“I just love old barns. Farmers just knew intuitively how to put them together—a window goes here, so you can get to the grain. Those buildings were practical, not precious,” says architect Matt Elliott, AIA, principal of Elliott Architects in Blue Hill, Maine. “It’s almost impossible to deliberately create that kind of beautiful improvisation.” Perhaps, but Retreat on a Pond’s Edge comes close to that kind of serendipity, where problems solved also spark surprise and delight.
The term “pond” here is somewhat of an understatement. Technically, the primary difference between ponds and lakes is depth not breadth, and this pond stretches across nearly 200 acres. It may be shallower than a lake, but there’s plenty of room for leisurely water sports, and plenty of fresh-water sustenance to support a bounty of wildlife.
The wooded property occupies 25 acres on a point, roughly at the center of the pond. It’s accessed by a long, shared driveway from the main road. (The owners, whose principal residence is in Florida, needn’t concern themselves with regular winter plowing of their portion.) The journey of anticipation begins as visitors leave that main road and travel the winding drive to the guest parking area for the house. The owners can keep going until they reach a convenient carport under the house, but this secret passage is not obvious to others.
Once parked, guests are directed to a maze-like boardwalk that twists and turns through the forest, shifting left and right around glacial erratic boulders tufted in moss and ferns, and avoiding the girth and roots of spruce, pine, and the occasional sinewy birch tree. Here’s where the team borrowed the farmer’s liberty to improvise and allowed the boardwalk to follow the natural perambulations of a walk on foot.“The boardwalk floats across the ground with just minor support points,” Matt explains. “We didn’t even really draw it—we just gave it to the contractor. Together, we looked at each condition as you go along and determined where we’d need a support point, or where a boulder could support it. Sometimes in tricky situations, if we draw it too much or dictate it too much, it doesn’t turn out as well.”
As the boardwalk climbs out of the forest and becomes a bridge to the house, structural drawings were, of course, required. And the entire path is engineered for reasonable, aided wheelchair access. A slightly lowered border at each side also cautions distracted walkers not to stray too close to the edge.
Once reached, the destination doesn’t disappoint. Like the boardwalk, the two-story mini compound weaves its way across the rugged site, careful to leave natural contours where they belong. “We thought of the foundation kind of like the glacial erratics on the site,” Matt recalls. “We have these solid masses—three concrete objects that are like boulders here and there—and then we have these piers off which things hang. It allows everything to flow under the house and creates wonderful dappled light.”
This is not the typical modus operandi for building on scenic properties in Maine. Many a builder and architect have blasted their way through glacial boulders and clear-cut forests to achieve the perfect flat pad for the house. “But our clients loved the site and they were afraid of ruining it,” says Matt. “They said, ‘We don’t want anyone to mess up all of this beautiful mess!’
“We tell our clients that we need to understand the site and what belongs there. If you don’t, you’ll wreck what you love about the place,” he continues. Luckily, these clients understood this intuitively. One is a noted interior designer, who recognized immediately that he needed architectural expertise to fully realize the opportunity of the place.
All agreed that the property called for a contemporary solution, but one cloaked in vernacular materials. Cedar shingles and metal siding are regional favorites—for good reasons. “First of all, they’re low maintenance, which is important for a vacation home,” Matt explains. “Wood shingles last a long time here on a vertical surface with a rainscreen detail.”
Where the materials depart from the local norms is in the scale of the shingles and the color of the siding. The flat roof is also atypical, but actually handles snow loads in a more graceful way than the more common pitched roofs in the area, says Matt. “You don’t have snow coming down in great sheets in inconvenient places, and flat roofs are really bulletproof these days.”
Charred wood was an early favorite for the areas where dark metal siding appears, but the material was a budget buster. “The Kynar-coated metal achieves the same goal—it’s long-lasting and it kind of disappears into the shadows,” he notes. “Even these cost choices end up making it more interesting. Sometimes limits aren’t bad. Coloration is important, but the challenge is how do you keep costs down.” Because the site is on a pond and not the ocean, salts were not a concern, so the metal siding is hardier galvanized steel instead of aluminum.
The biggest splurge was the owners’ decision to pull the house apart into components—the main house with owners’ suite and separate guest quarters connected by open and closed porches. Located atop the carport, the guest suite also contains an office for one of the owners; the other owner has a lower-level office under the main bedroom.
The house is a simple bar scheme with some bump-outs, which allows light and breezes to fully penetrate the rooms. Large expanses of windows and glass entry doors visually connect major interior and exterior spaces, but there are still a few unexpected little windows to frame a special view here and there. In the corridor between the living area and the owners’ suite, a low window draws attention to dappled foliage below the house. “It’s only about 18 inches high,” says Matt. “And it’s about letting light wash across the floor.”
The interior designer owner led the finish selections inside the house, carrying out the theme of balanced light and dark elements—like the shafts of shadow and sun that punctuate a forest. It was a matter of continuing the story that began at the entrance of the property. “We always try to build a narrative, so we’re all starting from the same point,” says Matt. “The story of this building is the experiential way you approach it through the site, walking along the boardwalk, past boulders and ferns you can reach out and touch.”
It’s a beautiful improvisation, indeed—at once practical and, yes, possibly even precious, in the best sense of that word.
Plans and Drawings
Retreat on a Pond’s Edge
ARCHITECT: Principal-in-charge: Matt Elliott, AIA; project architect: Isaac Robbins, Elliott Architects, Blue Hill, Maine
BUILDER: William Perepchuk, Acorn Builders of Maine, LLC, Hancock, Maine
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Stephen Peck Design Consultation
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Becker Structural Engineers, Portland, Maine
PROJECT SIZE: 2,482 square feet
SITE SIZE: 25 acres
PHOTOGRAPHY: Trent Bell Photography
CABINETRY: Custom by Acorn Builders
COUNTERTOPS: Custom cast concrete
CLADDING: Native cedar shingles, locally milled; MBCI metal siding
ENGINEERED LUMBER/ROOF TRUSS SYSTEMS: LVLs; TJIs
ENTRY DOORS/WINDOWS: Marvin Signature Collection Ultimate
FASTENERS: Simpson Strong-Tie; custom
FLOORING: Concrete slab
FOUNDATION: Cast concrete
INSULATION/HOUSEWRAP: Spray foam; rigid insulation; TYPAR
LIGHTING: LSI Abolite (exterior); Juno (interior)
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
RADIANT HEATING: Cast in slab
RAILING: Custom with Feeney Cable Rail
ROOFING: EPDM over tapered insulation
TUB: Custom cast concrete
VANITIES/LAVS: Kohler; American Standard
VENTILATION: Panasonic Whisper Series (bathroom)