Stonington House
Warren Jagger Photography Stonington House
James Estes and Peter Twombly
Courtesy Estes/Twombly Architects James Estes and Peter Twombly

James Estes, FAIA, and Peter Twombly, AIA, describe their firm’s work as “quiet modernism, rooted in New England tradition.” Like the work itself, that statement says a lot with a little. The partners have built their practice on finding common ground between a spare rural vernacular and the academic language of modernism. Mining their region’s archetypal materials and imagery, they assemble buildings that combine modesty with both warmth and a sharp, mineral clarity.

Among New England’s traditional buildings, Twombly notes, “The most pared down are agricultural buildings,” and the firm’s houses often borrow the forms and massing of barns and sheds. Like the connected farmhouses common here, they are built up of parts that read as separate structures, lightly connected and deeply involved with the landscape. Bleached shingles, stone walls, and exposed light framing domesticate exteriors that often are deceptively inventive in composition. Interiors combine Miesian rationality and Shaker simplicity.

And here modesty is more than a pose. “I’d always rather do a smaller, more intense, more detailed house than one that’s bigger and less detailed,” Estes says, and the firm’s signature houses are elegantly efficient in their use of space and materials. Its larger projects, too, reflect a restraint that is rare in the client demographic it serves, but also essential to the quality of experience it delivers.

What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?

Our projects are relatively short in duration, and we get to try new ideas.

What is the most frustrating aspect?

Approvals have become increasingly difficult and time consuming, and codes have become increasingly restrictive.

What is your mission statement or firm goal?

Build reasonably sized houses that respond to their surroundings.

What is the most indispensable tool in your office?

12-inch white trace.

What software does your firm use?

AutoCad LT.

Who is your ideal client?

Someone with the confidence to let us do our job.

What is your favorite building?

This constantly changes, but right now it is a farm shed on one of my bike routes. It’s wonderfully open and perfectly sited, and our structural engineer would say it should have fallen over or blown down the day after it was built.

If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?

My partner, Peter Twombly