Project DescriptionSplendid Isolation
A Custom Vacation Home Takes To Its Carefree Setting.
A summertime ban on cars and trucks makes Fire Island, N.Y., an unusually tranquil weekend haven. Visitors to the barrier island, which sits off the southern coast of Long Island, get to bypass exhaust fumes and loud engine noises while they enjoy walking and biking everywhere. But there's just one problem: How do you build a house on an island with no motor vehicles? How do you move building materials and bulky equipment from one place to another? With no subs living on the island, how do you transport them to the jobsite every day?
General contractor Bill Santangelo spends much of his time figuring out the answers to these questions. His skill and 20 years of experience in building on Fire Island led Washington, D.C.-based Rich Walker and Frank DeCrosta to choose him as the contractor for their new weekend home there. “Some of the more beautiful homes on the island, to my mind, have been built by Bill,” Walker says. For Studio27 Architecture, the D.C. firm that designed the house, the challenge lay in both a tight time frame and their physical distance from the building site. Prime building season on the island runs from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and the clients approached them in May. So principal Todd Ray and project architect Bethan Llewellyn had only a summer to produce a completed design. And since traveling to inspect construction every week would have been impractical, their drawings had to be very specific and easy to follow. “We knew we weren't going to be there a lot,” says Ray. “The highly detailed drawings really saved us.”
Like the Walker/DeCrosta residence, 95 percent of Santangelo's projects are located in The Pines, a quiet Fire Island enclave. Visitors reach the town by taking a 25-minute ferry from Sayville, Long Island, where Santangelo and his family live. Rather than having to depend on the ferry, he owns a 38-foot steel crew boat that his employees and subs use to transport themselves to and from their jobsites. Santangelo himself zips back and forth across the bay on a 26-foot fiberglass fishing boat, as he often comes and goes at different times than the crew. “It's easier and uses less fuel,” he says. And the third watercraft in his mini-fleet is a 20-by-40-foot crane barge that he uses to transport building materials, heavy equipment, and construction waste. Owning the boats increases his overhead, but the logistical help they provide makes them well worth the extra cost.
Once everything arrives on the island, the focus turns to bringing it to the site. Right across the street from the freight dock at the ferry station is a pine-shaded strip of publicly owned land that a handful of contractors employ as a storage area. There Santangelo keeps a trailer filled with construction supplies and tools. He also stores several electric carts that he uses to navigate the island's circulation system of raised boardwalks. The boardwalks take the place of standard streets and sidewalks; Ray compares them to Venetian canals. They're charming but rickety in places, so Santangelo and his crew are careful not to place too much weight on them. Due to corrosion from the salt air, the carts have to be replaced every couple of years. “In this climate, everything goes,” he says.
The area's harsh climate and environmental conditions also helped dictate the building's design. To comply with flooding regulations and insurance requirements, the house is raised 2 to 3 feet off the ground on wooden pilings driven deep into the sandy soil. All exterior fasteners and bolts are dipped in galvanized metal to resist rusting. The exterior nails are stainless steel. And in order to withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds, the home's wooden frame is reinforced with extra plywood and steel bracing.
As for its boxy forms and knotty cedar siding, the house takes its cues from the surrounding context. Many Fire Island houses were built in the 1950s and '60s, with inexpensive, locally sourced materials that area contractors knew how to handle. Their structures were simple to allow for cheap, fast construction. Ray and Llewellyn wanted to stay within the local vernacular, but they tweaked it by adding extra glass and varying the siding treatments. The result is a more polished version of the typical Fire Island beach shack, one that draws admiring glances from the boardwalk while still fitting into its neighborhood.
The owners hoped to entertain frequently, so Ray and Llewellyn designed the layout with an eye in that direction. “They wanted a really open living space,” says Ray. “The pool had to be very connected to the kitchen, because that trip is made very often.” The four guest bedrooms are fairly small; they don't have the same storage needs as a full-time residence. And the kitchen's two-level island helps define it and make it the social hub of the 2,266-square-foot residence. Adds Llewellyn: “The kitchen is overscaled for the size of the house.”
A rear dining porch, pool and hot tub decks, and a front terrace add up to 2,154 square feet of outdoor space. The architects studied the sun's daily path to make sure each outdoor room would receive solar exposure during a different part of the day. And they also carefully placed windows to block views directly into the homes next door. Even though the long, narrow lot closely abuts the two adjoining properties, the house feels private.
Another unusual aspect of the construction process was the client's central role in procuring most of the finish materials. Rich Walker ordered the lighting, tile, fixtures, cabinetry, and appliances himself, directly from the manufacturers. He had it all shipped to a warehouse in Sayville, across the street from the dock where Santangelo keeps his boats. “I thrive on this sort of thing,” Walker says, jokingly. “I think I like to be in control.”
The strategy also cut costs by about 20 percent, he estimates, because he eliminated a middleman and a standard contractor's markup. Santangelo didn't mind at all. “It makes my life easier, because now they know how stuff can get stuck in customs or delayed for some other reason,” he says. “It gave the clients a better understanding of the whole process and got them involved.” And it probably reminded them of a lesson they've learned many times over, making the plane-cab-ferry trip from the hectic pace of Washington to the peace of Fire Island: The more challenging the journey, the more worthwhile the final reward.