Autumn 2015

Pint-sized Perfection

Cape Cod Home  /  Autumn 2015 / ,

Writer: Susan Dewey / Photographer: Dan Cutrona 

A beachside landscape brings big pleasure with all the latest outdoor entertaining amenities—on a tiny lot above Buzzards Bay.

tiny lot above Buzzards Bay

Photo by: Dan Cutrona

Great vacation landscapes on Cape Cod come in all shapes and sizes. From sprawling estates with elegantly manicured lawns that seem to roll on forever, to tiny shore-side cottages surrounded by little more than sand, Rosa rugosa, and some picturesque plantings of native beach grass, the perfect oasis can be created. This is especially true if the landscape’s design and construction is in the hands of experienced professionals.

One Sudbury family found their dream getaway location on a postage stamp of a lot, perched high on a Nantucket Sound bluff in New Seabury. Undaunted by the restrictions of the small space, the homeowners purchased a beautiful seaside cottage with plenty of space for their three children and lots of visiting friends and family.

When it came to surrounding their home with a stunning landscape that they hoped could include hardy seaside plantings, an infinity pool with stone surroundings, and even an outdoor kitchen—they turned to Sudbury Design Group, the landscape design company that had created and installed an extensive landscape around their year-round home in Sudbury.

Mike Coutu, owner of the residential and commercial landscape architectural firm well-known for providing comprehensive services including landscape design, design/build, garden design, and full maintenance programs for homes in the Greater Boston area as well as for homes on Cape Cod, knew that his award-winning firm was taking on a challenge.

“This project started off with the homeowners saying, ‘We would like to have you look at the possibility of putting a pool in,’” says Coutu. “Pretty soon afterwards it was, ‘You know, we would like to put an outdoor kitchen in, too. And if we are going to do that, we would like a rinse-off area. If we are going to have the pool, we would really like to have a place to have a fire’—the project just kept getting bigger and bigger for a really tiny space.”

Add to this daunting equation the fact that the homeowners hoped to be swimming in their gorgeous infinity pool and savoring the joys of dining and lounging with spectacular seaside views by Memorial Day. “We essentially had to do the project in three months,” says Coutu. “We started in March and finished by Memorial Day, which was quite a feat.”

On a slight rise that is accessed on the street side by a narrow, one-way drive serving a clustered group of homes, the site offers limited room for regular cars and trucks, let alone space for the many vehicles needed to supply all the manpower and materials to create the oasis Coutu and his team of 12 designers began to envision. Working to meet the homeowners’ wishes, the team began to imagine extensive hardscape features, including a gunite infinity plunge pool, a spacious outdoor kitchen, two built-in dining areas, an outdoor shower, a built-in fire pit, and two sunning areas.

tiny lot above Buzzards Bay

Photo by: Dan Cutrona

“We did some sketch-up models, which helped the client see the project in three dimensions,” says Coutu. “With small spaces especially, it is so hard to visualize and understand how things are going to work.”

Sudbury Design is fast establishing a reputation for amassing a considerable amount of knowledge about Cape Cod’s extensive—and sometimes necessarily byzantine—conservation permitting practices. The firm recently opened a staffed office in Cataumet. Coutu knew that he needed to “cross every T and dot every I” if the project was to move ahead on schedule.

“I warned the homeowners that this project had challenges in terms of permitting,” says Coutu. “We carefully went through all the proper permitting procedures with conservation and the planning board. To do any project within the coastal buffer zone, you have to install mitigation plantings on the bank itself. We decided to plant bearberry, bayberry—all the plants had to be indigenous to the area and able to withstand extreme salt and very substantial winds.”

One of the most important improvements requested by the homeowners was actually getting to the beach itself. “They had to get to the beach through a neighbor’s property,” says Coutu, “so access to the beach was one of our key design ideas.” The design team created a handsome 150-foot boardwalk that needed to move down the bank and across the dunes. The required pool entrance fencing was built with the ingenious choice of copper that will weather and soften the affect of the material against ocean views.

To minimize the effect of erosion on sensitive seaside areas, the crew designed an innovative drainage system serving the hardscape area, including the pool and built-in irrigation systems for in-ground plantings and large pool-size planters. “We decided to install small drains throughout all those areas that are hidden,” says Coutu. “The system is designed to put water back in the ground, rather than out on the beach.”

With the permits firmly in hand, the construction crew, which included several experienced stonemasons, began to excavate the pool area in late fall. “One of the main difficulties was that we had to remove everything that was already on the site previously, including a terrace, a lawn and some steps coming off of the house,” says Coutu. “All of that, and we had to lower the grade enough to construct what we needed to construct!”

tiny lot above Buzzards Bay

Photo by: Dan Cutrona

Besides the pool excavation, everything else on the project was done by hand, which included all the footings and foundations for the pool and the surrounding extensive stone work, all of which all had to go four feet deep. “We also had to think creatively about all the utilities,” says Coutu. “We had to get gas out and around to supply the kitchen and the fireplace. We trenched in all the utilities alongside the house—all by hand in a very narrow space.”

A plywood path was built along the right-hand site of the house from the street to begin construction of the plunge pool. “The access on both sides is just 48 inches,” says Coutu, noting that all the houses on the bluff are quite close together. “We removed all the plantings, and went in with the smallest machine we could find, a mini excavator.”

The work began to move quickly, until Mother Nature intervened. “Winter came early,” says Coutu. “We couldn’t get back to the site until March.” Added pressure was brought to bear because the home is part of an association that forbids any construction after Memorial Day.

Despite occasionally frigid March temperatures and a late spring snowfall or two, the crew worked from sunset to sunrise, five days a week shaping the diminutive area into a glorious landscape that opens out to spectacular views of Nantucket Sound from every angle—before the flags waved on Memorial Day. A handsome infinity pool surrounded by sand-colored Chinese granite seating areas and walkways offers cool respite on hot summer days for the homeowners’ happy children. Adults lounge on attractively sited mahogany decks in several easily accessed areas. Delicious summer fare is prepared for lunch and dinners in a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen with grilling options, and a spacious refrigerator.

Softening the hardscape is a bright palette of seaside-friendly plantings, including masses of Nikko, CityLine, and Endless Summer hydrangeas and beach grasses. Beneath the infinity pool, the mitigation plantings spill down the bluff to the beach. A handsome boardwalk winds down to the shore.

Although this is a quintessential summer day paradise, it is perhaps at night when the sun paints the endless sky with splashes of color before turning to cool dark blue that this seaside oasis truly shines. With carefully integrated lighting glimmering in and on the infinity pool and the built-in fire pit glowing warmly, family and friends gather. This big design for a very small place creates memorable moments for this lucky family all summer long.

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Susan Dewey

Susan Dewey, former associate publisher and editor at Cape Cod Life Publications, lives in Centerville where she grows vegetables and flowers for Cape farmers' markets, designs perennial gardens for her son’s company, Dewey Gardens, and enjoys living on beautiful Cape Cod year round.