East Coast Collaboration

Not all tear-down projects begin as tear-downs. Take for example the creation of this home in Milford, Conn., which began with intentions of retaining a sensible amount of the existing home’s charm and structure. As the clients, architect and builder began planning the renovation, many of their conversations ended with comments such as, “You might as well build a new wall.”

“Let’s give ourselves credit. Our intent was to reuse materials and make the home better because we’re all responsible and no one wanted to throw something aside for the sake of building new,” says Frank Ryan Jr., AIA, managing principal, The Golden Mean Group in Westport, Conn. “Over the course of the design process, we wanted to modify the shell of the buildings and move some walls around. Ultimately we decided to tear it down and create something that harkens back to the original building.”

The modern take on a Victorian reflects traditional styling such as gables, turrets and big porches. Effort was made to avoid “… slapping things on a building because someone thinks it should go there,” Ryan says. “As complex as the front façade is, it is calculated in terms of the relationship between forms and the overall composition, and to other forms both vertically and horizontally. We spent plenty of time on the front and rear façades to ensure they present themselves in an aesthetically logical fashion.”

Outdoor spaces on each level provide views of the ocean, including a widow’s walk on the roof. Ryan has designed many rooftop accommodations for people to look out at the sea. “It’s an important part of what people do on the Connecticut coast. On this house we have a chimney which created another design moment. We sculpted the upper extremity of the chimney to give it some anthropomorphic qualities,” Ryan says.

Providing access to the widow’s walk was a challenge, says Jeff Hallquist, owner, Jeff Hallquist Builder in Monroe, Conn. “There was quite some work involved with getting access up there. From the house to the attic, we had to make it weather-tight. We came up with a stainless steel hatch that opens like a coffin and has an R10 value [top photo pg. 12]. There’s a double-insulated gasket around an R15 lid. Telescopic stairs come out of that opening,” Hallquist says.

Another outdoor element is the deck that extends from the yoga room on the second floor. Two 6-ft. sliders open the 14- by 20-ft. yoga room to the outdoors. With so many elements on the front exterior, it was critical to keep it all maintenance-free per the owners’ wishes. The only natural material on the front of the house is the mahogany door, Hallquist says.

A striking part of the front exterior is the turret which appears to end prematurely with a flat top. “The reason the turret top is flat is we were reaching the maximum height limit,” Hallquist explains. “We used that weather vane on top as a spire to help complete the lines of the turret. That spire is 6-ft. 2-in. tall and is solid copper.”

The turret is framed with 28-ft. engineered timbers that enclose a spiral staircase which extends from the basement to the top floor. Once the floors were completed a template was made and the stringer was fabricated along with the treads and risers, Hallquist explains. Everything was assembled on-site.

The staircase is a design element that moves within the volume of the turret, Ryan says. “As the stairs move past each window ,you can see your advancement as you go floor to floor. One inclination was to stick the staircase in the corner or the side of the house, and every time we did that it asked for more attention. At the end we married the turret with the stairway which gave it a lot of attention and a good result,” Ryan says.

Planning for the future, a recessed pit will accommodate an elevator with access to each floor of the home. Electrical for the elevator is already in place.

Codes Rule

The 500-lb. gorilla in the drawing room was the tight building site, and strict planning and zoning requirements which imposed themselves on the design. The home is built within an inch or two of the property line. “It’s not a big building but it had to include what the clients wanted, so we had to be creative how we arrayed our program spaces from the first through third floor, always remaining conscious of where we were on-site,” Ryan says.

The house is third from the shore of Long Island Sound in a DP-50 wind zone. Structural engineer Dave Seymour was hired to ensure code compliance. Impact-resistant windows guarantee the owners won’t wake up in a bed that has moved during the night due to wind filtering through leaky windows; something they experienced in the home they rented during construction.

To make sure the home stays put, too, 20 rods are drilled into the foundation and epoxied in place, then bolted through studs to hold the house down, Hallquist explains. Plenty of other structural products and materials keep this home within code compliance.

A usable basement was on the owners’ wish list, but with a floor just five feet above sea level, “inverted swimming pool” construction delivers the goods, Hallquist says. A heavy slab was poured to resist the water column and any possible storm surge. “The clients weighed their costs and what they were getting and decided to do it because without those added costs for a livable basement they couldn’t use it the way they wanted to,” Hallquist says.

Collaborative Success

“This truly was design/build,” Hallquist says. “I work with architects and am a hands-on builder. I look at the plans and am not afraid to step on anyone’s toes. But this wasn’t a concern in this case because Frank [Ryan] is human and knows he can do it wrong sometimes, as can I. The client is an artist so she respects our craft. This was a collaborative effort, and could not have been successful any other way.”

“This is one of those magical projects where we’re all of the same mind and same goal,” Ryan says. “I wouldn‘t have much work if I was purely dogmatic about design. My belief is that design is a process and I’m the leader, but I have to rely on the owner and builder to get to the end.”

When Ryan and Hallquist met the clients on-site for the first time, it also was the first time the two had met each other. Neither knew the other had been hired, creating a situation unfamiliar to both. “I’m used to recommending a builder,” Ryan says. “But as an architect I must be prepared to deal with this because I know nothing goes according to plan. I also know a lot of architects who would have said ‘To heck with this. I want to choose the contractor.’ This wasn’t the case here. If you’re good you take what’s given and work with it.”

The classic design and construction process is morphing every day, Ryan notes. “Architects are confronted with different ways of doing things, from different viewpoints. The good ones say, ‘Ah ha. Let’s see what happens if we do this, and accommodate this,’ rather than saying, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ and walking away.

“It’s rare when you find a confluence of client, builder and architect who can work as a team while pursuing a common vision and realize it in the end,” Ryan says. “I can count on two hands the projects that have been as successful as this one. I think the future of architecture involves architects reclaiming the master builder title. To do this they must become builders again. If architects approach design with a more collaborative outlook, we will end up with success.”


Project location: Milford, Conn.
Project size: 4,000 s.f.
Completion date: April 2009
Cost (not land): $1.3 million