The Art of Balance
Aline Architecture and Cregg Sweeney Artisan Builders incorporate the Indian Vastu disciplines to truly create a home of well-being.
When the Hunter’s Moon rises above Nauset Beach, Hog Island, and Little Pleasant Bay, it’s easy enough to see the alignment of the Cosmos. Facing due east, the only visible light in one’s field of vision is the full moon and its radiance upon the ripples of the bay. The moon, in its flight, ascends as though from the Atlantic, bursting above the dune tops and beach grasses and scrub pines of the island’s barrier beach, before filling the night sky, consuming the view and bathing the evening in primordial energy. Many homes on Cape Cod enjoy views of the water, but more often than not, the orange glows of towns and cities or the yellow lights of massive homes pollute the sky with the reminder that little remains untouched by the progress of humankind. Rare, indeed, are sites as pristine as this particular location in Orleans. And, as with any cosmic alignment, the owners’ quest to create a dream house was one guided far more by destiny than by chance.
When they began their project, the owners of what would ultimately become their new home on Little Pleasant Bay, sought more than just perfect alignment with the Hunter’s Moon and an unpolluted night sky. They strove to create a home—crafted to a similar level of perfection as any supreme power’s artistic achievement—a structure that “connects the individual intelligence of the occupant of the house to the cosmic intelligence of the universe,” in the words of MaharishiVastu.org of Fairfield, Iowa, which provides guidance in the building of Vastu homes and structures. For those unfamiliar with Vastu design, a simple way to begin understanding is to consider the more widely-known concepts of Feng Shui, the Chinese geomantic practice of creating harmony amongst people, their environments, and the flow of energy. In fact, Feng Shui is derived from Vastu, and harmony and balance are aspects of both philosophies. Maharishi Vastu® architecture, also known as Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, is most concerned with the proportions and orientation of a home and its living spaces. In simple terms, it helps to think about the ancient Vedic traditions in a scientific sense—Yoga being the science of the mind and body, Ayurveda, the science of nutrition and medicine, and Vastu, the science of architecture. Its modern principles derive from ancient Sanskrit texts, and throughout history, Vastu philosophy has been applied not only in the creation of individual homes and buildings in India, but in the planning of entire towns and cities. While Vastu design can also work in a rectangular shape, an easy way to visualize its layout is to imagine a series of concentric squares that radiate outward from a center point of the structure. Without delving too far into the particulars, the five main principles of Vastu are: right direction, right placement of rooms, right proportion, natural and nontoxic building materials, and other influences such as the shape of the land, alignment with the unobscured sun rise, and proximity to water. The focus on exacting dimensions and orientation, as well as the materials selected, relate to creating a very specific vibrational quality in the house that promotes well-being.
Louise Ayer became enamored with the idea of building a Vastu home for herself, her husband, and their family after having lived in one, in Fairfield, Iowa. She explains: “There is definitely something about living in a structure that is aligned with the Cosmos. I found it very grounding. I slept better, felt more oriented, my creative juices flowed more easily, and I had more success in my life with less effort.” As the empty nest couple prepared to move from Connecticut to Cape Cod, they drew on Louise’s experience and began searching for the ideal spot upon which to build; this is where fate, or at least synchronicity, truly began making itself known. Pieces began to fall into place like dominoes. “When you fully commit to something,” says Louise, “there’s a magical quality.” One requirement of Vastu design is that the house should face due east and should have an unobstructed view of the rising sun. Given that most of the Cape’s east coast is owned and managed by the National Park Service, the options for locations were already somewhat limited, especially since the family wanted to start fresh rather than remodel an existing home. Louise’s sister-in-law’s family owned acres of land in Orleans, down a secluded road leading to the shores of Little Pleasant Bay. During the successful exploration phase of the project, an offer was extended to sell a bluffside lot to Louise and her family. “We bought the land in 2012,” recalls Louise. “It was virgin land that had never been built upon, but it was full of invasive species: bittersweet, poison ivy, poison ivy trees, honeysuckle, all the typical ones.” Over the following couple of years, Louise and her team pulled all of this out by hand to prepare the site for its transformation without using any herbicides or other chemicals. Her team also went to work on rejuvenating the soil, which was severely compacted. Part of her goal was to create a vibrant and dynamic garden to surround the home; as she says, “The gardens here are an integral part of the house. They comprise an edible landscape of fifty herbs along with lots of vegetables, berries, fruits, and flowers.”
Although Louise had begun working with a Vastu consultant named Jon Lipman, AIA, an architect based in Fairfield, Iowa, who would eventually certify the design and build process, she had not yet assembled the team on the Cape that would turn her dream into reality. She had reached out to a number of architects, and had sent an email to Joy Cuming at Aline Architecture in Orleans, but Joy had missed it. “One day, out of the blue, Louise walked in and told me about her plans,” says Cuming. “As soon as I saw the site, I said, ‘I’m in.’ It was just pristine with a huge oak tree; the site really spoke to me.” In another flash of synchronicity, Joy just so happened to have experience with Vastu philosophy. She explains, “When I was teaching at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, I advised a masters student who was working on a thesis about Sthapatya Veda, or Vastu. I never thought it would come up again.” Initially, Louise envisioned Cuming’s role to be the site supervisor, with the Vastu expert as the lead designer, but this setup became cumbersome, and it made more sense for the two parties to swap their positions. “They asked me for a preliminary design, and I sat on the site for a long time,” says Cuming. “I produced two designs, one that I favored, which they liked as well.” This one featured not only Vastu ideas but also “Arts & Crafts” and “Craftsman” elements with Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese influences. Essentially, the design would create a temple of a home. Now, Louise and Joy just needed to find the right builder. “I had always wanted to work with Cregg Sweeney ever since he moved to the Cape almost a decade ago,” says Cuming. She had admired his work from afar, in particular the rebuild that he did of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in California, the Buehler House, that had burned down in 1994. “I had in mind that he had to be the builder. He’s a Cornell graduate; he could have done anything, but he chose to be a contractor. He wants to be a builder, and he draws the greatest craftspeople to his crew. Aline is a design-build firm, but a house like this requires someone like Cregg.”
In April 2014, construction began with a Vastu groundbreaking ceremony and the laying of the first cornerstone. Louise and her husband rented a neighbor’s house for the duration of the build so that she could remain hands-on in the process, which wrapped up a little over two years later. “Building a Vastu home is like building a musical instrument,” says Louise. “It resonates with the Cosmos.” Joy Cuming agrees, adding, “I found Vastu hard at first, but in the end, we all felt something in the building—there’s something vibrational about the numbers.” Because the purpose of Vastu design is to connect a home to nature, Joy and Sweeney already practice a number of its principles, well, naturally. “You think about the way the sun moves across a property,” says Cuming, “or about the prevailing winds.” While Joy sees the home as something like a temple, it’s also, as Sweeney says, a “Craftsman bungalow.” One of the most satisfying aspects of the project was its high level of precision and need for attention to detail. “It was a learning experience for all of us,” Sweeney notes. “It could be frustrating at times because the consultants in Iowa had to approve numbers with Joy, and we had precision that we needed to build to with materials that can expand with humidity. Our team is very loyal, and they are all artisans, so there was some good healthy competition going on for cool things to build.” One carpenter spent a year crafting the windows, for example, while another focused on the home’s many built-ins. While Sweeney did some of the fine carpentry himself, such as the built-in for the master bathroom, he spent the bulk of his time coordinating with the other craftspeople, coaching, and directing. “There were so many relationships to build,” he recalls. “It was a phenomenal experience.” Joy describes the process in a similar way, saying, “At first blush the constraints can be tricky, but they sharpen your pencil; it’s like solving a puzzle—you work at it, then the penny drops and you figure it out.”
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Little Pleasant Bay House is at its center. “It must always be kept open,” explains Louise, “to allow communication with the Cosmos.” In her home, this open area occupies space between the main entrance and the living room. The second floor is cut out to leave an open shaft leading up to the ceiling and its massive, open beams. These wooden structures were milled out of hemlock trees from the family’s previous home in Connecticut, and they serve as a connection to the past as well as providing the functional purpose of holding up the roof. The beams also evoke another memory from their old home, one that added yet another influence to Joy Cuming’s design puzzle. “They loved this huge, great barn,” she says. “This combined with fine detailing helped to define the design program. It feels like a temple, and yet it’s livable and comfortable.” Around the base of the beams, where they meet the walls on the second floor, Joy inserted mirrors that create an illusion of further depth, a feeling of infinity. Suspended from the peak of the ceiling and extending downward through the Brahmasthan is an intricate chandelier that Sweeney custom built using brass tubing and antique globes from dentists’ offices circa 1930 with glass that casts no glare. “A Douglas fir and copper medallion holds it all together at the very top,” Sweeney says.
Despite the 7,000 square foot size of the house, it feels more expansive than big, and its various spaces create intimacy along with an interconnectedness to its gardens, landscape, and views. It feels at home on its bluff. The front porch runs 100 feet from south to north and is 13 feet deep. Because of its width, Sweeney inserted skylights in its roof to allow more sun to enter the house. In keeping with Vastu guidelines, a meditation room occupies a space near the northeast corner of the first floor to allow practitioners to breathe in the dawn. The master bedroom suite, on western side of the second floor, includes a library den alongside a yoga room. In keeping with the green requirements of both Vastu and the owners, a geothermal system using water pumped from an on-site well cools and heats the home. In addition to the fifty types of herbs that Louise grows and harvests, the gardens and greenhouse produce a wide range of fruits, including persimmons, guavas, lemons, figs, and berries. “We grow most of our produce needs,” says Louise. “We start picking berries in May, and we’re still picking them now, in October. We have a ton of berries, gallons of blackberries.” As with the building materials, everything that goes into the garden is organic and eco-friendly, and the family makes two separate types of compost as fertilizer, including the fermented Bokashi. Gardener Jessica Tsoukalas, an expert in Korean Natural Farming, is one of the masterminds who helps make the gardens so lush.
In the end, Louise and her husband began moving into their new home in December of 2016, their moving-in ceremony was at a muhῡrta which translates as, “auspicious time.” A few months later, they invited all of the people who had worked on the house to a celebration, and the guests numbered around 135 tradespeople and spouses. “The entire crew bought into this project,” says Sweeney, “and it elevated everyone’s skill set.” Perhaps because of the ever-changing gardens, seasons, and life cycles in which their home is centered and grounded, it seems to grow along with its owners, like a living entity. Louise and her husband clearly love their home on the bluff, and the gratitude they feel towards all involved in the project seems intertwined with the Vastu energy. “Lots of artists have contributed work here,” says Louise. “This is a dream house not just because it’s big but because it was built with so much heart, so much talent.”
Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.