I just discovered that my baby (the house I designed and built for my family) is for sale, so it seemed like a good opportunity to write about it. There are some nice pics and an excellent video here. The story begins in Lexington. We were living in a Victorian that I had gut-renovated, with a West-facing water view in a great neighborhood. So of course I wanted to move- it’s the architect’s curse, always wanting to try the next thing.
We found a piece of land on an idyllic dirt road in Lincoln MA- the hotbed of modern architecture. In fact, my neighbors on each side were architects! The land had a Deck-type house on it that we considered renovating, but ultimately decided to build new. There was enough room on the lot to live in the existing house while we built the new one about 3’ to the side.
I went through many iterations of the design, starting very far from where I ended up. The main challenge was the siting of the garage on the corner lot. I didn’t want the garage to be a focal point, but I also didn’t want a long driveway to access it. While walking the dog one day I had a Eureka moment- I could put the garage under the house and access it from a different road. That led to a design that allowed the house to cascade down the hill, following the slope of the land, with the garage essentially invisible.
The next challenge was figuring out how to get light and views into every room, particularly the kitchen where we spend a lot of time (hazard of having a home office). I realized that the only way to get light in the morning and evening was to put the house on a north/south axis, and make the kitchen/breakfast room the full width of the house, so it would get eastern and western light. This led to a long house that moves up and down, and in and out, as needed for the various requirements of each room.
Then came the roof. My original concept was to have a series of geometrically shaped forms, like pyramids and cones. As I was working on the computer model, I had the roof layer turned off, so I could look at the building walls without seeing the roof. My wife wandered by and said “I didn’t know you were going to do a flat roof”. That was the second Eureka moment- I didn’t need my little “village” of roofs- there was enough happening with the different floor levels and cantilevers. Making the roof flat emphasized the horizontality, and tied it more successfully to the site. Thus goes the design process.
I built the house mostly with my own hands, with the help of some additional carpenters. The framing was a hybrid of stick-built and modular, and I knew it would be hard to explain to contractors. We built the walls flat on the deck, including the siding and windows, and then lifted them (sometimes with the help of a small crane) into place.
The weather was the biggest challenge- it seemed to rain every day that spring. I finally decided to cover the entire building with a gigantic tarp that was 75’ wide and 200’ long, and weighed a million pounds (maybe not that much). It took four men two days to build a series of masts and cables to hoist the tarp onto, just in time for a huge storm. I watched with satisfaction as torrents of rain ran down the tarp onto the ground, rather than soaking my new floors.
Then the wind picked up. The tarp started to billow like a giant spinnaker. The wind increased to gale-force gusts and the hail started to fall. A freak storm had come to visit. The billowing tarp was now fully inflated like a spinnaker in a tail wind. To my horror, the uplift forces actually were trying to tear the building upwards, off the foundation. I had visions of the entire building sailing down the street and landing on a neighbor’s house. It also started making terrible groaning sounds, like a ship in heavy seas. There was no choice but to leap into the fray with long knives, slashing the tarp like pirates attacking a sailing vessel. As we cut away the tarp, the booms that had been holding it started swinging wildly, threatening to decapitate us. It was an exciting forty-five minutes! I was left with four days of wasted labor, and a spaghetti matrix of tarp fragments, splintered wood, and cable wrapped around everything. Note to self: Do not cover a large building with a tarp if gale-force winds are expected. On the positive side, I had kept the building somewhat dry during the storm, and I had enough tarp material left (after much cutting up and drying off) to cover my lumber piles for the rest of the job, and then some.
There are many custom design features in the house. The downside of being able to having complete creative freedom on your own home is that you have complete creative freedom. Where to stop? The wheel was reinvented many times during the design and construction. For example, I wanted the clerestory windows on adjacent sides of the family room to be continuous, without any visible joints between window units. That meant site-fabricating all the clerestories, and sandwiching custom-made steel plates into the window frames to support the roof load. It’s the kind of detail that probably no one else would care about, but since I was going to be looking at it every day I had to get it right.
Another interesting detail was the siding. I’m a big fan of MDO plywood and have used it for many years. It is basically impervious to water, and holds paint incredibly well. The weak link of using plywood for siding is the joints. The vertical joints are no problem, but horizontal joints are tough to keep water out of. So the trick was to get really long sheets, but they were not available on the East coast. I found a mill in Oregon that would produce custom 4×12’ MDO sheets, since I was ordering a couple hundred pieces. However, they would not ship east of the Rockies. After about a week of phone calls, I arranged a byzantine route of three different freight companies that would somehow get it here. And it did arrive, one night about 9pm, an exhausted tractor trailer drive knocked on my door saying he had a delivery but couldn’t find the warehouse where he was supposed to drop off the material. He was not thrilled to learn that he was in the right place, and that he and I would spend the next three hours unloading the truck by hand in the dark. That’s where cash can be a great motivator.
I wanted to cover the siding joints as minimally as possible. I decided to use 1/8” thick by 1 ½” wide strips of aluminum, which would be more durable and straighter than wood battens. I didn’t want visible fasteners, so I ended up using 3M’s VHB (very high bonding) tape. 3M is not engaging in hyperbole when they say it is high bonding. We would apply the tape to the aluminum batten, and then press the batten onto the MDO seam with a roller. Occasionally we would put a batten in the wrong place, or it would be cut slightly wrong and we would need to replace it. Forget-about-it. That tape is so strong that driving a crowbar between the batten and plywood would actually result in tearing the plywood apart- that tape was not letting go. It’s used to hold those giant mirrors over your head in the tunnel at O’Hare airport.
Besides structural details, there were countless aesthetic details as well where I wanted to try something different. In the master bath, I thought it would be cool to have a starlit ceiling over the tub. I had used fiber optic lighting on other projects, but typically it was in a bedroom where I had access to the ceiling from the attic above. With the flat roof, I had to figure out a way to do all the wiring from below. Suffice to say it is not easy to connect one hundred fiber strands into tiny holes while balancing a sheet of plywood on your head.
In the interests of keeping this post from becoming a novel, I will save my descriptions of other details for future posts. Suffice to say that I hope my baby gets a great new owner who will love living there, even if they don’t have the intimate connection to a house that there person who designed and built it has. And finally, who can resist a picture of a kid in the bucket of an excavator?
A while ago I was driving around with a realtor looking for land to build a spec house. The realtor asked “what kind of house do you build?”. I said that it depended on the site, and she said “of course, but do you build a colonial, or a shingle style?”. It struck me how strange that idea was, even though it is quite common- that you start with a specific type of house, and then figure out a way to fit it on the site. I’ve always looked at it the other way around, that you start with the site and figure out what forms work best there.
Everyone knows Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater. But when I visited it, I found that while the cantilever over the waterfall is obviously dramatic, the most site-specific element is actually on the interior. Right in front of the fireplace, the stone floor becomes slightly elevated and transitions to a different type of stone. It turns out, that is the actual ledge from the site- Wright designed the entire house around that 3′ square piece of stone, choosing it to be the hearth, and then siting the building around it. He didn’t move the stone to the location, he built the house around the stone. I thought about that as I tried to answer the realtor.
This was my inspiration for a renovation I designed in Wellesley. The expansion potential was limited by a large ledge outcropping adjacent to the house, on the side we wanted to expand. I decided to try to incorporate the ledge into my design, which was easier said than done. First, I had to find out the exact shape, which meant bringing in a backhoe to scrape off the topsoil and expose the ledge, then high pressure hoses to clean it. Then, I formed a grid made of string over the entire area, and using a transit level surveyed the height at each point, in order to create a model of the site. The shape of the rock was so sensuous that it was easy to image water flowing over and around it. Since we didn’t have a natural waterfall, I figured we could create one with some pumps, piping, etc. I was concerned about having an abrupt transition from the rigidness of the building to the organic curves of the ledge. I designed a deck, made of rough-sawn thick mahogany boards, that served as both a deck and a bridge over the watercourse below. It’s exciting to see the water run down the ledge and then sense it running under your feet below the deck.
The ledge and waterfalls were so beautiful I wanted to be able to see them as much as possible from the interior. I created a corner window by cantilevering the structure above, so no weight was on the glass. The solid roof is cut away to form a pergola frame, to open up the view and let as much light as possible into the interior. The roof and wall cut-aways attempt to blur the distinction between interior and exterior space.