. But more view meant more direct sunlight would pour into the living spaces. To solve this problem, Pilgreen and Hays devised a system of sliding panels for the exterior of the house. Made of mahogany, which can hold up against the Cape's fickle weather, the horizontal slats on the panels allow the sun to penetrate the interior space in the winter, when the heat and light are welcome. In the summer, the panels keep the sun out while taking advantage of the considerable breezes that keep the hilltop house cool.
Pilgreen and Hays both grew up in Alabama, so they agreed on one thing from the very beginning. "We couldn't even conceive of a house without a screened porch," says Pilgreen. But this isn't just any porch. Oversize sliding doors that lead from the living room to the porch are left open all summer, allowing the whole house to feel breezy and open.
The double height of both the living room and the porch makes the house feel grand, but the materials are humble -- pine fl oors, plywood ceilings, exposed beams, simple metal rails. The decision to leave the pine walls natural caused some controversy. Pilgreen intended to paint the walls white (as you would expect in a modern house), so she specified the least expensive grade of lumber. That meant the wood had a lot of knots. During the last few weeks of construction, Hays visited the house and liked what he saw -- unpainted walls, knots and all. The walls never did get painted. Pilgreen still wonders if that was the right decision. Modern design, meet knotty pine.
Cheryl and Jeffrey Katz are freelance writers and designers. They live and work in Boston.