Danish-born architect Vibeke Lichten wears many hats. Trained as an architect, she went on to study real estate development at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Vibeke runs the New York-based architecture practice Atelier Vibeke Lichten, and her husband, Joel Assouline, oversees their development company, A2 Investment Group. In addition to her design work, Vibeke heads up construction at the development arm, and much of her work is design-build.
Then there’s the role of budget chief. Fiscal discipline is one of the guiding forces of her companies, she says. “I’m accustomed to building things that make sense financially, trying to make something design-wise that corresponds to a budget, high or modest. I think my clients come to me because of that. They trust they won’t be taken too far out on a limb. I try to warn people—this is not the same as that. Even on big commercial projects, it’s easy to go over budget.”
The couple’s house on Shelter Island was an opportunity to step into an alternative world where she could work with subcontractors in a deeper way. It was a chance to explore the intersection between control and speed, prosaic and polished. In a realm where many of her buildings take several years to complete, she was determined to build for agility as well as durability and low maintenance. To that end, one of the key decisions here was to use poured-in-place concrete instead of traditional framing, which allowed the 2,015-square-foot house and a 1,380-square-foot pool/guest house to be occupied less than a year after construction began.
The concrete shell took two weeks to frame up, and “once you take off the form, the house is there,” Vibeke says. “All the walls are poured in place; bearing walls are heavier than non-bearing walls. Then roof beams are supported on those walls. The only wood is the laminated wood beams on the roof.”
Perched on the north side of the island above Crescent Beach, the site’s greatest asset is its tranquil view of the Peconic River. The house occupies the middle of a trapezoidal 1-acre lot surrounded by forest. It sits at the hill’s highest point, 138 feet, which puts it well above the flood plain. “We build for the future, not something that’s going to be raised another 6 feet for the next generation,” she says.
This deliberate act seems obvious, but the slow pace of ecologically minded design in the U.S. frustrates her. “In Denmark there are windmills all over the place; they’re very beautifully designed with the intention that they’re going to be everywhere,” she says. “It’s part of the way you think about things, to be frugal and responsible with materials. On this house, all of this came together as a package where you don’t necessarily compromise on beauty. You can design modern, easy-living spaces that don’t have to cost an arm and a leg if you use the money wisely, and that are also good to the environment and future generations. It’s something I believe in very deeply. This is what I came up with.”
Vibeke and Joel have two grown daughters who live in New York City and often join them on weekends, and the couple likes to entertain. The north-south oriented plan is optimized for guests with a central living space that divides the master suite on the south from two guest rooms and en-suite baths on the north. It opens to long, covered porches on the east and west. To the west, looking toward the river, is a saltwater pool and connecting piazza.
“We’ve had 70 or 80 people there and couldn’t even feel it because of the openness of the whole place,” Vibeke says. “It’s a big part of the way I intended the house to be used, to make up for the lack of space in the city; it’s meant to be easy.”
Outside the master suite, a spiral exterior stair leads to the flat roof with a mahogany deck, vegetable garden, and solar panels that supply all of the house’s electricity and send it back to the grid when no one is there. In fact, the need for day-long sun on the panels dictated the house’s orientation on this odd-shaped lot. The panels are angled up toward the south, and to avoid making screw or nail holes in the flat roof, they are fastened down only by a ballast system that withstands 120-mile-per-hour winds—as does the entire house.
Across the piazza, the pool house is a stop along the driveway that runs up behind it. Set into the natural slope, it contains a living room and kitchenette, full bath, and sauna on the pool level, and two bedrooms and two baths on the cantilevered second floor. At ground level is a two-car garage with electric car charger and backup battery storage for the solar panels. Thinking ahead about aging in place, Vibeke positioned another parking court and electric car charger on the main house level. Interior and exterior stairs at the pool house connect the garage to the lounge and pool area, and a small vineyard forms a buffer zone between the pool and the road below.
Every angle counted on this challenging site. Shoehorning the program components, Vibeke set the pool on the 30-foot setback line and rotated the pool house slightly to open the view from the main house. Recessing the pool house’s first floor also preserved the water view from the main house’s guest room. The upper portion of the pool house is clad in horizontal cedar boards in varying heights and depths—a salute to local building vernacular.
This was Vibeke’s first foray into building a finished-concrete project, and there was a learning curve. “What I discovered was that I wanted to articulate the façade in such a manner that thought was brought into it,” she says. “I had to work with the foreman to see if he could do what I wanted without making it more expensive.”
The main house’s entry bumps out to announce itself, piercing through the 12-foot-deep porch canopy. The canopy’s steel plates are embedded in the wall structure “so that the whole house acts as a counterbalance for these little wings on both sides of the house,” Vibeke says. Their textured, 1/4-inch wire glass shades the terrace and interiors. Conversely, when the sun’s low angle warmed the 8-inch-thick concrete floors last winter, the interior temperature stayed around 65 degrees without turning on the heat, she says.
A minimal material palette aligns with the house’s goals: marble or glass tile in the kitchen and baths because “it’s a soft look and they are environmentally friendly,” thick white lacquered matte kitchen cabinets with integrated pulls, and a honed flamed-granite kitchen counter that “feels like travertine,” she says. “We wanted the kitchen to be almost like a piece of furniture viewed from the living room.” The focal point of this space is a striking concrete wall that holds three Vibeke-designed vitrines displaying a collection of turned wood pieces. “When you pull on the glass pendulums, the cases go down to let you access the pieces,” she says.
Every move, however rough or finely wrought, contributes to the overall impression of control. “It was important to me that whatever the end result, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Vibeke says. “I had to say what is acceptable and how I would achieve it—not what could work but would take three or four more steps and was not what the job was bid on.” For example, the metal ties that left an indented cone shape on the concrete panels were simply sealed with 5,000 plugs to prevent rusting metal from streaking the façade.
“The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington is a good example of pristine concrete,” she says. “This doesn’t look like the museum, but it doesn’t look like a basement, either. That control was always a challenge. Once I let go, I know my crew is going to do whatever they can to the best of their ability. You have to weigh who you are working with and what is their capacity to be precise.”
Vibeke sometimes escapes the city to work in the pool house. However, “last year was the first summer it was occupied, and I realized I’d designed the house for everyone other than myself,” she says. “I just submitted a design for an addition that will be a dedicated office. We need a setup of things that we refer to often or that make us creative, and it’s not a space you can necessarily share with other people for a long time.” Thanks to careful planning, though, come hell or high water, this property is something she can share far into the future.
Plans and Drawings
Long Island, New York
ARCHITECT: Vibeke Lichten, Atelier Vibeke Lichten, New York
BUILDER: A2 Investment Group GC
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Vibeke Lichten
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Keystone Structural Group
CIVIL ENGINEER: Matt Sherman
PROJECT SIZE: 2,015 square feet (main house), 1,380 (pool house)
SITE SIZE: 1 acre
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Evan Joseph
ELECTRIC CAR CHARGERS: Tesla
FIREPLACE: Fire Orb
GARAGE DOORS: Better Door
HOME THEATER: Sonos
KITCHEN APPLIANCES: Miele
KITCHEN CABINETS: Berloni
MEDICINE CABINETS: Kohler
RADIANT HEATING: Thermosoft
TOWEL HEATERS: Runtal