Turning one couple’s dream of a seaside Cape Cod home into reality
Cape Cod has always been a place that evokes feelings that reside deep in the imagination. Many of these feelings are sensory: the tang of salt spray in the air, the sound of the ocean gently lapping on a calm day, and the deep blue of a clear sky meeting the silvery blue of the sea. Others come from man-made traditions: a summer vacation freeing a family from the tethers of work and school; long days at the beach and simple evening meals of fresh corn and a few lobsters thrown in a pot; special time spent with grandparents and cousins messing about with boats. All these elements come together around a seaside cottage, which fulfills a desire of both heart and mind to experience summer by the ocean in a comfortable, relaxed and sociable way.
“Almost a child’s relationship to a house—that’s what adults feel toward a second home,” says John DaSilva of Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders (PSD). “You hold an image of it in your mind and you long for it. You can’t wait to be there again. You dream about it.”
A seaside home yearned for in the imagination is what the firm set out to design for a property called Cabot’s Corner in Chatham. The home needed to evoke that idyllic, dreamy quality while giving a real family the space, light and functionality of a new house. Cabot’s Corner is tucked into an enclave of charming homes, some old and some new, atop a modest knoll with lovely views of the water on two sides.
Defining the elements of this dreamy place, and then turning the dream into reality, was the task PSD took on as architect and builder for the project, which was completed in 2013. DaSilva led as design principal, working alongside his wife, Sharon DaSilva, the firm’s senior designer.
A classic shingle-style house
The first major design decision was to use the one style most reminiscent of leisurely New England seaside living. John DaSilva says the shingle style popular of the late 19th century (circa 1880-1910) is the first truly American architecture. He says that all buildings constructed previously used designs and methods adopted from Europe. Prominent architects of the day took classic American colonial designs and reinterpreted them with eclectic influences from the English Arts and Crafts movement or French Norman castles. “One key characteristic is that the houses were wrapped in cedar shingles, which tie together the disparate elements into a unified whole,” DaSilva says. “The result was both romantic and evocative.” In the Cabot’s Corner home, the gambrel roof and tower are tied together with a simple shingle finish to evoke the seaside cottages of the leisure class from a century ago.
The home’s gambrel roof—an umbrella gambrel in this case, with a flared bottom at the eaves—is not only important to the shingle-style cottage feel, but it also maximizes second-floor headroom. “It permits more headroom in the second floor within the same height,” says DaSilva. “It also has a more gentle appearance than a straight gable roof.” On the front side the gambrel shape is broken up by an entry porch and tower; on the back one can clearly see the full gambrel contour. Generous dormers punctuate the gambrel roof on both sides, allowing for larger bedrooms, more light, and more views to the ocean.
The design diverges from tradition in a few key areas. The original seaside retreats had deep eaves and many porches to provide relief from summer’s heat in an era before air conditioning. Today, views and light are much more important to homeowners. “Traditional shingle-style houses were more inward-focused,” DaSilva says. “Their interiors were darker.” This house retains the charm of the style, including a porch and deep roof overhangs, but it is updated with large and abundant windows for an outward focus on the views.
Indeed, the owners of Cabot’s Corner—a couple with three young children—were drawn to this design because it was bright, and the open floor plan made it great for entertaining. “We throw open the doors to the patio, and people go in and out,” the homeowner says. “There are great smells coming from the grill and kids racing around in circles. It is a family-friendly place, a kid-friendly place, a great place to have people over.”
In addition, many traditional shingle-style houses ramble, but here PSD was working with a compact site, so the design needed to evoke rather than copy the genre. For example, the entry door and porch needed to be minimal in footprint, but large in impact. “The small site necessitated an interpretation of a traditional shingle-style porch, which still gives you a sense of a porch, and adds character but in a minimal space,” DaSilva says of the straight-sided arch design in the porch opening at the front door. Such attention to detail and charm distinguishes the entryway by announcing its presence and creating a welcoming feeling.
A final touch on the front façade, which adds to the happy, dreamy cottage appearance, is the blue shutters. “They are, like the house as a whole, symbolic of coastal architecture but not overdone,” DaSilva says. “Just enough to put that image in your mind, but not so much as to be clichéd.”
The second major element of the house’s design involved meticulous attention to how natural daylight plays on the site. The house is oriented to the southern exposure so that light pours through the home from front to back. The kitchen is open to the living area to capture that good southern light but also opens to the east and west for daylong sun. “In the dining room the morning sun is beautiful,” the homeowner says. “After breakfast we like to sit there and do puzzles because everything is so much clearer, the colors are brighter, it is such a happy place to be.”
Unexpected touches, such as small side windows on the dormers, enhance the cottage charm, but also extend the length of time the rooms get sun. “These windows expand the time the room gets direct light, make the rooms feel bigger and brighter, plus reduce glare,” DaSilva explains. “Light from one direction can feel harsh. Mixed light from the west, east and south provides warmer, gentler light all day.”
Ocean breezes and views
Since the house is on a corner lot with its best water views off one corner, the octagonal tower was the perfect device to add shingle-style charm and best capture views and breezes. The lower level of the tower is an open porch with outdoor seating, and the upper level is incorporated into the master bedroom as a sitting area featuring the most dramatic views on the site.
Asked how the family uses the octagonal porch, the homeowner laughs. “We feed eight to 10 kids on summer evenings on that porch,” she says. “The kids range from toddlers on up, and food goes everywhere. But we can practically hose the place down, no worries. Plus the sunsets are so lovely there.”
The homeowner calls the view from the master bedroom majestic. “Every night we close the blinds to keep out early light, and when we get up and open them, it’s like ‘Wow!’ every time. From there we can see the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and we can watch the storms come in over the water.”
The garden area and terrace are on the side of the house that faces the ocean. On the street side the features are nicely protected by a berm with mature plantings, but they still have full views through the southwest corner toward the water. French doors amplify the connection between indoor and outdoor spaces, and a round window adds a nautical touch.
“We have the best dance parties on that patio with the door flung open and the music floating out on summer evenings,” the homeowner says, describing one of the many happy seaside memories her family is building in this home.
With the emphasis on capturing water views and sunlight, the home’s interior spaces are serene with subtle nautical touches. Fabrics and finishes are meant to avoid cliché while still hewing to the sense of place. Trim work, such as the v-groove paneling in the living room, continues the informal cottage theme while providing interest and detail.
The choice of windows enhances a very deliberate cottage look. Windows composed of four panes of glass divided by oversized muntins (the narrow strips that divide each pane of glass in a traditional sash) allow for open views but maintain the character of traditional multi-pane windows. “The chunkiness of the muntins confounds your expectation of scale,” DaSilva says. “Oversized muntins make the house look smaller. Looking at the house from the road, you don’t expect the house to be that big.”
The homeowner agrees that the house achieves all the charm of a seaside cottage. “It is a true haven of happiness—pure relaxation. I grew up in North Carolina, so this was new to me, this concept of summers on Cape Cod, but I see now that for us, for our kids, having that is truly special.”
DaSilva says that’s the goal for every project the firm takes on. “We try to shape our architecture to tap into that feeling, to create something that is an archetypal image of a New England seaside cottage. People who live there desire that kind of relationship with it,” he says. “We strive for timeless work—of our own age but beloved by any.”
A resident of East Sandwich, where she lives with her husband and three children, Kate Bavelock is a freelance writer and a former executive director of the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce.