Nostalgia can be a compelling blueprint when designing a home. However, after a fire ravaged their Arts and Crafts, shingle-style house in Stonington in March 2017, Michael and Kathy McKinley did not let sentimental longing affect their decisions when building anew. Instead, they opted to design a home for both today and the future.
“We said, let’s do something that’s very unique and let’s have fun at it because we haven’t had much fun,” says Michael, architect/owner of Michael McKinley & Associates, and designer of both the original 4,400-square-foot home built in 1994 and the new house on the same property. “We had lots of support from craftspeople, builders, tile people and the folks that made all of the built-ins. We wanted to really just let it rip and make this house something of a phoenix. That was very much a guiding light.”
A very windy and dry day in March 2017 presented what Kathy calls a perfect storm. When a spark escaped from the chimney flue and landed on the red cedar roof, a fire spread quickly across it.
“We were in the house and heard a very unusual sound,” says Michael, who was home with his youngest daughter, 17 at the time, when the fire began mid-afternoon. “It didn’t sound so much like a fire, but like a bunch of squirrels running across the roof. My daughter went out to the driveway and saw it first.”
The fire burned a good portion of the roof, and the whole second floor of the house was destroyed. In addition, water damage was extensive on the first floor. It couldn’t be salvaged, Michael says.
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The McKinleys stayed overnight at a neighbor’s house the night of the fire, then stayed at a friend’s house in Stonington for about a month before moving into a rental a short walk from their home. All told, they moved five times in three years.
“Initially, you feel that the house embodies so many memories,” says Kathy, who was grateful that photos and a lot of memorabilia was spared, including some antiques that could be restored. “Our kids had their baptism parties here, baby showers for friends, a wedding reception for a friend, my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. And then you get to the point where the house doesn’t hold that.”
Having designed residential homes for more than 30 years, Michael immediately thought of bringing all he had learned over the years to bear on designing a new home for the family. He felt a responsibility of stewardship, selecting environmentally friendly materials. No wood products would be used on the exterior, with siding, trim and roof all fire resistant and waterproof. The rebuild spanned 14 months.
In addition, thanks to the home’s orientation, it makes use of sunlight for energy efficiency. Complete with solar panels and a geothermal system, the home offers a holistic approach to living that the McKinleys didn’t have before. Oversize windows allow an abundance of natural light and an instant connection to the outdoors.
Kathy, who is an interior designer for their company, spent a lot of time with the home’s interior lighting. With its large windows, the home has been referred to as the “glass house” in the community and at night looks like a glowing prism with a beautiful, amber-like color, Kathy says.
“Aesthetically, we could have done something abstract,” says Michael, who notes that both he and Kathy wanted to tie the home to the area’s historical farm heritage stretching back 200 years. “But we wanted to incorporate the spirit of the farmhouse with gable roofs and board siding, but not take it much further. We depart from tradition in a big way with the size and quantity of the windows.”
A lot has changed for the McKinleys since they designed their first home more than 20 years ago. Today, with their daughters now 23 and 21 years old, they are at a different point in their lives. But the couple still wanted a place where their daughters could come back and feel comfortable.
“We’re very family oriented, so it was a priority to have it big enough for our family and, someday, extended family,” Kathy says. “That’s how we got to the size of this house. It’s much smaller, but offers more functionality. Our previous home was a very social house for entertaining with an open kitchen and living area. We wanted the same for the new house, but on a smaller scale.”
At 3,200 square feet, the new home includes four bedrooms and three full baths. The upstairs boasts two well-appointed bedrooms connected by a shared bath with a master suite on the opposite side of the floor. Another bedroom and full bath on the first floor offers a space for guests as well as an aging-in-place plan.
“It’s easy to do big houses,” Michael says. “It’s not so easy to do a small house because you have to examine and prioritize a lot more. One way we got there is that we asked spaces to be multi-functional. Hand-in-hand with functionality is flexibility. It’s a balance. There’s a lot of flexibility in the rooms.”
An example: On the other side of the contemporary, double-sided gas fireplace in the living space is the sunroom, which also functions as a library and dining room. When the large double-hung windows are open, the room feels like a screened-in porch.
“When the house was being framed, a friend said, ‘Oh, I know that house. I drive by it all the time. It’s the happy house. The way the framing is … it’s so happy,’ ” Kathy says. “Then, we had another friend come inside during the day. She experienced the light and talked about how joyful the house feels. I think it’s an interesting irony that there’s so much joy and happiness that came from a sad event.”
Before they moved into their new home on Aug. 8, 2019, Kathy says that she enjoyed the journey. She found happiness along the way in each of the homes they rented. While unpacking in her new kitchen, she says that the home felt different from the prior one, yet she thought, “This is going to be great.”
“As much as you try, it’s never possible to revisit your former life,” Michael says. “But you can enjoy a memory.
“For me, the house is not personal until I put the art up,” he continues. “Maybe one of my daughters did it or it’s something we sought out on a trip to Barcelona. The more that happens, the more connection I feel.”