Project DescriptionOn Site
A summer Home Perches Atop An Oceanside Bluff.
When you look at something beautiful every day, it's easy to forget how extraordinary it is. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you. Take the clients for this summer home on the coastal Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard. They initially approached Vineyard-based Hutker Architects to design a renovation to their former house. But when they saw architects Mark Hutker and Phil Regan's awed reactions to their dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean, they started to think about creating an all-new house rather than renovating. “We were struck by the incredible view opportunities that the existing house wasn't taking advantage of,” says Regan. “They began to understand how special their site really was, and their excitement escalated from day one.”
Once the owners had decided to start from scratch, it was up to Hutker and Regan to follow through on their promise to maximize ocean views from the blufftop site. A local 18-foot height restriction meant the house could have no second story, so instead they designed a long, slightly flexed one-story plan. The public spaces and master bedroom all look out to the water, and because of the curving layout the view from every room—from each part of every room, really—is different. The curve became a design motif, reappearing everywhere from the eyebrow dormers and round windows to the circular back porch.
Charged with putting all these curves together was Bob Avakian, a Martha's Vineyard contractor who knows well the challenges of building on the island. All materials must be brought in by ferry from the mainland. Labor is even more costly than in most places. And the soil in this part of the Vineyard contains heavy concentrations of moisture-rich clay, as Avakian found out firsthand. “We installed the gas tank, and the next day it popped up out of the ground,” he says. “Water had seeped in under it. We had to pump some of the moisture out and bring in compacted sand to shore up the soil.”
He faced more hurdles inside the house. In order to keep light flowing through the floor plan, Hutker and Regan separated the major spaces—kitchen, dining room, living room, study, and master bedroom—with freestanding cherry cabinetry they call “kiosks.” The four 7-foot-4-inch-tall kiosks act as big pieces of furniture, containing ingeniously plotted storage spaces. A contrasting maple border set into the cherry floorboards surrounds each one. “The border had to be done before the cabinets came, and it had to be exactly 6 inches all the way around,” Avakian says. Considering the steel reinforcing columns imbedded within the kiosks, any changes would be time-consuming and expensive. His subs were so nervous about getting it right, they insisted he lay the border himself. (He did, without a single mistake.) They showed more confidence in taking on other low-margin-of-error tasks, like making inset cabinetry for the kiosks, calculating complex load transfers around a master bedroom pop-out, and even custom matching the master bath trim to the color of a toilet seat the owners particularly liked.
Hutker and Regan used every bit of allowable height to ensure a sense of openness. All the major rooms feature gabled, double-height ceilings. Interior molding placed 8 feet from the floor keeps the spaces at human scale, a goal the architects kept in mind throughout the design process. “It's not a big house wrapping around you,” says Regan. “The scale is quite comfortable.” Smooth cherry pillars the same height as the kiosks anchor the main hallway. And muted, gray-green wall paint subtly reflects light while drawing the eye out to the similarly hued landscape.
The project team did meet with one disappointment. As Avakian's crew was installing a custom living room cupola, designed to bring more light into the house, the Martha's Vineyard police showed up with a cease-and-desist order. Despite the cupola's having passed muster with the town design review board, a neighbor took exception to it, and it was disallowed from the project.
But one lost battle didn't deter Hutker and Regan. Their combined 38 years of experience working on the island makes them experts in the little things that make a vacation home function seamlessly—nighttime views, for one. “The living room has an extroverted side focused on the view,” Hutker says. “But at night, the view's not there, so you need something else to focus on.” A massive granite fireplace, situated unconventionally with its back to the front door, fits the bill. “The location of the fireplace forces you to enter the living room from either corner, which is a much more dynamic way to come into a room,” he adds. They also understand the importance of views looking back at the house from the screened-in porch or rear patios. “The push and pull of the façade makes it look like a small house,” Hutker says of the varying room depths and rooflines on the rear elevation. “It's been manipulated so you never see more than half of the house at the same time.” And, having realized years ago that most house guests prefer a measure of privacy, they created a guest wing off the main building and a separate, 800-square-foot guest house.
On an oceanfront site like this, proper weatherproofing is essential. Here, 18-inch cedar shingles stacked 5 inches to the weather coat the house in insulating layers. Other materials, like the brass porch lights, were chosen with an eye towards resisting corrosion from the salt water kicked up during winter Nor'easters. Ever-present moisture in the ocean air makes woodworking difficult, since it takes a year or more for wood to dry out fully. To compensate, Avakian painted the backside of each floorboard, lessening water-related expansion and contraction.
But no one's complaining. The ocean's vast presence shaped the house more than any other factor. It's what brought them all to Martha's Vineyard in the first place—clients, architects, and builder. A little bit of bad weather is a small price to pay.