Boil it down, keep it honest, make it fit. Estes/Twombly Architects’ ethic of practice is as simple and direct as the architecture it generates. Grounded in the landscape, materials, and history of New England, the firm’s work distills this region’s iconic building types—farm shed, summer cottage, Shaker meetinghouse—to make contemporary statements in a distinctly local dialect. Overall House strips a 19th-century structure to its essentials, reviving the original building so that it holds its own with a set of sympathetic—and forthrightly modern—additions. Cooperstein House uses the shingled walls and divided-light windows of its Cape Cod neighbors to domesticate a building shell that also includes large, shojilike Kalwall panels. “Contemporary is not really a style,” explains principal Jim Estes, FAIA. “What we want to do is houses that respond to place.”

Estes founded the firm in 1989. Peter Twombly, AIA, joined him five years later and became a partner in 1999. Native New Englanders, the two share a certain Yankee thrift that is reflected in both their projects and their practice. “We’ve always specialized in houses,” says Estes, “smaller, more reasonable houses, not as style-driven as most.” The approach is evident in the firm’s recent Kyle House, which assembles a set of fishing shacklike structures on a platform that recalls a waterfront dock. Like all Estes/Twombly houses, this one fills with a bright, even daylight that makes one feel that the building itself is breathing. Along with the firm’s elegant economy in detailing, that light—a contemporary element in itself—lends a sense of spaciousness without adding square footage.

In a market often characterized by excess, Estes/Twombly has always held out for the power of reduction, earning in the process an armload of design awards for houses that are deceptively modest in size. “That’s been part of our strategy,” Twombly says, “getting published and trying to win awards.” Along with the firm’s website and a book on its work published in 2009, “that’s been fabulous advertising.” The resulting exposure has helped the firm develop a constituency of like-minded clients, which, in turn, allowed it to weather the worst of the housing downturn in fairly good shape. “We’re now a firm of five,” Twombly says—down only two from the firm’s peak in 2008. The size of the office, like the scale of its projects, reflects a preference for efficiency and impact over sheer volume. “It’s actually pretty amazing what a small firm can produce in a given year,” Twombly says. “There could be 20 [projects] at any given time. That’s one of the nice things about residential; you don’t get bogged down the way you would on larger, committee-driven projects.” The recession confirmed the wisdom of staying small, he adds. “Our theory now is to run lean. A couple of phone calls either way, and things can change dramatically.”

But Estes/Twombly’s market is steadily recovering. After a drop-off in business in 2009, Twombly says, “things started moving again, and it’s been slowly building back up again.” And today’s clients seem more open than ever to the firm’s philosophy. “There really is the beginning of an acceptance of contemporary architecture, which is fun to see,” Estes says. “The magazines are way out ahead on this.” The real estate bust dealt a blow to the bigger-is-better ethos. And while much of the firm’s work consists of summer houses in which minimizing solar gain and maximizing views trump heat-loss calculations, the partners are finding that clients are more willing to pay for energy efficiency. Twombly says a house currently under construction on Block Island, R.I., is on track to earn the firm’s first LEED certification. “In a way, what we’re seeing has backed up the approach we had 10 years ago,” he says. “Doing smaller, more efficient houses—it seems like that’s caught on.”

Firm Specs:

Years in practice: 23 | Firm size: 5 | Active projects: 18 | Projects completed in 2011: 10 | Areas of interest: Custom new homes, renovations, small commercial and institutional projects, arts-related pro-bono design.

Estes/Twombly Architects Past Articles

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    Kyle House, Brewster, Mass.

    A Cape Cod house is divided into four linked pieces.

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    Cooperstein House, Truro, Mass.

    Estes/Twombly Architects filled a custom vacation home on Cape Cod with natural light.

  • Estes/Twombly's Shoe Bench Organizes a Massachusetts Mudroom

    A cozy and convenient shoe bench helps organize a Concord, Mass., remodel.

  • freed of the clutter of 20th century additions, the original house reveals a handsome simplicity.

    Overall House, Concord, Mass.

    Presented with a handsome late 19th-century house burdened with awkward additions, architect James Estes saved only the good part.

  • the house occupies a ridge with a clearing and view to the south.

    Connors House, Westwood, Mass.

    Our Custom Home of the Year gave architect James Estes an opportunity to engage in placemaking on an unusually extensive scale. Sitting astride a prominent ridge, the house deploys long, low wings, granite landscape walls, and stone-edged terraces to domesticate broad swaths of outdoor space. The result reflects the program for this year-round home, Estes says.

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    Virtuous Venues

    From vacation retreats in wide-open parcels to tight urban lots bordered by busy streets, functional outdoor spaces extend the boundaries of home and enhance the lives of those who inhabit them.

  • Born House, Little Compton, R.I.

    New England's archetypal agrarian forms, subtly refracted through a modernist lens, give this house-and-barn compound a timeless sense of belonging in its rural setting.

  • Block Island, R.I., Residence

    Block Island's location, 8 miles off the Rhode Island coast, and its miles of beaches make it an attractive location for summer homes.

  • Premium Blend

    Smart space planning and a mélange of different textures save this Newport, R.I., master bath from a humdrum fate.

  • Perching above flood-prone shores, this 1,440-square-foot cottage makes efficient use of its narrow site, provides privacy by grouping service spaces along its street side, and positions living areas to take advantage of spectacular views.

    Jamestown, R.I., Residence

    What the judges admired most about this small two-bedroom house is how much architect James Estes was able to accomplish in just 1,440 square feet: privacy, views, and efficiency.

  • Main living spaces, such as the living room and kitchen, face south for maximum solar exposure.

    Jamestown, R.I., Residence

    Architect Peter Twombly had to contend with a not-so-ideal site when designing this full-time home on the Narragansett Bay.