Out of the Box
A Cape Cod artist dares to be different designing—and building—her own stylish, sustainable home that she describes as “a Manhattan loft floating over a meadow.”
The words were written in ballpoint pen on a scrap of printer paper and duct-taped to a tree in front of artist Jennifer Morgan’s new house in East Harwich: “This is a disgrace.”
Not exactly the warm, neighborly welcome Morgan was used to from her lifelong visits to Cape Cod. She could have been upset over it or worse, bitter. But that’s not Morgan’s style.
“I taped the sign to the window of my truck and drove around with it for a while,” Morgan laughs while recounting just one of many challenges she encountered in the process of designing and building her own house.
Cape Cod has a rich and storied architectural legacy of which its residents are fiercely proud. Perhaps the writer of the note simply didn’t know what to do when faced with something new, unusual, and wonderfully un-Cape Cod.
Morgan knew from the beginning what she loved and what she wanted. As a painter, she has an appreciation for color, design, and function and is not afraid to be different. She chose a piece of property that many others had passed over, unfazed by a steep hill that was probably regarded as unbuildable. Trading in cedar shingles for galvanized steel and concrete for wide pine floors, she created a special haven that is equal doses sustainability, simplicity, and style.
From the road, the house appears to be an unassuming modular rectangle with a front window, door, and roof. It is perched on the side of a steep hill and beyond is an overgrown field full of grasses, wildflowers, and wildlife. For those who venture beyond the metal façade, a colorful, rich, interior world awaits. Full of stories as detailed as the collections of drawings and artifacts on her walls, the house stands as a testament to Morgan’s artistic vision, commitment to environmental sensitivity—and belief in the value of simple hard work.
There is no mistaking Morgan’s house. Compared with others in her neighborhood and most everywhere on the Cape, everything—materials, location, interior design, and aesthetic— about Jennifer Morgan’s house is distinctive. It was in fact, the first of its kind ever built. “I was the first person ever to build with this kit, called Noble Home; I was the guinea pig!”
Completed in 2008, the house is a pre-fabricated kit, a rarity on Cape Cod, but part of a growing trend driven by those with a certain penchant for 1950s design who are also looking for green credentials, smaller size, and a lower price tag. The kit itself cost around $45,000, including materials, with a little extra for shipping. All the construction materials down to the fasteners (framing nails not included) arrived at the lot on a flatbed truck, ready to be built according to the included assembly handbook.
While Morgan gathered a small team of professionals to help her piece together the house (an electrician, a plumber, a builder, an excavator, and various sub contractors), as the general contractor, she took a decidedly active role in this construction project. This process, both exhausting and thrilling, was ultimately rewarding, “You end up learning so much about the house, all the codes, the details, “ says Morgan. She also marveled at how long it took her to find people willing to take on her project. Many builders wouldn’t do it, perhaps intimidated or just uninterested in trying something that was so different.
The Noble Home kit was a perfect fit for budget, maintenance, design preferences, and sustainability. Morgan worked with the founder of Noble Home, Noah Grunberg, to design a two-story house that she could use as a living space and art studio. Her goal was to create an industrial interior/exterior space, achieved with touches like an open loft-style plan, concrete floors, galvanized steel roof and siding, and exposed wiring.
The rigidity of such materials is softened through the use of natural materials such as a white pine tongue and groove panel ceiling, white pine rafters and collar ties and unusual accents like a rustic soapstone farm sink.
Typical of modern design, the house is simple: a 20’ by 40’ rectangle, with 1600 total square feet of space split equally between the two floors. Jennifer and her dog, Friday, live in the upper floor’s open plan divided by sliding partition doors that carve out a bedroom and bathroom with the remaining space devoted to a living and kitchen area. It is a very spacious 800 square feet.
Morgan was very conscious about her choice to build only what she needed. Her motto was, “Smaller is better—the smaller house forces you to interact with everything,” she explains. “There are no wasted spaces. No wasted utilities. It makes you live very mindfully.”
The lower floor is a painter’s dream of a studio. The space is open and flexible, offering plenty of storage, workspace, and white walls. Morgan is currently busy at work preparing for an upcoming solo show in Long Island, so the space is stacked high with recent paintings at all stages of completion.
The pièce de résistance is the south-facing side of the house. Huge floor to ceiling panel windows pour light into the living space and studio. Morgan describes it as “a Manhattan loft floating over a meadow.” When standing in the living area, you feel as though you are suspended over the surrounding field, with the hill dropping steeply below the house.
There is not a house in sight and the one-acre property seems to stretch out far below. The windows create a mixing, merging and overlapping of interior and exterior spaces. The outside environment surrounds you on almost all sides with sound, cross breezes, and light. Morgan relates how if the windows are open when it rains, “you feel like you’re in an open-air hut in Southeast Asia.”
The living space is decidedly cozy and eclectic in color and style, with inspired nods to modern and Scandinavian design. A George Nelson saucer lamp hangs in the middle of the room and provides a warm glow. Red partition walls offer a shock of color. Morgan’s design palette includes rich combinations of textures such as wood, concrete, metal, and stone.
She integrates unique pieces, some treasures from childhood (like a stained glass window her father gave her when she was about 15 years old) as well as used finds, IKEA basics, artwork, and her own constructions, like a lamp made from a huge piece of driftwood. Adept at scouring both eBay and Craigslist, Morgan can tell you the story of each piece and how it came to its current resting space (usually a result of some serious bargain hunting followed by a trek in her trusty pickup truck).
With its simple lines, post and beam style construction, and marriage of interior and exterior spaces, the house pays homage to the mid-century architecture that Morgan admires. Her passion has led her to join The Cape Cod Modern House Trust, an organization devoted to preserving the over 100 historically important modern homes in the Cape Cod National Seashore. “People think that these houses are so contemporary, but really, they’ve been around since the twenties and thirties,” she says.
Combining aesthetics with sustainability, Morgan describes her house as “the green movement’s take on mid-century modern: less waste, better materials, but with a similar aesthetic.” According to Noble Home, based in western Massachusetts, every material used in the kit is either recyclable or natural (and locally sourced).
Morgan can run through a laundry list of green features of the house: Low-E Pella windows, Thermasteel panels (a hallmark of Noble Home kits) that offer significant insulation in the walls and roof, the solar heat sink created by the south-facing windows and concrete floors, energy-efficient appliances, and a woodstove (which Morgan installed herself).
This may sound nice on paper, but the energy savings speak for themselves. “My utility bills for heat, hot water, everything, never get above $150 a month, even in the winter,” Morgan says. She describes how the passive solar design makes the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. “In the winter months, when the sun is low in the sky, the sunlight is absorbed in the concrete floor. If it’s 20 degrees and sunny, it’s 80 degrees in here with the heat off.”
Morgan made green choices whenever possible with fixtures such as a dual-flush toilet, on demand water heater, and smaller sized appliances. She simultaneously made economical choices as well by searching for designer overstocks, eBay bargains, and used pieces.
Living alone, she depends on her own knowledge and know-how to tackle many of the maintenance and upgrade tasks that accompany any home. She is also quick to point out that the materials she chose also are extremely low maintenance. DIY projects included the bathroom tile, all the interior painting, exterior stucco work, and a project she would not wish to repeat: installing the woodstove.
Of the woodstove project, which involved hiking up and onto the roof to cut a hole with a Sawsall (through corrugated steel no less), she says, “My motto is ‘How hard could it be? I could do that,’ which gets me into all kinds of trouble! How hard could it be? Pretty damn hard!”
Was the hard work worth it? Morgan readily acknowledges the frustrations and trial-and-error that might sound familiar to anyone building a new house. She laughs that the process “definitely involved a lot of crying,” and took about a year to finish. Now that the project is done and she has been happily settled in the house for two years, she reflects back on it noting “this house was all about anticipating what I would need. There might be little things that I would change, but not much. I could live in this house forever.”
A disgrace? Hardly. The next time someone bothers to leave a note in front of the house, he or she should take a moment and look through Jennifer Morgan’s window.
Amanda Wastrom, of Sandwich, is a teacher at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, a keeper of chickens, a dedicated gardener–and a believer in all things green.
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