Coastal areas are often filled with oversized houses designed more for investment than to reflect a site’s history. By contrast, the Backriver residence in Abrams Hill, formerly a summer cottage community on Duxbury Bay, honors the area’s rich building traditions and conservation ethic. One of the driving forces behind its design, says Thomas McNeill, AIA, was a desire to acknowledge Duxbury’s past as a Native American fishing ground and a summer outpost for the leaders of Plymouth Colony. Its fresh, visceral appeal comes from a variety of historical precedents: the gabled forms, sensitive scale, spare detailing, and reinterpretation of the distinctive, white-painted Tory chimneys that signaled loyalty to the Crown.
“We did a lot of prep before we began the design and invited the client to a charette where we put our research on the table and the wall and said, ‘Here’s what we know about the nuances of the area,’” says Thomas. From that they established three criteria: the house would be single-story from the road, evoke the memory of a cottage, and maintain the neighborhood scale. Coastal restrictions also limited the buildable footprint, requiring the architects to be creative about fitting in everything the clients wanted, including a private owners’ suite and a pool.
Perched on a hill overlooking the tidal salt marshes and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, the house and landscape are revealed in layers. At the road, a gravel parking court and detached garage are tucked behind a loose rhododendron hedgerow, followed by a tighter privet hedge that forms an extension of the garage and defines a grassy lawn behind it. An axial “boardwalk” bisects these spaces, framed by a series of metal portals. Aligned almost perfectly with the distant tip of Cape Cod Bay, the ipe walkway crosses the metal-encased entry threshold, continuing straight through the house and culminating in a black box that projects from the far wall. “We made it a very linear shot, so when you walk into the house, you see straight out over the marsh to the tip of Cape Cod Bay,” Thomas says.
While the front façade is modestly scaled, the site’s downslope allowed for a fully glazed, two-story rear wall. On the north, the architects attached a perpendicular main bedroom suite and study with three bedrooms below. A stairwell links this wing to the main house, whose lower level contains a gym, lounge, and pool access. To solve the lot constraints, the architects slipped the pool and terrace underneath a screened porch that cantilevers off the south-facing living room, creating a covered pool terrace.
Some of the home’s details are a subtle nod to Duxbury’s oldest houses. “The Tory chimney, white-painted brick with a black top, is common here,” Thomas says. And the gutter bracket detail references the John and Priscilla Alden house, built in the late 1600s. With its clarity and simplicity, Backriver is a stellar example of how screening and fine detailing can scale down mass and lyrically interpret a setting.
Custom Period or Vernacular House
Architect: Mark Hutker, FAIA; Thomas McNeill, AIA; Deepa Parthasarathy, Hutker Architects, Falmouth, Massachusetts
Builder: Dudley Mulrenin, Seaview Construction, Duxbury, Massachusetts
Interior design: Elizabeth Stiving-Nichols, Martha’s Vineyard Interior Design, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
Landscape architect: Kris Horiuchi, Horiuchi Solien, Falmouth
Structural engineer: Siegel Associates, Newton, Massachusetts
Project size: 5,581 square feet
Site size: 1.45 acres
Construction cost: $600 per square foot
Photography: Michael J. Lee
Cladding: Eastern white cedar
Cooking Ventilation: Sub-Zero
Countertops: Neolith, custom concrete
Doors/Door Hardware: Marvin, Parrett Windows & Doors, Emtek, Rocky Mountain Hardware
Faucets: Brizo, Rohl, Blanco, TOTO,
Lighting Control: Lutron
Outdoor Grill: Wolf
Paints: Benjamin Moore
Roofing: Alaskan yellow cedar
Thermal and Moisture Barriers:
Tub: Blu Bathworks
Windows: Marvin, Parrett Windows & Doors
Window Shading: Lutron
Wine refrigerator: Sub-Zero
Plans and Drawings