Maine Modern: A Minimalist Shingled House, Thrifty New England Edition

November 09, 2015 10:00 AM

BY Margot Guralnick

After years of living in a well-preserved 1840s house in Down East, Maine, Vincent Montgomery and David Cadigan felt ready for a complete change. Design buffs who spend vacations making architecture pilgrimages, the two–Cadigan is an arts educator and Montgomery works at the Jackson Laboratory in nearby Bar Harbor–happened to own a prime piece of property just next door to them with views of Mount Desert Island.

They approached architect Bruce Norelius with a compelling set of parameters: A spectacular rocky site, a cost-conscious budget, and a request for “an unapologetically contemporary house.” Based in Los Angeles but a former Mainer who knows what works in these parts, Norelius created a structure of interlocking cubes, “clad humbly,” he notes, “in the most traditional of New England building materials, the local white cedar shingle.” This melding of old and new is more than poetic: The shingles stand ready to withstand the area’s crazy weather fluctuations (and to develop a lovely silvery patina). One of the boxes elegantly incorporates a carport in the back of the house “so we essentially built a garage for free,” says Norelius. And in lieu of expensive finishes and fixtures, the interiors are fuss-free Yankee minimalist: all about space and views.

Photography by Sandy Agrafiotis via Bruce Norelius Studio.

Above: “We wanted to keep the footprint of the house very small and not do any blasting of ledges,” says Norelius, who describes the 1,800-square-foot structure as “intersecting Lego cubes.” Large windows open up the living room level, and the band of low windows on the bedroom floor are “meant to be the perfect height for when you’re in bed or sitting at a desk.” That’s Cadigan shaking out a blanket on the deck, “just a regular commercial membrane roof” created from the lower part of the house.

Above: The entry off the carport (see below) opens to a compactly elegant mudroom hung with Sagatsune metal hooks. Plain finished concrete flooring with radiant heat is used throughout, and is all that’s needed to heat the house. The glass front door is from Andersen Windows and the benches came out of an old paper mill. Lighting designer Peter Knuppel, a neighbor, specified the lighting throughout, including the small recessed ceiling spots shown here: “He saw to it that the lights are exactly where you need them,” says Norelius. “Nothing is under or over lit, or extra.”

Above: Pine stairs lined with Tolomeo lights lead to the living room level. Note the slight gap on either side of the steps: the floating design is Norelius’s nod to John Pawson. The walls are just drywall–”we didn’t have the money for plaster”–painted Benjamin Moore White: “It’s absolutely neutral, no undertones of anything in it which is why I like it; it becomes a backdrop for the materials.” The careful work of builder Tobin Peacock, Norelius notes, was key to the project’s success. “In a crisp, modern house so much depends on craftsmanship.”

Above: The dining area overlooks a camouflaged simple kitchen: There’s a range (with a downdraft vent) and dishwasher concealed on the other side of the white island, which is one of two built of painted MFD with gray laminate counters. (The fridge is tucked into a pantry.)  

Montgomery and Cadigan reduced their belongings to the bare minimum but kept a few standouts, including the grandfather clock. The cherry dining table and red oak chairs are the work of local cabinetmakers.

Above: Andersen Awning Windows were used throughout. Visible here, a corner of one of the two kitchen islands, both of which have areas for food prep and seating.

Above: How do you make a house feel roomy and luxurious when you’re on a budget? “You create views and make sure there’s space around every object, so nothing feels crowded,” says Norelius, noting that the custom MDF bookshelves, which separate living room from stairs, stop below the ceiling. “There’s a sense of what’s on the other side; I like to create layers and mystery.” The base shelves double as bench seating. The closet at the back of the room houses the couple’s giant record collection.

Above: The living room has sweeping views of the treetops and Mount Desert Island. There are no window coverings–”the exterior overhangs control the light well”–except on the two west-facing windows, which have translucent roller shades. The radiant floor heating here is supplemented by a woodstove. (Putting in new floors? Read Remodeling 101: 5 Things to Know about Radiant Floor Heating.)

Above: The floating effect continues downstairs, where there are two identical bedrooms, each with a centered custom bed frame of painted MDF detailed with a combination headboard and desk. The wall of aluminum shelving is from Rakks

Above: The bedrooms are divided by a bare-bones bathroom with a custom vanity of painted MDF inset with a sink and topped with gray laminate (also used on the kitchen islands). Around the corner is a shower, toilet, and stacking washer/dryer. The French doors in the bedroom lead to a tiny screened porch. 

Above: The house sits on a rising amid granite outcroppings and forest.

Above: The driveway ends at the back of the house, where the carport is revealed. The one window is above the stairwell. “Every room has views, but this elevation is severe and architectural; it’s where the service areas, like the pantry and powder room and stair, are hidden.”

Above: Norelius’s ingenious use of low-cost materials extends to the carport: Paved with gravel, it has a ceiling and wall of untreated cement board. The entry door is paired with a door-like long window to draw in more light.

Below: Floor plans and elevations detail the reversed L shape of the two levels. The two sizes of windows, Norelius says, “provide different ways of taking in the landscape–one very concentrated, the other wide open.” 

More Maine? See a Cottage Reborn in Coastal Maine. And go to John Pawson in Telluride to see one of Norelius’s sources of inspiration, floating stairs included.