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It’s Hip to be Square

Stout columns, oversized windows and shutters, and wide rake boards make a traditional house friendly and less formal.

Huey Lewis was a kind of working class rock singer who played with a variety of musicians in the San Francisco area, toiling in bars in semi-obscurity until he splashed into MTV as one of the “adults” of the 1980’s pop scene, in his Wayfarer sunglasses and signature suits that he sported with t-shirts. In some ways, Lewis played the “straight man” of the day, the regular Joe amid the iconic and rarified talents of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince; it’s no mistake that one of his subsequent hits was 1986’s “Hip To Be Square.” Study the lyrics on that poppy anthem, and the irony is easy enough to detect, but on the surface, the song appeared light, safe, and, for lack of a better word, perfectly square — easily digestible, like one of those lemon custard treats that always seem to come in that four-sided shape, all innocently sweet and dusted in wholesome powdered sugar. “Hip To Be Square” topped out at number three on the charts, but like other Lewis hits, it was a perfect encapsulation of a genre while simultaneously hiding a playful kind of subversion and gentle satire of its musical era. Seapine Gables, a new home by Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders (PSD) bears more than a little in common with “Hip To Be Square.” 

The kitchen, by Classic Kitchens & Interiors, sits across a screen wall from the living space—open enough for socializing but closed enough to imply separation.

First of all, the home is square. And second, it’s hip as all heck — only its roof has eight gables rather than a, pardon the pun, “hip” on top. The house is hip as in cool, but in a somewhat understated way; if you only looked at its site plan, you’d just see a square slightly off the vertical center of a rectangular lot, a box set between a road and the water. The plan looks neat and simple, like a Huey Lewis suit, but the final three-dimensional product, the actual home in which a family moves about and lives, offers the classical cool of those Wayfarer sunglasses and belies a complexity and transcendence of its four apparently equal sides. 

Water view, fire, and classic movies in a cozy but accommodating living space.

PSD Design Principal John DaSilva and his architectural team developed a plan for Seapine Gables that would capitalize upon the advantages of the square and bolster the shape with further symmetry while incorporating elements that would transcend those very confines. “It’s not a huge site,” DaSilva explains, of the 3,665 square foot house. “The square footprint is the most efficient plan—other than circular, which is impractical—it affords the most volume per square foot.” It also enabled the team to effectively hide the garage in a corner. They placed the garage doors on the left side of the house; from the front, one sees only a pair of windows, in symmetry with those on the opposite side of the home’s main entrance. DaSilva notes, “The two-car garage is the biggest space in the house; the square footprint allows it to be articulated as a part of the home. There’s no difference in articulation between this space and the downstairs bedroom.” The house is set on a quiet peninsula, on a lollipop lane, so when people drive from town through the neighborhood, they leave it on their left before looping around. It would have been easy enough to run the driveway directly from the road to the garage, but instead the owners first pass their house, then turn in and follow the driveway past it again before turning the corner and ducking into the garage around the far side. This allows them to savor their home rather than simply return to it. Says DaSilva, “You’re engaging with the front of the house.” With a parking space for guests and delivery vehicles directly in line with the main entryway, there’s no need to even know a garage exists. It’s an effective disguise that further emphasizes the formal parameters of the footprint. The layout of the walkways — built with variegated blue stone surrounded by granite — reinforces these lines, as well, with two square “landings” flanking a rectangular one that previews the front entry porch. PSD designed the home so that it would fit in appropriately with other houses in its neighborhood, especially from the street, so it includes elements that one sees in full Capes and classical buildings without pigeonholing itself into a particular type. The use of an American foursquare element was also important. “This allowed us to give every room at least two exposures to the sun,” says DaSilva. “These multiple exposures cut glare and lengthen the times of day with direct sunlight. They help the rooms feel more open and airy.” 

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