This bayside retreat is small in size, but big in casual style and ingenious comfort.
Cape Codders have a complicated relationship with salt. We call our vintage sea captains “old salts,” and we like them that way¬¬—experienced, a bit crusty, ready to tell a rollicking yarn. We dislike the salt that scrapes the paint off our cars and that sticks to our windows like barnacles—but we love the salt sparkle left on our skin after a dip in the ocean. For the bi-coastal homeowner who bought a wind-whipped property—a crooked finger of land jutting into Buzzards Bay—salt is the welcome seasoning that gives this red-cedar clad home its softening silver sheen.
This property had been the site of a derelict home, neglected since Hurricane Bob devastated the region in 1991. A developer had designed a replacement, but its new buyer, searching for a light-hearted beach house that would offer respite from a busy life, elected not to follow those plans. Instead the homeowner opened a folder of dreams with its pages of inspiration and pulled out images of Split Rock, that Hutker Architects had designed. Soon the homeowner was working with Charles Orr, as principal architect and manager, and Thomas McNeill, the primary designer, to create a new, modern home that took its cues from a fishing shack that had once been on the land. The homeowner needed a house that could withstand the onslaught of elements blowing off the bay, and wanted a house that would age gracefully.
Choosing the right material for the exterior was fairly straightforward. “Not many things can survive out there,” McNeill says, “though there were some red cedar groves. Eastern red cedar was what we used for the siding.” If the home were located inland, the cedar boards would simply turn brown. To acknowledge the natural resource that gives the new home a special seaside beauty, the new owner called the house the Salt Shack.
Not only is the site salt-sprayed, it is also located in a flood zone, which meant that the new structure needed to be built 12 feet off the ground. Raising the living spaces on pilings, like a multi-dimensional houseboat, satisfied zoning regulations, but left the challenge of what to do with the large space underneath. In one of many clever uses of space—the cottage is a tight 1100 square feet—McNeill designed a pavilion for the area under the home.
In sunny weather, the walls are opened, exposing 75 percent of the space to the views. If a party of guests arrives, a table can be rolled out from the garage, and the pavilion becomes the setting for a relaxed evening of al fresco dining. If bad weather looms, the outdoor furniture is gathered and stowed, and the slatted doors are snugly closed.
Protecting the homeowner’s privacy posed another challenge for Orr and McNeill when designing the home, as neighboring properties hover close by next door and to the rear of the property, but with the possibility of panoramic views—rocky coastline, sandy shore, sailboats gliding past to the Cape Cod Canal, fishermen on the jetty, a lighthouse, sunsets that go on to infinity—it was imperative to have lots of windows. The solution was to tuck the private spaces—the master bedroom and two guest rooms—towards the back of the house and to extend and expose the public areas—kitchen, dining, and living room—to the full view. The effect, McNeill says, is like being on a boat. “It’s amazing because it’s like being on the bow, or the bridge of a ship. You can only see water—you cannot see the land below.”
When the homeowner arrives with a carload of provisions, instead of having to lug groceries up the stairs, bags are simply placed into the hold of a dumbwaiter and from the kitchen upstairs, a triple-strand rope on an iron cog pulls the load up to the second floor.
Just as in any tight ship, space is maximized for efficiency in this house. With its two walls of windows, and little space for upper cabinets, the kitchen storage areas are tucked into a bevy of drawers and under the compact, black leather stone island. While the dumbwaiter sits on one side of the refrigerator, on the other side, a vertical rack stores the wine bottles. The priceless view from the counter makes chopping vegetables a vacation.
While timber framing is often added to houses as a design element, in the case of this kitchen, it is a structural component that gives the space the feel of a boathouse. Adding to this nautical atmosphere is the eight-inch plank flooring, stained driftwood gray, inspired by the pier decking next to the Hutker Architects offices.
Los Angeles interior designer Sasha Emerson is responsible for the sophisticated, yet casual furnishings, making it clear that this house is meant for ease and fun, with its intimate seating in the living room, a casual dining area that rivals the best water-view restaurants, and plenty of games and books waiting on the shelves of the built-in storage that lines the perimeter of the rooms.
Just off the living spaces is the master bedroom, hugged by ample windows that keep the coast close. The room is airy and bright and punctuated by a colorful oil painting of a summer beach scene above a whimsical woven lattice headboard. Again, as space is limited, the television and gas fireplace are encased in built-ins, matched on the other side of the wall by the living room television and fireplace. The guest bedrooms are efficiently designed as well. Built-in bunk beds make the most of the space in one, and all three bedrooms have sliding barn-style closet doors, which make a design statement as well as enclose built-in dressers and half- and full-height hanging rods.
Even the ironing board is built-in and disguised behind a wall cabinet.
Probably the most striking use of space in the home is the suspended master tub cubicle, distinguished from the rest of the exterior by its darker color. “We wanted that piece to stand out,” McNeill says. “We wanted it to be different because it was hanging off the side of the building. And we didn’t want to use stain because we wanted it to be natural.” To distinguish this element, the architects drew inspiration from a Japanese technique. They charred the exterior cedar boards using a blowtorch. Inside, with its beach stone floor and deep soaking tub, this suspended space offers sanctuary, and, if the shades are raised, a prime spot for viewing coming storms.
Maybe those old Cape Cod salts knew something. Their fishing shacks and small cottages stood up to the elements for centuries. Those long ago sailors used weather-worthy local materials, which they knew, like their stories, only got better with time. This modernized take on an old tale is ready for anything, and from its perch, it says the floods can come, the winds can blow, and the salt is welcome to shiver the timbers.
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Laurel Kornhiser is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod HOME.