Whatever kind of house you design and build, chances are it's going to be around for a while. Houses are not disposable goods, intended to be used and then cast aside. Or are they?
Have you ever been to Ikea? The Swedish-based store fills an important niche in the U.S. home-furnishings market. It provides us with solid, decently made case goods in roughly three price ranges and quality grades: lower, middling, higher. The furniture designs are simple and bland enough not to offend the masses. The company solves a real problem (i.e., I need a dining table immediately, and I can't wait for the perfect, beautiful one) with expediency. The trouble is, no matter how much time and money I saved buying that table, it was a poor long-term investment. This won't be the table my family hands down through generations. It won't prove and appreciate with age.
Much of today's housing is like furniture from Ikea: generic, decently made, expedient. Its character and charm are not likely to improve with age. When it no longer solves the problem, the owners will discard it for something different. It is a poor emotional investment.
How do you design a house worth keeping? If you think about that table again, the answers are obvious. Something worth keeping is functional, beautifully made from lovely materials, and has strong personal associations. Those qualities are what make an heirloom--something generations will find valuable and useful.
This month's cover architect, Mark Hutker, has designed more than 200 custom homes and renovations on Martha's Vineyard. Of them, only three have been sold. They're keepers--intentionally so. He disdains what he calls "trophy homes," hollow, heartless houses designed primarily to impress the outside world. His mission is to build heirloom houses.
Yes, his houses also solve problems. In fact, he says, the more problems, the better: "We seek constraints—client, program, zoning, site—and we turn them into opportunities." With his houses, beauty and value emerge from the unique blend of those particulars. They also come from a close connection to place, right down to the color of the window trim. "There's a certain red we'll use that matches the island's indigenous bayberry," he says. "The strength of our work needs to come out in the detail."
He aims for a "poetic response" to each project. He describes one house as "weathered silhouettes in the landscape" and another as "shelter in the dunes." Although they're primarily designed as vacation homes, their mutability is integral. "Everyone has the dream of retiring here," says Hutker. "So we design the houses for sunny days and rainy days; summer and winter--from one generation to the next. At the beach, there's an edge between too open and what's comfortable and protected. I love that edge."
Details, specificity, flexibility, craftsmanship, and basic good taste. These are the characteristics of houses that delight and endure. They look better with age; they grow more loved over time. They add value to their owners and their communities. Houses are too big, too expensive, too burdensome to dispose of. Everyone lives with your triumphs; everyone lives with your mistakes.
Says Hutker, "We have a clear responsibility for the overall aesthetic in the community. We live and work in this community. We do what's appropriate."