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completion on corea harbor

Yesterday, on a late fall day in downeast Maine, with icy rain blowing sideways and an assertive surf pounding the lobster boats in Corea Harbor, we made the final site visit to a house just a small punchlist away from completion.

In a state with hundreds of miles of coastline and numerous harbors full of expensive sailboats and grand cottages, Corea Harbor is about something different: it maintains its humble, authentic, and downright scrappy look. This is an active fishing community that has long coexisted with an annual influx of summer visitors, often seeking a place off the beaten path to write, paint, or think. My clients own an inn there, and asked me to design a simple summer house that felt at home amongst the backdrop of modest and volumetrically simple gabled buildings that comprise the village.

The site sits across the street from the harbor, and has a huge, arching granite outcropping next to the road. There are panoramic views out to the harbor, encompassing a foreground of multiple small buildings in various states of repair and power lines directly in the line of vision. Right from the beginning, it was decided we would treat all of these elements as part of the view composition, deliberately participating in the non-precious landscape instead of fighting it. Rather than build on a pristine, secluded lot at the edge of the village, they wanted to build IN the village, to literally and architecturally participate in the close-knit community.

The view and the solar orientation are in alignment on this site, and it was decided that each living space should take advantage of these assets. Out of three initial concepts, the one that quickly won out was a long bar, just sixteen feet wide and ninety feet long, with living spaces in the center and two bedroom suites at the ends. Because this is primarily a summer house, the living space has a pavilion-like quality with extensive windows toward the north as well as the south. The house is raised up on a pedestal, allowing better views to the harbor to the south, engagement with a pre-existing septic system to the north, and an ability to hover above an area between granite outcroppings that didn’t drain well.

The diagram of the house is very simple, with experiential complexity introduced through circulation patterns which move asymmetrically through a mostly-symmetrical form. Entrance to the house is at one end, via a staircase that is intentionally pinched between two concrete walls, and only hinted at from the approach. Moving up through that staircase, one emerges at the top, with focus toward the north, into a fir and birch woods. Once in the house, visitors move naturally diagonally through the main living space, and back toward the south and the view.

Compositionally on the exterior, the façade is influenced by simply solving the solarbalance equation: How do you keep the sun out in the heat of the summer, but invite it in between the equinoxes? There developed a suite of solutions for that challenge: a roof overhang to protect clerestory windows; horizontal awnings to protect the biggest expanses of glass demanding uncompromised views 24/7, and slatted, rolling horizontal screens in places where options for privacy, solar protection and glimpse-vs.-broad views of the panorama are desired depending on season and time of the day.

The budget was restrictive, and we used a few techniques to keep costs as low as possible. First, it was designed to use familiar construction techniques and a simple wood structural system, and a talented local builder was contracted to build it. Second, we used simple materials: exposed concrete with standard forms, local white cedar shingles, prefabricated windows, and a metal roof on the exterior. On the interior, we utilized a two-inch concrete slab with radiant heat, gypsum board walls, and painted MDF cabinetry. Awnings, cantilevered “dock”, rolling screen frames and railings were all fabricated by a local commercial dock builder out of standard aluminum; the robust, simple details of the components seem at home in the village. Although the allure of prefabrication calls me, as it calls many architects, I continue to find that it still can be economical to build custom-designed houses—at least in this area—with clients willing to value space and light over luxurious finishes.

I drove away smiling: I find these modest-scale, modest-budget houses very satisfying exercises. Don’t get me wrong—I like the expensive, complicated ones, too. But the smaller ones demand a concise concept, construction system, and execution, and their finite nature is very rewarding.