Connecticut Home & Garden: Elements of Surprise

 

Mick Hales

We asked Duo Dickinson to describe this home in 25 words, more or less. We knew that was pushing it; the ebullient and articulate architect is given to lengthy discourse on the subject of his work, which he loves with a passion. And yet he surprised us, in the same way this house delights, when he said simply: “This is a coastal home that defies aesthetic labeling. Designed to defeat a narrow site’s limitations, it stands fully exposed to the ravages of saltwater and wind conditions in Madison.”

It’s a practical house, then. A site-driven structure designed to weather any storm. But it’s far more than that, as Dickinson will tell you (once you let up on the word count). “This is a time-blind home,” he says, “where the distinctions of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ are on full display.”

The architect (who lives and works in Madison) had been intimately involved with the challenging waterfront site for years. Former property owners asked him to renovate an existing tiny cottage, but the plans proved too costly, so they sold the land. He designed another cottage for the interim owners, but they soon sold the property to its current owners, who fell for the site’s views and possibilities—and for Dickinson’s design. The architect describes them as a “thoughtful, caring couple of intellect whose primary residence is outside New York. This is their decompression chamber and home for hosting their grandchildren.”

Thanks to the couple’s vision, Dickinson says the project was very collaborative. “Client partnering is why I am a house architect. Collaboration is a deeply abiding inspiration, and the creation of a family home is deeply personal. As with every project, I asked for images of homes they loved, lists of features they wanted.” Dickinson drew up four preliminary ideas, and fused the two favorites. “This is a second home, so its open-ended schedule gave us the luxury of time to consider every aspect of fit, expression, value and art in its design and detailing,” he says.

The resulting 2,370-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath house is a smart and cool retreat whose rough-hewn exterior belies sleek, modern, open spaces on the inside. It defies pigeonholes and expectations and features energy-efficiency in spades.

Dickinson elaborates: “It’s a simple shape, really. A gable-roofed-shape, inherently centered, yet shifted … with a single arcing gesture of a south- and water-facing glass wall. The wall is nestled within massive overhangs to mirror the coast, its arc layered with a double-decker porch.”  

Madison’s glorious but unforgiving shoreline light presented a puzzle that Dickinson was keen to solve. “A dead-south, full-on view meant we could get light and view in one sweeping window wall, if we could keep all that glass in summer shade and out of the brutal wind-driven water of fall and winter,” he says. So the south gable roof grew, and grew, “beyond all expectation, to embrace the view and low-sun-angle light, while keeping nearby neighbors out of sight.”

Dickinson is careful not to squander energy or materials in any way. So while the salvaged wood exterior may feel out of sync with the Shingle-style cottages and ersatz Colonials in the area, it all makes sense within the context of sustainability. By carefully placing zoning and return locations, he was able to fine-tune a variable-speed HVAC system. Interior glare and air conditioning needs were minimized by having the interior’s rear lit and vented by a three-story vertical cupola, in essence a “flue” that integrates with the HVAC system for maximum efficiency.

The home is “essentially a square with two floors (bottom public, top sleeping) and a home office. In the center of the structure is a circular ‘core’ of light drawn down from the cupola,” says the architect. Light bathes the stunning staircase and projects downward through an intermediate glass floor. Windows everywhere, as well as transoms on the bedroom doors help wash the minimally furnished modern interior in light that bounces off white walls and ceilings. “Super-glossy white interior trim accentuates lines and angles and a ‘carpet’ of white oak floor grounds all the dynamics of space and light,” Dickinson says. “Stainless steel is used as a spice inside and out. Stucco ceilings on the second floor bring the eaves in.”

At the end of the day, Dickinson says, this home is as close to an ideal as any he’s ever designed: “In truth this may be the project out of the 500-plus I have built that best embodies the ethos I have evolved: complete embrace of client vision and site realities, minimizing maintenance, maximizing energy efficiency, spatial expression, light infusion, craft integration, and, at every level, cost vigilance.”  

 

Connecticut Home & Garden: Elements of Surprise

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