Architecture is, by definition, site-specific, or, as architect James Cutler, FAIA, would clarify: landscape-specific. Whereas site suggests something merely physical, the word landscape connotes a living, dynamic place that we engage with on multiple levels—emotional, spiritual, conceptual. Like all Cutler Anderson Architects’ projects, the house he designed in southern New England is carefully tuned to the nuances of its terrain. It doesn’t just sit in a long, sloping meadow dotted with young oaks and maples. It pivots and pirouettes, encloses and exposes, bringing landscape views full circle in an effortlessly choreographed way, to the delight of the owners.
On each project, Jim does a preliminary land survey himself so he can get to know the place. Once he thinks he understands the landscape and the clients’ needs, he starts to design. Thirty miles from Manhattan, the property is part of a narrow corridor that bisects a 750-acre nature preserve and a 40-acre conservation area. What Cutler observed, when he walked the property, was a small natural pond 400 feet downhill to the south, a field that meets a forest to the north, a forest gradually going to meadow on the east, and visible neighbors to the west. There was also a fairly big drainage area to the north.
At this point in Cutler Anderson’s practice, its clients self-select. They want what the firm does and are willing to suspend preconceived notions of what their house will look like. “We’re okay designers but are really good at revealing what’s beautiful in the living world,” Jim says. “The clients had deep empathy for that and backed us all the way.”
After interviewing dozens of architects over a five-year period, the husband-and-wife clients chose Jim not only because they liked his aesthetic, but also because of his experience with environmentally smart building systems. The husband, a longtime environmentalist, was familiar with LEED construction through his involvement in a number of conservation organizations. “I wanted to put that knowledge I gained into my own home,” he says.
He and his wife had developed five design criteria for their dream house: a low-maintenance exterior and interior; no petroleum products used for heating or cooling; the use of only wood, glass, stone, or steel; the use of passive systems to move water and capture as much energy as possible—and, of course, a strong connection to nature. In the 1960s, an arborist living in the site’s previous house had planted beautiful specimen trees such as tulip poplars, maples, and Douglas fir, which were now in their mature glory.
The new house’s axis is oriented south, and its public spaces have a long, controlled view of the meadow and lower pond. Following the natural grade, you enter from the west on grade, but as you follow the axis east, the land drops away toward the forest. This is where Jim placed the two children’s bedrooms and the master suite, lifting them as a unit on concrete piers so that the house’s elevation does not change from one end to the other. Bedrooms are private spaces, he says, and he used the land’s existing contours to enhance that quality. “Keeping the bedrooms off the ground was important for us because bedrooms are a place to sleep, and if you are going to experience the landscape, you want to have the windows open and not use curtains,” Jim says. “Bedrooms need to have a sense of defensibility. We were moving into a small area of forest, so if we rotated the building just right, we could locate those bedrooms through the trees and didn’t have to cut any down.”
At almost 8,000 square feet, the house is large, but it’s separated into three pieces—four if you count the clever entryway—arranged along an axis and cross-axis. Visitors park their car in a brushy thicket a short distance from the house and walk to the entrance, a cypress-clad box enclosed in thickly planted shrubs. As they step inside, its glass walls reveal a huge excavated pond, and a magnificent sugar maple on the right. “The experience of the pond is carefully shielded,” Jim says. As you approach the house, “the only inkling of the water is that the sky is so much brighter over that area. If I could have closed off the sky view, I would have.”
Another reason to separate the entry, which contains a powder room and closet, was to make a pure pavilion of the cypress-clad living, dining, and kitchen volume—Jim describes it as a “great raft of wood.” Moving from the entryway, guests enter this main living space over a short corridor with water on both sides.
The family approaches the house by car from a different direction, but the journey is no less pleasurable. Jim uses buildings to reveal different aspects of the landscape in relation to the owners’ household routines: How do they drive in? How do they get out of their car, get an armload of groceries to the kitchen? What do they experience doing that? What tools can be used to amplify those experiences?
The water is ever-present in the owners’ daily lives. They park in the garage across the pond from the main house and enter a cross-axis hallway that reveals a specimen tree at one end. In the other direction is a long, enclosed walk to the kitchen, over the water. The walkway wall opens up momentarily on the east side to frame a mature linden tree with a hooked branch. “We opened the walkway on that side so they would experience the tree,” Jim says. “And actually they do. They tell me they stop and look. It’s giving someone the opportunity to connect with a place through how you choreograph their daily movement. It has nothing to do with style or shape, just with looking at the real world. Shapes are personal; this concept is universal.”
The excavated pond is another example of amplifying the clients’ emotional engagement with the land by riffing on its natural features. As he drew the buildings into the plan, Jim started to see he could impound water draining from the north. Most of the pond water is replenished from the roof of the buildings, which are pitched to dump rainwater into the pond; downspouts supply the rest. “We have a secondary well to make sure it’s topped up if necessary, but most of the time it fills up naturally,” he says. “Buildings take an enormous amount of water off the earth and run it into a pipe. We tried to have the buildings infiltrate their water back into the earth and avoid gutters and downspouts.”
Movement through the public spaces always engages the pond. For example, a single glass panel opposite the dining table frames a water view, so that the dining area straddles the wet realm and the dry meadow below. That slot also opens a sight line to the cypress-clad garage, with an attached guest suite, across the pond. Built slab-on-grade, the garage’s lower part is cast concrete that cantilevers over the water and then drops down in a candy cane shape so that the pond liner is hidden under the crook.
“Living with the pond is a fantastic experience,” says the husband. “It’s a surprise pleasure having constant wildlife intrusions so close to the house. You wake up and see a blue heron sitting on a rock, looking at you, or a million frog eggs across the top of the pond. There’s a constant biology lesson going on, and my son’s friends are always playing in the pond. It’s very interactive.”
Telling a Story
If the design scheme captures the character of this rolling field-and-forest landscape, the Douglas fir–framed structure describes how the buildings hold themselves up. “The most ubiquitous physical force we experience is gravity; architecture doesn’t defy it; it describes it,” Jim says. “The column goes to the beam, the beam goes to the rafter, the rafter carries the roofing, and the roofing keeps the rain out. We want to show how those things are connected. Not like Lincoln logs; it has to be fastened together with the human hand.”
Where there are glass walls, the columns and beams sit inside the glass, and the beams overhang the columns, which makes the beams stronger. The beam and column system “clarifies the nature of the columns and the loads, and it means the columns aren’t the corner because the corners go to glass,” Jim says. His design incorporated the owners’ request for “infinity” floors: the windows were dropped about eight inches below the floor surface, with a gap between the floor and window so that “it’s like sitting on a platform,” the husband says.
With 569 pages of construction details, putting the house together was like solving a Rubik’s Cube, says Bill White, project executive at A. Pappajohn Company, which built the house. “We had to literally turn pieces to figure it out and every wall had a different nuance. Floor joists don’t go to the windows, and doors are flush so that when you’re walking down the corridor to the bedroom wing, you don’t see the doors. We couldn’t hire just any framer, and we had two supers looking over the details, because if anything was missed, it would come back to bite you every step of the way.”
Without traditional structural corners, the main living space’s two 6-foot–by–12-foot sliding doors were hung from steel-reinforced, cantilevered beams. “In summer when the whole house is open, it feels like a big tent,” the husband says. Four-foot overhangs on the south mitigate heat build-up in summer and admit precious sunlight in the winter. And a giant maple shades the west side, where there are few windows. This net-zero-energy house also has about 2,800 square-feet of solar panels that send excess energy to the grid, and two solar hot water panels. A battery backup was also installed to run the house briefly if the power goes out.
The clients’ conservation ethic often collided with their wish for view corridors. “You run into massive conflicts to connect with nature,” the husband says. “Seventy percent of the wall surfaces are glass, which is not good for insulation. But that was the point where we said, if we’re going to spend more money on heating, even though the energy use is below average for a house in this region, let’s do it to afford views that connect us to nature.” Windows and doors are triple-pane, and their mullions are reclaimed redwood with a water-based polyurethane coating. “There are no stains in the whole house,” the husband says. “The mullions will weather naturally to gray,” as will the building’s cypress rain-screen cladding.
Without soffits, chases, or registers, the mechanical system is invisible. The house is heated and cooled with a geothermal system and radiant flooring. The building envelope was heavily insulated and the stud cavities used as a plenum to carry air-conditioning, which comes out of a slot hidden behind ceiling panels.
Environmentally sound and aesthetically glorious, the house’s interior is all warm Douglas fir wood, with commodious spaces meant for entertaining. Acoustical concerns led to an overall aesthetic of wood-slat ceilings above exposed rafters. Jim was worried about noise because the north wall’s large, solid surface makes it highly refractive, and the south wall, mostly glass, has a tremendous amount of reverberation. To mitigate sound, the construction crew laid 1×4 boards three-quarters of an inch apart on top of the ceiling rafters, then topped them with black fabric and acoustical batting so all sound absorption happens in the ceiling.
Jim prefers to use cable lighting rather than ceiling fixtures because you can see the negative and positive wires, and they demonstrate how electricity gets to the light source. He used dowels to “avoid the ugly hardware that usually comes with cable lighting.” The crew drilled a hole in each rafter and slid a dowel between them. The electrician installed the transformer and fasteners, ran the two cables out from the fixtures and drilled them through the dowel, then turnbuckled them tight against the dowel.
For Jim, the emotional parts of our lives are the important ones, because they’re what make us human. “We’re looking at reality and trying to define what’s beautiful about it,” Jim says. “We choreograph the work to amplify every tangible experience to the point where it is emotionally compelling.” He says he was genetically predisposed to these lessons learned from his former teacher, Louis Kahn, who changed his view of the world.
Jim adds that a lot of “architecture seems so shallow—like fashion, like style; ninety percent of it ignores the real beauty of what’s outside your window every day. There’s no limit to the shapes and styles that can be derived from just looking at tangible reality and trying to define what’s beautiful about it. If there’s a big idea on this building, it’s to just do that.”
House on a Pond
SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND
ARCHITECT: James Cutler, FAIA, principal-in-charge; Meghan Griswold and David Curtin, project architects, Cutler Anderson Architects, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
BUILDER: A. Pappajohn Company,
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Amy Hirsch Interiors, Greenwich, Conn.
LANDSCAPE: Pond design by Anthony Archer-Wills Water Garden Design, Copake Falls, N.Y.; landscape design by Cutler Anderson Architects, the
owner, and DeVore Associates Landscape Architects, Fairfield, Conn.
ENGINEER: Tucker Associates, Wallingford, Conn.
PROJECT SIZE: 7,877 square feet
SITE SIZE: 4.35 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: © David Sundberg/Esto
BATHTUB/MASTER: Wyndham Collection
DOORS: Simpson Door Company
FAUCETS: Kohler, Grohe
HARDWARE: Cutler Anderson, Reveal Designs
LIGHTING: Juno, Lutron
MICROWAVE: GE Profile
SINKS: Lacava, Kohler
WOOD STOVE: Rais Malta
Look for a new 240-page monograph
on Cutler Anderson’s houses, due
this spring from art publisher
Oscar Riera Ojeda.