From Spec to Spectacular

April 26, 2022

Architect Jan Gleysteen and designer Liz Caan bring new life to a Boston-area home.

Text by Jorge S. Arango    Photography by Jared Kuzia


The operative word in “spec home” is “speculative.” Builders consider what average home buyers will want and deliver it in the most cost-conscious manner possible on the assumption that it’ll sell easily and for a tidy profit. While they fulfill a certain niche, spec homes don’t tend to be forever homes. Lacking much architectural detail and quick to feel dated, their fate, not infrequently, is demolition or gut renovation.

That went against the worldview of the owners of this home on the outskirts of Boston. It felt wasteful and, they believed, would send the wrong message to their three teenage daughters. “The idea was to recycle a perfectly designed house for another generation,” says architect Jan Gleysteen. His and designer Liz Caan’s responses were largely cosmetic, the exceptions being a mudroom entry (now double-height and flooded with light) and baths, which all needed upgrading.

The facelift began outside. “Jan took out the quoin system at the corners and created pilasters,” says builder Martin Deane. This framed the 5,500-square-foot house in a way that appeared less fussy and more accurately reflected the owners’ personalities, which Caan describes as “pragmatic and low-key.” Gleysteen also took advantage of the Charles River views by adding dormers and expansive windows to the rear facade.

Inside, says the architect, “Our major contribution was to apply molding and detail to make the house look more elegant and classic. It’s an easy thing to do,” he explains, enumerating four basic tactics: “Add wainscoting to the walls”—which required Deane to remove the bottom section of plaster so the wainscoting would align more neatly—“put beams on the ceiling, throw in an arch here and there to impart a sense of style and vary the rectilinearity, then add extra crown moldings, beadboard ceilings, and extra paneling.”

Caan’s approach was also four-pronged. “To show their daughters that we don’t just throw things out,” she says, “we used as much of their furniture as we could.” Any pieces Caan added were predicated first on comfort and ease, and second on creating a balance of classically grounded furniture with more contemporary lines to bring interiors into the twenty-first century. “We also brightened up colors, making them more current and unexpected,” she says. Finally, “A lot of textured and natural materials were really important to make things less shiny and more real.”

For the palette, Caan drew jewel tones from the wife’s glass bottle collection, the husband’s attire (specifically the aubergine pants he sometimes sported at design meetings), and the family’s sunny personalities.

The classic-contemporary mix manifests in juxtapositions such as a blocky modern table paired with a traditional light fixture and aubergine high-back Windsor chairs (breakfast room), classic lantern fixtures over a bright Missoni flame-stitch striped runner (hallway), and a modern minimalist chandelier suspended over a Jacobean-style settle in the mudroom.

The results look anything but “spec.” Yet the home doesn’t exude the preciousness and overt luxury of many a custom home. It’s a hybrid with an unpretentious purpose, observes Caan, “to foster togetherness and family time.” Gleysteen’s architectural interventions give the residence graciousness without glitz, and Caan’s revamped interior design, she says, feels “approachable, comfortable, and happy.”

Project Team
Renovation Architecture: Jan Gleysteen, Jan Gleysteen Architects
Interior design: Liz Caan, Liz Caan & Co.
Renovation builder: Martin Deane, Kells Construction

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