House of Shifting Sands
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“Ruhl Walker Architects imagines a home tucked into the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and Sea-Dar Construction develops it with comfort, conviviality and creativity for family and friends.”
Nestled into the windswept dunes of Wellfleet is a structure that might otherwise go unobserved due to its natural tendency to appear as though the drifting sand had unearthed a treasure lost by a previous owner. At first glance, this modern, warm and intricate house appears somewhat unassuming and reticent among its surrounding environment. Yet only moments later, when your eyes have adjusted to the shapes of the home’s exterior, the features begin to unveil themselves in various depths and contours that confirm each design decision as not only being deliberate but inspired. Designated the House of Shifting Sands, it is located on the lower slope of a dramatic 60-foot coastal bank overlooking Cape Cod Bay and Provincetown, and boasts expansive views of miles long, undeveloped national seashore. Its purpose remains to serve as a year-round retreat that satisfies the whims of family members regardless of their age or agenda. Just how it does that is something of a marvel.
At the very heart of it all is the land, which usually only exists in dreams: a parcel consisting of several acres and surrounded by thousands more that will remain untouched. The lower portion of the property is beachfront where ruins of a previously existing structure linger, a victim of Mother Nature, a sometimes punishing force. It is the tumultuous environment as well as specific town and coastal regulations that determined the location of the house, which is set back from the effects of tide and storm and at a higher elevation, providing both coastal security and an expansive view. To help pinpoint the exact site and position of the house, principal architect Will Ruhl, and the design team at Boston-based Ruhl Walker Architects, invited the clients into the mind’s eye of the project.
Standing on ladders situated on the elevated spot, it was clear to all that the site of the house was best set lower on the coastal bank in the middle of the hill. There, tucked within the confines of the dunes, breathtaking ocean views flood floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and the sun’s rays warm the space irrespective of the season. “Views and natural light are always of great consequence to the design process and directly influence the location and overall form of the house as well as the shape and size of windows. We worked hard to really lock the design of the house into its site, including the rising and setting of the sun,” notes Ruhl. “One of the greatest pleasures for me in designing this house was tying it seamlessly into the coastal bank and rolling hills, with the confidence that much of the house would become invisible to passersby as the native landscaping matures over time.” From there, creativity and wonder took flight.
The foremost request of the clients was a simple one: to build a modern beach house infused with warmth and energy in a restful and relaxing setting. John Kruse, vice president and principal of the project builder, Sea-Dar Construction, says, “Although this project presented several production challenges such as harsh wind and winter weather; a coarse but delicate landscape in which to build; and a tight timeline, we were confident in overcoming these issues. The results speak for themselves. The copper radius roof, elevated living spaces and board-formed concrete were complex elements that we were able to integrate seamlessly into the structure of the residence.”
On the inland side of the house, entry is by way of a long ramp that shifts softly with the natural landscape. Cedar-shingled planes cover the curving exterior that seems to float effortlessly above the ground by means of concrete-based columns that rise from the sand. Just inside the front door lies a welcome bench, and steps beyond is the middle of the house where an architectural “hole” allows the home to breathe and naturally cool itself most of the year by using the sea breezes and the floor-to-ceiling windows for exactly what the architects had intended. As an added bonus, it serves as the perfect hideaway for reading or napping. In the warmer months, a shady breezeway below this space offers starry sky views while sweet floral scents emanate from the trellis along the side wall that is planted with evergreen and flowering vines.
Stepping through the rest of the house, bare feet fresh from the beach are spared splinters as they meet rift sawn white oak floorboards that sheath the floors of the surrounding bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen and gathering area. “The main level,” as Ruhl explains, “is a collage of overlapping, cantilevered planes and volumes that culminate in a large living/dining space that is defined by an asymmetrical, arcing copper roof plane overhead.”
Contrary to how it may sound, simplicity and efficiency flourish throughout the home. Appliances, tiles and furniture in warm hues of orange and blue are paired with upholstery in neutrals to make up the overall look and feel, but the design choices also triumph in their superior functionality to help the homeowners maintain a practical and modest aesthetic. Leveraging the latest innovations for energy solutions, the house is outfitted with highly efficient air-to-air heat exchangers and ventilators as well as a rooftop solar electric array. While not pursued, the house was designed with the principles of LEED certification in mind.
Exploring the nooks and crannies of the house, one will eventually find areas of peace and tranquility where the Zen of vacation can be found. Separated from the main house by a screen porch and contiguous deck is a studio for artists, yogis and thinkers alike. Here, a single large loft space is embraced by views, and energized by the sun and coastal driven winds as it seemingly floats 14 feet above the ground. Below sits an open-air art studio and boat/beach storage that is sheltered behind walls of wood slats and matching barn doors.
Never one to be outdone, the exterior of the house offers fun relaxation and wonder of its own. The roof over the main living space has its very own curve appeal. “Every piece of structure for that roof started as a standard rectangle,” explains Ruhl. ”The clients’ wish was to design it to be curvy, not sharp and boxy. Working with our structural engineer and Sea-Dar, we produced computer-generated guidelines of exact measure for the lumberyard to precisely cut each rafter, in order to mitigate the risk of error and remain cost effective.”
The imposing glass windows stretching across the main living areas of the home are continually subjected to fierce winds off the coastal waters of Wellfleet. Although fairly impervious glass was used, a system of rolling metal home shutters was designed to protect and preserve the house now and in the decades to come.
A critical focus for the clients as well as the architects and builders was the notion of family and the partial goal of a camp persona. Accordingly, hidden structures are interspersed throughout the site. A need for rest and relaxation is met with a bedroom deck offering a hot tub and hammocks in a gnarled oak grove. Convenience dictated outdoor showers near both the beach path and the main bedroom, and a small hill-top shed with an espresso machine encourages working without interruption. Unexpected and inspired choices spawned elements like a remote deck providing a stable foundation for beach camping in tents, a half basketball court dug into the hill, and hiking trails for the young and old. All of this incorporated into the overall plan of how this property might be enjoyed by a variety of guests. Last but certainly not least, for bonding and laughter, two separate fire pits set in sandy sitting areas, and a shady dining area for large gatherings below the raised main deck, ensure that when the crowd is large and special, the home can meet the challenge.
Landscape architects Horiuchi and Solien of Woods Hole pulled the diverse elements together with the surrounding landscape, as they sought to marry new and old. This fragile eco-scape benefited greatly from a uniquely close collaboration between the homeowner, the architects and the landscape architects. Horiuchi and Solien blended the natural topography with its new native and drought-resistant landscape, with the hope that over time, it would grow back tight to the house as if both had always been there together.
The House of Shifting Sands is truly where creation and evolution come together to create the magic that only pure balance can achieve. This house in all its simplicity and intricacy is now inextricably connected to the people who live in it as well as the beach, dunes and land where it perfectly sits.