Architect takes concept of bringing outdoors in to new heights
There is a small forest inside a vacation house on the Cape Cod shore, and architect Jill Neubauer proposed embracing the situation.
There is a small forest inside this vacation house on the Cape Cod shore of Buzzards Bay, and it was only a short time before family members spontaneously strung a couple of hammocks between the gray pine trunks.
Witnessing grown-ups and kids nestled in the canvas, swaying beneath an imaginary breeze, Jill Neubauer, the house’s designer, says, “That represents why I am an architect: the joy of making homes for families to love.”
The forest is actually 71 Southern yellow pine columns, stained gray, that range in height from 5 to 25 feet and support various parts of the house. They typify the serendipitous exchanges between clients and architect that led to this smile-making residence. A strip of untouchable conservation land lies between the house and the water, and its grove of white oaks could not be pruned.
Neubauer, whose firm, Jill Neubauer Architects, is in Falmouth, Massachusetts, proposed embracing the situation.
“Let’s abstract that landscape and bring it into the house,” she offered, infusing the interior with “the color of the outside trees on a grayish day.”
The clump of domesticated trunks — structural when straight, expressive when leaning — acts as a filter-like scrim from the entrance, forming a transition from the outside world through to the quiet seascape beyond.
The clients have owned a vacation home on an adjacent lot for many years. When the next-door land became available, they bought it with a plan to build a “simple retirement house.” As the wife recalls, “We wanted to downsize to something small.”
The older place, a two-story contemporary built in 1984, would become a guesthouse for relatives and friends and eventually a summer home for their two children and their families. Coming from a Civil War–era Victorian in a Boston suburb, the couple had never been involved with building anything, but designing this house with Neubauer became such an adventure that the plan for a little house grew and grew.
“We had no agenda,” says the wife. “We’re modest people, interested in having fun and making a place.” And they “preferred someone local” to help design it. The couple sought recommendations as they looked around, then visited a small house designed by Neubauer in the Woods Hole section of Falmouth.
“We loved everything about it,” including the way the architect used its site, says the wife, “and we said, ‘We could live here.’”
During the time between their own home’s conception in 2013 and its realization last year, owners and architect respectfully sparred over design decisions.
The couple did not want “the perfect designer house,” says the wife, but a home “to live in, laugh in, and love in.” Of Neubauer, she says, “I learned so much from Jill. … She cared so much about every detail.”
Led by Neubauer project manager Norman Courchesne and builder Andrew Murphy of Cape Associates, which has offices in Chatham, Eastham, and Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, the construction crew devoted itself to this two-year project exclusively.
Matthew Cole, president and CEO of Cape Associates, the third generation of his family to run the business, says the renovation was so complicated that it needed “tight coordination” by his team.
As the house evolved, it grew from the couple’s original idea of a simple cottage to become a statement of the owners’ lifestyle, complete with art studio, wood shop, sauna, lots of porches, three sets of stairways, and spaces to comfortably entertain dozens of people.
To meet the challenge of inserting a 5,700-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot and integrating it intimately into the protected coastal bank, landscape architect Bernice Wahler of Bernice Wahler Landscapes in Sandwich, Massachusetts, says she responded to the “drama of the tree trunks backlit by the sparkle of Buzzards Bay.”
She envisioned the new place as a tree house interacting with the abutting native oak woodland. Bluestone walls would emphasize the geometry of the architecture and link the house to the land.
Bold lines provide cohesion for the project’s varied elements. Neubauer organized the house as two shed-roofed, almost parallel wings (they are 12 degrees off at the narrow end, which imperceptibly funnels visitors to the main entrance).
The garage, master bedroom, guest room, and workspaces are in the longer block, while the kitchen, living room, den, and room-size porch form the heart of the other. The trapezoidal wedge between the wings forms the entrance hall and the dining room.
While white oak covers some of the interior walls in the same random widths as the exterior’s red cedar sheathing, most walls are raw, unpainted plaster that echoes the gray-stained floors and cabinetry. Vermont limestone was used for the giant living-room chimney, but the “driving force for the house,” says Neubauer, was gray-black Ashfield schist from Ashfield Stone Company’s quarry in Western Massachusetts.
The clients “absolutely loved this stone from the start,” says Neubauer, who used the dark, iridescent material for the top of the kitchen island and the sinks in the bathrooms of the guest room, master bedroom, study/office, basement den, and entry powder room. It also caps the dining-room credenza and the bar in the great room. The stone ingeniously reappears in random lengths in every doorway in the interstices of the oak flooring, so that each threshold is like a weaving of stone and wood.
It is easy to enjoy the home’s views and comforts. With the sophisticated interaction of land, stone, wood, and angles, the structure’s layers unfold in a masterly fashion — a remarkable achievement in a house that richly demonstrates the energy of the clients while retaining the repose of the land’s shoreline.
“Every time we walk through the front door,” says the wife, “we can’t believe we live here.”
See more photos of the home:
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