Living at land’s end
Ralph Cataldo gets creative as he crafts an awe-inspiring home perched on Cuttyhunk Island
Online only: See more photos of this Cuttyhunk home
“When you build a house on an island 17 miles out to sea,” says Ralph Cataldo, president of Cataldo Custom Builders, “you need workers who are warriors.” Though one may imagine Cuttyhunk as kind of an extension of the Cape, Cataldo notes that the climate is dramatically different from the mainland, especially in terms of fog, wind and cold. When his team constructed a home for two grateful homeowners at one of the island’s highest points in 2006, they worked through the snowy winter, braving ice in the air, ice on the docks, and ice on the driveway. “It’s terribly cold up there,” says Cataldo. “Those guys are just some real warriors.” Ironically, these modern day Vikings constructed not a fort or a garrison but a serene retreat, a mini-compound for a family to enjoy the solitude and peace of this island, the last in the chain of the Elizabeths, the final stop between Buzzards Bay and Block Island 30 miles due West.
Cataldo, architect John Dvorsack and the homeowners began work on the project in 2005 and continued through 2006. “It took us a long time to locate the footprint,” says Cataldo. He and the owners were meticulous in walking the property to get it just right. “You only get one chance to situate it properly,” he adds. The final product is an energy-efficient, year-round home built to withstand the elements, including hurricanes. Dvorsack describes its architectural style as “transitional,” meaning that it merges traditional and modern elements.
The main house is square-shaped, with a pyramid-or hip-roof. A deep porch wraps around the entire home, which Dvorsack says allows the owners to relax outside, yet be sheltered from Cuttyhunk’s fierce winds. Cataldo adds, “Three out of the four sides have direct ocean views, and you get sunrises from the east-facing one and sunsets from the west-facing one.” A small guesthouse, a matching workshop/shed, and gardens complete the mini-compound. Dvorsack notes, “The shape of the house was also purposely kept very low to give it a low profile when viewed from the observation point at the top of the island.” Cuttyhunk’s highest point stands at 156 feet above sea level, but the home is close, at an elevation of 115 feet. This affords near-360-degree views that include Martha’s Vineyard and the cliffs of Aquinnah, Noman’s Land just off the Vineyard, the other Elizabeth Islands, and practically the entire coastline of Southeastern Massachusetts. Cataldo states, “You can see it all lit up at night.”
To build the home, Cataldo’s team overcame a number of unique challenges, mostly due to the location. “When you build a house on an island like Cuttyhunk, it’s the only project you can do at that time,” says Cataldo. “You’re always planning ahead to make things as comfortable as possible for the workers—and you need to bring almost everything over.” New Bedford is the closest harbor with commercial shipping facilities, so a tug was hired to tow a barge measuring 130 feet by 28 feet. The one-way trip, at a maximum speed of about six knots, took two-and-a-half hours. “The challenge,” says Cataldo, “was in picking days when the weather was favorable for heavy loads and the tug captain was available.” Sometimes the barge had to carry massive cargo such as a full-sized crane shrink-wrapped like a boat to protect against salt spray, or fully loaded trucks. Cataldo notes, “Falmouth Lumber was critical in providing materials whenever we needed them.” Additionally, he used other vessels to transport smaller items, including the Cuttyhunk Ferry Company and Quickwater Ferry out of Falmouth. Captain John Paul Hunter of the Seahorse and Captain Duane Lynch of the Seahawk, both based in Cuttyhunk, were also instrumental to the project’s success. Cataldo firmly believes that to complete a project like this, “You really need a great collaboration and total commitment from everyone—and great organization and discipline to manage downtime and costs.”
No matter how thorough the planning, surprise obstacles are sure to surface, especially when a team is working far from the conveniences that mainlanders take for granted. A dramatic example of this rule occurred that winter, when Cuttyhunk’s only power plant had a major fire. “We had to dismantle and rebuild the plant,” says Cataldo. “We had to do it in mid December. It took us nine days with 18 men and a lot of help from the islanders. It was a team effort.” Cataldo emphasizes the efforts countless individuals contributed to vanquish the unexpected hurdles. One cold December night, John Augusta and Chris Roberts from Falmouth Lumber left the company Christmas party early for Tucker-Roy Marine in New Bedford, and made the crossing to deliver two boom trucks carrying a full load of materials for the plant’s repair. On Cuttyhunk, the barge was usually met by Asa Lombard and other islanders who were waiting to run up the barge ramp so that the equipment could finally be off-loaded.
With the power restored, the team of warriors could resume the building of the home—and build they would, as they crafted a dwelling that should withstand anything Mother Nature has in store. The homeowner recalls that he ordered Andersen Stormwatch hurricane glass after seeing a video of a 2×4 bouncing off a window in 40 mph wind. Cataldo would use the home as an example in a promotional video for Andersen Window Company a few years later. Both the homeowner and Cataldo marvel at the effectiveness of these windows; Cataldo says, “I was in there during a hurricane, and you could almost hear a pin drop. It was very quiet inside the house—with 90 mile-an-hour winds outside.” The choice to use Stormwatch was just one of many practical decisions that these savvy homeowners and the building team made. Cataldo says, “They chose the right materials to protect against the harsh environment.” For example, there is no drywall in the home, a precaution against the humidity of Cuttyhunk’s fog; instead, the home is built entirely of wood, mostly red cedar and fir, with fasteners of stainless steel. Three double-walled oil tanks—with a total capacity of 825 gallons—were installed to maintain climate control year-round, and closed-cell foam insulates the house. One of the carpenters was so impressed by the solidity of the home that he joked, “If there’s a really big hurricane, this house isn’t going to blow apart; it’s just going to blow down the hill, and we’ll find it floating in Vineyard Sound.”
Prior to building, the owners and Dvorsack discussed options for coastal homes that live well instead of livng large. The homeowner states, “We knew we didn’t want a large house, and John Dvorsack did a beautiful job of bringing the concept to reality.” Dvorsack notes that while the home occupies a small footprint, “It feels big because of the additional volume on the inside, and the porch also extends the living space significantly.” Many of the design plan decisions were derived from wisdom the wife’s family had accrued over generations of living on Cuttyhunk. The homeowner says, “We have porch areas to take advantage of sunny summer days, but we also have one that protects us against the prevailing Southwest wind.” They also installed solar panels as part of their goal to create an energy-neutral home.
Despite the home’s broad porches, the interior is bright and well lit because of both the materials and innovative design. Cataldo states, “It’s all vertical grain fir, including the dining table and kitchen nook, which our carpenters built.” The team designed and constructed the fir built-ins on site—and the owners are most thankful for the quality of the woodwork. “Ralph brought in three of the best carpenters I’ve ever seen; all the guys were highly skilled,” he reflects. The Stoughton firm of Kochman Reidt & Haigh Cabinetmakers worked magic in their design of the kitchen, too. “It is a quintessential kitchen plan,” says Paul Reidt, principal, “all of the function is provided by an elaborate island that provides the open living feel, and a casual gathering spot as well. The kitchen table and banquette offer a rich mix of function and feel with their comfortable cushions—the perfect place for an hour-long cup of coffee.” Reidt and his team were also responsible for conceptualizing another favored spot for respite in the home: a window seat without a window. The center hallway has a nook that is bathed in sunlight and offers a place to catch up on reading, journaling or to just take a lazy nap.
Cataldo and the owners constantly swap memories of the entire team and the community of Cuttyhunk that helped in the construction of this amazing home. Cataldo recently shared a recollection after celebrating the 90th birthday of a longtime resident, Dr. DiMare. He describes how the doctor met him at the icy docks every Saturday morning during the construction in a warm truck to transport the crew to the site. The cost of the gesture? A newspaper from “America.” “The neighbors were extremely cooperative and some of them worked on the project or provided their professional expertise like plumbing or electrical services,” Cataldo says. “It really was quite the challenge to complete this project. With only about 30 year-round residents on Cuttyhunk, the resources were quite limited, so we were definitely grateful for the help.” The entire process completely met the owners’ expectations, but they have also enjoyed happy surprises. “It was just a real joy to work with Ralph,” the homeowner says. “He’s an extraordinary builder.”
The family was plenty familiar with Cuttyhunk prior to the build—and the satisfaction of living on the island has proven greater than they had ever imagined. A lifelong gardener, the homeowner completed all of the landscaping himself, careful to avoid introducing plants without native roots. He has planted hundreds of native trees, and his gardening and horticultural pursuits lend a dynamic quality to this project that began 12 years ago. Cataldo concludes, “It’s an incredible place, and they take impeccable care of it.”
The homeowners feel constant gratitude for everyone who battled the elements to create this dream home. “We love it,” he says, “a day doesn’t go by that we don’t thank Ralph, John and their team. It’s been a wonderful experience for us.”
Ralph Cataldo and Allen Berry would both like to thank all members of the team who helped them complete this amazing island home, including the residents of Cuttyhunk, their friends and neighbors and the following individuals:
Peter Sarkinen: Project Manager
Eddie Watson: Framing Contractor
Tom Kolton: Master Carpenter
Kochman Reidt & Haigh Cabinetmakers
Joe Wayman/Francisco Tavares
Wayne Perrier: Island Electrician
Russell Wright: Island Plumber
The Cuttyhunk Corporation
Darren & Tim from Atlantic Heating
Arthur Bougulas of Superior Walls
All of the island workers