HOUSE ON POINT

A chat with Matt Elliott, Elliott Architects, about this intriguing modern residence
inspired by his clients’ love of sailing, and the kind of architectural design
he and his family embrace in their own home

interview NANCY GORDON
photography BRIAN VANDEN BRINK

Architect Matt Elliott, Elliott Architects.

Every home you design has a story/narrative. Where does this particular story begin?

When the owners first contacted us, they asked us to come to the site they had recently purchased and talk to them about designing a new house. I remember driving down to Deer Isle and turning off onto a dirt road that led to the point, where the property was. It turned out to be a rather long dirt road that wound its way along the shore, ending at an abandoned gravel pit. Meeting the homeowners, Chuck and Deb, for the first time on the site, three things were very evident: One was that they wanted to be very involved in all aspects of the project; two was they were very open to a wide range of stylistic options for their house; and third, they loved sailing. They were a perfect match for our firm—inquisitive, passionate and involved.

While there are a variety of things that help to create the story for each of our houses—the site, the budget, the functional needs of the client—the thing that is at the heart of this house was the owners’ love of sailing, of being outdoors and feeling the weather: fog, rain and sun.

This house is about creating a space for people to live in that has the attributes of being on a boat.

Why did the homeowners purchase this particular piece of property?

It was all about the location. This particular site provided a shelter place for them to moor their boat, while still providing great access to more open water. Their site is an ideal location if you are looking for a great day sail and or if you are using it as a home port to go cruising from.

Do most of your clients come to you with something in mind?

This varies considerably. Obviously, they all come with their own life experience of where they have lived to date. Some come with fairly specific notions of what they want, some come thinking they want to re-create something they already have, some come with images and ideas of something fairly different than what they have.

At the start of our relationship a number of things get discussed. First, we tell them that if they know exactly what they want then there really isn’t a need to hire an architect; they should just hire a draftsman to draw up their ideas.

Second, we tell them that it probably doesn’t make sense to re-create the house they currently live in. This house is in a different location and is going to be used differently than their current house, so it should be different. We also tell them that we feel the site for the new house should influence what the house is.

Finally, we tell them that we see our job as showing them a range of possibilities that hopefully opens the initial conversations to a wider discussion of what it means for them to live in this particular place at this particular time of their life.

Here is an example of how this worked for one of our clients: A couple came to us and said that they had bought this wonderful piece of property that they loved and were hoping to build a fairly traditional Cape-style house on. We visited the site with them and agreed that it was a great site. The site contained a mature stand of majestic oak trees that were quite amazing and as we walked the site and talked about where the house might go it was apparent that no matter where we placed the house, we were going to need to cut down a fair number of these oaks, which would totally change the nature of the site. We then proposed that we think less in stylistic terms and more in how to fit the house to the site with disturbing the least number of tress. In the end, the house became a series of modules that slipped between the trees and were connected by glass corridors. We only had to remove one tree in the process and while the end product was nothing like their original concept, they love it.

When the homeowners came to you they thought perhaps of a traditional home. How did you get them to consider modern?

Oftentimes clients come to us and say they really love traditional Maine houses and they would like us to design one for them. We also love the vernacular architecture of Maine and draw great inspiration from the simple forms, the way the scale of the buildings is broken down with a series of masses, and how it sits on the land. However, once we start talking to our clients about some of the other attributes of traditional houses—the small windows, little broken-up spaces, basically houses that were more about keeping the outside at bay than celebrating the sense of place—they soon realize that what they really want is a house that feels like it belongs in Maine, that belongs on their piece of property and that reflects who they are. This leads to a very different conversation about what the house might be.

Explain your views on client collaboration.

There are some architects that see clients as a hindrance to their work; that is not us. We invite and often insist on a high level of involvement of our clients. What we look for are clients that want to engage in a meaningful discussion about what their house wants to. We feel that having our clients very involved from the start means that they understand the issues and opportunities that are presented to them and are thus committed to the concept of the building from the beginning. We feel that having clients be an integral part of the design process results in a much richer end product.

Tell us about this site and the part it played in the design of
the house.

The site for this house is a peninsula that had an abandoned gravel pit carved out of it on one side. We often look for the part of any site that is least desirable and try to build there, as that then maintains the nice parts of the site. In this case we were immediately drawn to the edge of the gravel pit. To start with, it faced south and in Maine bringing south light into the building is something we always look for. The gravel pit also meant that all of the trees had been removed from this part of the site, giving unobstructed views to the water. We liked the idea of tucking the building in the bowl-shaped edge so that it was protected from the north winds and opened to the views and light to the south.

What drove the design of this home?

The design of the house was driven by the desire to make a very strong connection to the exterior. These clients loved sailing and loved being outdoors so we tried to make strong visual and physical ties to the outside, blurring the line between inside and out as much as we could.

Tell us about the ship elements and their functionality: the curved roofs, the sweeping curved steel beams in the kitchen.

Once we sited the house on the bank of the gravel pit it was obvious that we wanted to tuck into the north slope and open up to the south. The initial sketches had a shed roof on the different volumes of the building but that quickly morphed into a curved form that obviously referenced the lines of boat hulls and that immediately felt right to everyone. Once that decision was made, we looked for other places to reference the lines and details of sailboats, one of the most prominent being the curved columns that hold up the roof in the kitchen.

Why the pods?

Over the years we have become students of vernacular Maine architecture and have worked to understand why traditional architecture developed the way it did and apply that knowledge to our buildings. One common form of vernacular architecture is the connected farm buildings in the state. This typology has been given the name “big house, little house, back house, barn” to describe the different parts of the building. Two of the things that we have come to appreciate from these buildings is how, by breaking them into pieces, you can give a building a very human scale. Putting all of the functions into one volume often results in a building that feels out of scale to its inhabitants. The other aspect of this typology that interests us is that the different parts help to form a series of defined outdoor spaces that create a sense of exterior rooms with their own microclimates.

Thomas Hubka’s book Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England explains these two ideas.

What are the two detached pods used for?

The two detached pods contain a garage and a woodworking shop.
We used these elements to define an entrance courtyard. This arrival sequence gives you the feeling that you arrive more to the view of
the water than you do to the door of the house.

When you’re in the house, do you get a sense of the sections?

While there is always a clarity of where to go there is also an unveiling of the different parts as you move through the building. There are a series of axes through the house that allow you to always view out into the landscape as you move through the buildings and, in doing so, you always see what is next, not totality but rather as a glimpse and then
an unveiling as you move through the different sections.

There are special wall-like expanses that can open and decks
that wrap around each pod, which blur the lines between inside and out. Tell us more about these features.

The owners are avid sailors and love the outdoors. We tried to capture the feeling you have on a boat where at times you are out in the weather and at times you are tucked down below, but you are always aware of your surroundings. The kitchen has two large sliding glass doors that open to create an eight-foot-high and 16-foot-wide opening that spills out to the deck, blurring the line between inside and out. The master bedroom has glass that wraps the corner with an eight- x eight-foot sliding glass door that opens to a private deck, again blurring the line between inside and out.

All of the design elements have function; there is nothing gratuitous. Is this a hallmark of your architectural design?

I think there is a general feeling of living and working in Maine that has led us to want to appreciate how the functional can be beautiful and how simpler forms fit so well within the incredible beauty of the natural landscapes we get to design in.

There is a rain capture and purification system. How does this work and why did you install it?

When the well for this property was drilled it turned out that the water was salty. Because we were on a peninsula, it was going to be hard to get any farther from the ocean to drill a second well. At this point we explored a reverse osmosis desalinization system and a rain capture system. The owners were very involved in this discussion and here
again their experience living on boats made them very aware of and
in touch with water purification issues. After exploring both options, a rain capture system was chosen and the owners worked very closely with the mechanical contractor to design the system. It has worked great for them.

Now that the house is finished, when you turn off the road what
do you see first?

We often tell our clients that we think it is important to think of their house as an experience that starts way before you arrive at the building itself. There is a whole narrative that needs to be thought of. In this case you turn off the main road and follow a dirt road for a mile, ducking in and out of the trees, getting glimpses of the water and crossing small meadows. The road is a simple gravel road and it twists and turns in a way that automatically slows you down and you start to decompress from the outside world. Right before you arrive to the house you are given a glimpse out to the water and to the house sitting in the former gravel pit, which has now been re-created as a meadow. You then slip into the woods and arrive at a courtyard created by the garage and the workshop.

Leaving your car behind and moving out of the courtyard you are given a framed view out to the water and invited to slip under an overhang that leads you to the front door. From there you move through the house while you are given a variety of views out to the landscape. In some cases, these are very focused, intimate views and in others they are expansive views out to the site and the water beyond. You continue
your journey through the house and eventually out the other end of the house, where you find yourself on a path to the dock and the boat.

Personal Points

What three words best describe your own home?

Historic, solid and comfortable.

Did you design your home?

My wife and I bought a piece of property shortly before starting our own firm, with the intention of designing and building a house for ourselves. However, all of our energy was soon split between getting a fledgling architectural firm off the ground and taking care of our three young kids and we couldn’t find the time to work on our own house. We were living in a very small house and it soon became apparent that we needed to move to something larger, and at that time a house we had long admired came on the market, so we bought it. It is a fairly unique house, built in 1820. It started out as a warehouse for a granite quarry that was right across the road. The building is built with large blocks of granite that were two feet thick. These blocks start in the basement and continue to the roof line. In 1860 the building was turned into a residence and then at the turn of the century was bought by Emilie Loring, a writer of romance novels from Massachusetts, who further expanded and upgraded the house. Emilie and her heirs used the
house in the summer until 1958, when it was bought and turned into a year-round house. We bought the house in 2000 and have spent the
last 20 years working on it and refining it.

How tall are the ceilings in your home? How wide are the doorways? Single story or more?

Most ceiling are 10 feet tall, with some parts of the building having eight- and nine-foot ceilings. Door widths vary. The main part of the house is a story and half with large dormers creating bedrooms on the second floor. The rest of the house is single story. I think when we first moved in we thought that we would live here for a while and then design a new house for ourselves, but we quickly became rooted in this house, its history and its sense of place. We can’t imagine living anyplace else.

Have you designed a traditional-style home for a client?

We have designed traditional houses for clients and are happy to do so, but for us when we do traditional houses it is important that we honor the traditions and craft that went into building them and that we stay true to the traditions that created them. We don’t like to do “interpretive” traditional houses but would rather do authentic traditional houses or, alternatively, find the qualities that someone is attracted to in a traditional house and incorporate those into a house that is grounded in the tradition they are after while still being of its time.

Favorite wood to work with for interiors? Favorite stone?

Native Maine woods: red birch, maple, ash.

Native Maine stones: Deer Isle granite, Freshwater Pearl granite.

Which part of the design process on any project captivates you the most?

This is really hard to say as one of the things that I like about architecture is the incredible variety of things you need to know and get to do. However, if I had to pick one point, I would say that it is that point where a project gains a life of its own. It happens at some point in every project after you have sorted through the different options and arrived on a concept that everyone involved has bought into. That is the point where you have given up on a lot of the possible solutions and chosen one that fits, and all of a sudden we can start talking about not only what we want or what our clients want but also what the project wants because it has now become an integral part of the conversation as things move forward.

Architect whose work you most admire?

There are so many good architects out there that have inspired me in the past and continue to inspire me today. Frank Lloyd Wright had a large early influence on me. I have always loved the simple poetic buildings of Tadao Ando. Brian MacKay-Lyons’ simple vernacular-influenced buildings in Nova Scotia speak to me. The sense of place captured by Rick Joy and how he incorporates light into his work is inspiring. I’m afraid the list could go on.

. . .

Project Team

Architect
Elliott Architects
Bruce Norelius
Matt O’Malia
Matt Elliott

Builder
Stewart Construction
(207) 348-9963

Structural Engineer
Becker Structural Engineers

Lighting Designer
Peter Knuppel Lighting Design


Favorite Maine restaurant?
There are so many great restaurants in our
area that it is hard to choose. I like Barncastle
in Blue Hill for their wood-fired pizza,
Buck’s Restaurant in Brooksville is a hidden
gem, and Perry’s Lobster Shack in Surry is
great for that authentic lobster experience
eaten out on their pier.

 

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