21st century modern design in Wellfleet
Modern design meets green living at this well-appointed Wellfleet vacation home
For Bay Area residents Laura Mamo and Helen Fitzsimmons, owning a home in Wellfleet was a long time coming. In their 25 years together, the couple has shared a love for Cape Cod—particularly the Outer Cape, especially since Mamo’s brother and mother live in the area. Wanting to spend more time with family, the two set out to find their ideal Cape property, knowing that if they found the right property they would build a modest, modern house in “as green a way” as possible.
“Housing is one of our biggest energy consumers,” says Mamo, a university professor of sociology and co-author of Living Green: Communities that Sustain (2009), “so it’s important, as we move forward with climate change, that we are very thoughtful about reducing housing energy.”
Over the course of several years, they considered plots of land with local modern home builder Art Hultin, unable to find the right fit—that is, until two years ago, when they discovered a steeply sloped, three-quarter-acre wooded lot in Wellfleet located less than a mile from the center of town and the beach. “For us it was perfect,” Fitzsimmons says.
The resulting 1,900-square-foot house, designed by green architecture firm ZeroEnergy Design and built by Hultin, is a vacation home that serves not only Mamo and Fitzsimmons but also the environment. “I think it’s a great example of modern architecture in the 21st century,” says Stephanie Horowitz, ZeroEnergy Design’s managing director and principal architect on the project. “This home represents the new wave of modernism, accounting for energy efficiency, thermal comfort and reliance, in addition to a modern aesthetic.”
Such considerations are evident when viewing the house’s front façade. The gray panelized siding is made of fiber cement, providing the residence with a unique industrial appearance in addition to durability. “Having materials that would require little maintenance and will withstand the Cape environment was important,” Horowitz says. To add warmth—and some visual interest—to the entryway, Horowitz utilized cedar clapboard underneath the entry porch and on the south-facing bump out, which houses the living room.
Inside, the entry vestibule gives way to an open living space on the right. The “L” shape plan consists of a kitchen—featuring heron blue backsplash tile from the homeowners’ favorite store in San Francisco, Heath Ceramics—a living room and a dining area, all bathed in the soft filtered light of the Wellfleet woods that streams through over-sized windows on nearly every wall. A glass door off the dining area extends this living space and opens to the outdoor deck. To the left of the entry vestibule, there is a powder room and a door that leads into the master suite. “I love that when I’m laying in bed reading a book, I can see the trees out the window,” Fitzsimmons says. “When I get up and walk around, I feel like I’m in the trees.”
Downstairs, there is a second bedroom featuring a set of sliding white barn doors and a built-in writing desk. The room serves primarily as an office for the homeowners, but it doubles as a fairly generously sized bedroom for guests or renters. A third bedroom and a bathroom—also ideal for guests or renters—as well as a home gym and utility space complete this lower level.
The partially exposed foundation of the home offers a multitude of windows, usually a scarcity in lower levels. “That downstairs space was carefully set into the sloping site,” Horowitz says. “This site was both a challenge and an opportunity. It allowed us to work within the footprint and still create a really nice living space on the lower level. Without the sloping site, we would’ve had to make the house bigger in order to create more living space with adequate light and views. In that sense, the sloped site was a great fit for this more modest footprint we were targeting.”
When it came to achieving energy efficiency and sustainability, Horowitz says she and her team employed a low-tech, passive design approach. The entire exterior of the house is sheathed in multiple layers of rigid insulation, and inside there is dense-packed cellulose insulation—combined with an airtight enclosure, the exterior wall construction minimizes the need to heat and cool the home throughout the year. This super-insulation is paired with an all-electric heating and cooling system and a fresh-air ventilation system (an ERV). The home uses 70 percent less energy than a conventional house built to code, and Hultin reports that air infiltration numbers taken on the home were so low they almost didn’t register on the testing equipment. “Every part of the house was built to be long-lasting and cost effective,” he says, “and carefully designed for overall look.”
To Mamo and Fitzsimmons, a modern design aesthetic was just as important as energy efficiency. Fitzsimmons recalls, “When we first spoke with Stephanie and she asked us what we were thinking about in terms of the house, we asked her if she’d ever been to Palm Springs.” In addition to being popular vacation destinations surrounded by natural beauty, Palm Springs, California, and the Outer Cape share at least one other thing in common: a rich history of modern architecture. Palm Springs has the largest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the world, and Mamo and Fitzsimmons say they fell in love with the modern style of houses in the area—and wanted that mid-century Bauhaus style reflected in their Outer Cape home.
“We didn’t want to build just another Cape,” Mamo says. “And we’re familiar with the history of mid-century design on Cape Cod and felt that it was time for a renewal of that style.” A streamlined flat roof, sleek white interior and minimal furnishings all help establish the home’s modern aesthetic—so too, says Hultin, do the large German-engineered triple-pane windows, which not only eliminate draft but also bring the outdoor scenery in.
“You’re not going to see very many houses that look anything like this house, and yet it looks like it fits in,” Hultin says. “In that sense, I think it’s a throwback to the houses around town from the midcentury.”
“Our place is right around the corner from the colony in Wellfleet—the neighborhood of all true mid-century modern homes,” Fitzsimmons notes, “and it feels like we’re paying tribute to those homes in building something that looks similar but has all of the current features.”