A Perfect Match

February 18, 2011

Text by Paula M. Bodah    Photography by Warren Jagger

The sequence of events for building a new house usually goes something like this: a couple buys a piece of land, hires an architect, oversees construction and, finally, adds landscaping that complements their new home.

The husband and wife who built this house, however, took a less orthodox approach. They began the process by choosing an architect, even before they had decided on a piece of land. As they looked through architecture books and shelter magazines, they found themselves drawn to the work of James Estes of Estes/Twombly Architects in Newport, Rhode Island. “Every home we were attracted to was built by Jim,” the wife recalls.

Estes’s style, which he calls “Yankee modern,” suited the couple with its reliance on natural materials, such as the red cedar and granite that are so familiar to New Englanders, and its emphasis on clean, practical forms that hark back to simpler times, yet have a decidedly contemporary feel. “We wanted something modern, but not the stereotypical stark, cold modern,” says the wife. “We wanted something warm.”

Just as important, she adds, “We wanted something that really embraced its property.”



To make sure they would be able to forge a seamless connection between house and land, the two enlisted Estes in the hunt for the perfect spot on which to build. “We considered several pieces,” the architect says. “We walked around them and talked and did some schematic layouts of how a house might sit on the site.”

Their research and discussions led them to a dramatic stretch of thirteen acres in Westwood, Massachusetts, with glacial hills and valleys, rocky outcroppings, forested areas thick with oak, pine and birch trees and lowlands lush with fern and witch hazel. Once they settled on the land and a basic sense of how the house would sit on it, the couple wisely brought landscape architect Stephen Stimson on board to ensure that house and landscaping would evolve together. “The property had lots of different landscape spaces and habitats,” says Stimson, who has offices in Cambridge and Falmouth, Massachusetts. “The owners wanted to do some vegetable farming and gardening, they wanted spaces for the children to play and for entertaining and they wanted to respect and enhance the native ecosystem.”

As he worked on a landscape design that addressed all those wishes and Estes fine-tuned the house, barn, pool house and other structures, the two pros kept in touch every step of the way. The result is, just as the homeowners wanted, a beautifully integrated whole.
The entry drive sweeps through a grove of sugar maples that shield the house from the road for a sense of privacy. Eventually the driveway opens to a dramatic view of orchards, wildflower meadows and woodlands that embrace a house so perfectly suited to the land it looks as if it has grown up simultaneously with its natural surroundings.

The long, one-story home presides at the top of a ridge, its roofline breaking at the midpoint to form twin peaked wooden roofs. The kitchen, living room and dining room sit under one peak, the bedrooms under the other. Jutting out from between the two halves of the house is the main entrance, topped with a low-pitched roof of copper. The exterior of the house is clad in a mix of broad, rough-hewn red cedar clapboards and irregularly cut granite from a New Hampshire quarry. No fussy framing trims the windows. “They wanted it very simple,” Estes says of his clients.

Simplicity reigns inside, too. Walls in every room are the same serene neutral shade. “I wanted the interiors to be as toned down as possible because we wanted the view from the windows to be the focus of the house,” the homeowner says. “I wanted a palette that would go with whatever the colors are outside as the seasons change.”

The custom-made exterior windows and interior transoms—and there are many of both, most opening out from the bottom, awning style—are trimmed in handsome, understated mahogany. Kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, crafted of the same mahogany, is almost Asian in its simplicity. Lightly polished limestone the color of sand covers the kitchen countertops and the floors throughout the main living area. Breaking just slightly from the utter simplicity, the ceilings are made of painted boards with a one-eighth-inch gap between them. “The gaps create shadows and make the ceiling more interesting,” Estes explains.

Cranston, Rhode Island–based interior designer Kirby Goff brought in carpeting and furniture that echo the quiet palette and modern lines of the house. Custom-designed Tibetan rugs of silk and wool from Steven King in a variety of subtle patterns and colors add warmth and texture to the rooms. To ward off the chilliness that can result in such contemporary design, Goff chose upholstery fabrics in a range of textures. “I looked to menswear-inspired fabrics,” she says. “I used wool, mohair, cashmere, leather—fabrics with a wonderful hand and that are very organic.”

Because privacy wasn’t an issue, Goff eschewed window treatments in favor of Conrad woven grass shades that diffuse light and remove glare without obscuring the views.

Back outside, Stimson played off the natural topography—the long, linear nature of the property, the outcroppings of stone and the existing meadow and woodlands—using stone walls and stairways to creates a series of spaces for the many uses the homeowners had in mind. Husband and wife enjoy tending to the fruit trees, vegetable garden, flower gardens and a kitchen herb garden. The pool area offers plenty of space for entertaining, including a clematis-covered pergola that lets guests take a break from the sun. And the couple’s three young children can stage games on the broad lawn, go exploring in the woods or chase after the butterflies and dragonflies that are drawn to the meadows.

Their clients aren’t the only people who love the work Estes and Stimson did. Estes won Custom Home magazine’s 2010 House of the Year award as well as an honor award from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Stimson was given a 2010 merit award from the Boston Society of Landscape Architects.

Awards aside, the true measure of a home is how it feels to the people who live in it. “We love every bit of it,” says the happy homeowner. “My husband and I will live here forever.”

Architecture: James Estes, Estes/Twombly Architects
Interior Design: Kirby Goff
Landscape Architecture: Stephen Stimson
Builder: Timothy Connors, Old Grove Partners

Click here to read a book review of Yankee Modern: The Houses of Estes/Twombly, a new book showcasing the work of Estes/Twombly Architects.

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