Art to Architecture: A Design Process Case Study:

 I love designing homes. All the good ones are really unique.

This is one of them.

The design really began with a simple sketch. The sketch showed a woman sitting with her back against a dune looking out to sea. But there is more to it of course…


The site is surrounded by water and natural vegetation and huge sky with sunsets that have to be-seen to be believed. It was an amazing site and my new client was an amazing person. For months I had walked by the Real-estate office window and seen this site for sale, not daring imagine I would be so lucky to be interviewed for it. But it happened, I got hired and an amazing design journey was to begin.

TWD - DB Aerial

My client was planning to move to the island full time. She was a lovely single woman in her mid forties. Sick of city life she was starting over and coming to Nantucket.  Diana was a strong, very intelligent woman but I sensed also a delicateness in her, that her home, my design, needed to address.  The house would be a little fortress.

Madaket can be really harsh in the off-season and winter months. Whipping winds, sea spray, torrential rain, floods, blizzards, fog…..Wild weather! There would be no neighbors at this time of year, the design needed to provide a feeling of warmth and protection in its physical reality and provide psychological comfort. It would be a low home nestled into the landscape, hunkered down against the weather, and it would be a personal reflection of her.

We worked well together, she was very organized and provided me an album of interior images. We spent time on site together and walked Sconset looking at the old fishermens cottages and talking about her goals and program requirements and a little about life. Of course through like every client she had conflicting wishes like: “I want it to look like a Sconset cottage but be way more spacious”. You can do it”, she said with a smile. And then she left me to get to work and figure out this puzzle.

TWD - DB Sconset Cottage

It wasn’t an easy site. There was the Conservation Commission to deal with and we were in the flood zone. A water filtration system would be needed for potable water and we would have to create a raised septic system. Of course there was the specter of the HDC as always, which can be a real stick in the eye to any artist.


I had drawn the a sketch of how I imagined my client sitting comfortably at the waters edge. Her back against a dune her gaze looking out to sea. The house would take its cue as a reflection of her. The house would sit in the landscape in a similar fashion,(from a building section standpoint.) The back of the building would tuck into the higher dune landscape, primary lower rooms look out to sea.



Nice sketch, but where was the dune and significant topographical grade change going to come from on a flat site? Oh yea, the required raised septic system.  I wonder if the H.D.C will go for this?

These septic systems normally look like nasty unnatural lumps in the lawn. Or even a burial ground. However this was to be an element that would transform the design. Rather than push it as far away as possible from the house I decided to engage it as an essential part of the overall design and even extend it as needed towards the house and inside the courtyard. There would be a gentle natural rise from its outer edges, and..taa daa.. I now have my dune! The house would be half in it half out of my dune  and I would create a split-level both inside and out.

The Sconset fishermens houses were intriguing to my client.  These homes take you back in time to a simpler era and one all too aware of the power of the wind and sea. Spaces were minimal and just fine as basic shelter and miniature homes. The new home would pay homage to this architectural history. Its’ form would be influenced by these quirky little houses.

The top of the dune was to become the Sconset upper courtyard and garden. The building from here would be between 9 and 12 feet high, with quirky Sconset like charm and roofs and windows that nearly touch the ground. A magical garden space faced Hither Creek, and the house embraced my dune on 3 sides, providing protection from the wind. The septic system vanishes under a sea of grasses. The building shape in plan form provides a symbolic gesture of an open arm welcome towards the driveway entry. The highest roof at the lower level is about 17 feet tall


The design was now starting to gel on a number of levels. It was artistic and pragmatic and displayed a sense of architectural history. It merged with the landscape and bowed to the sea-scape.  Its concept unique and timeless.

The exterior skin of the home is all-natural with heavy plank frame trim and cedar shutters. The shutters allow the owner to easily walk around the building to shut it down in the event of foul weather. The western big deck on the harbor side provides protection from the prevailing summer winds so she can enjoy the harbor views.

The interiors are laid out so that primary spaces have three walls of natural light. The secondary spaces weave their way back into the dune. The circulation pattern of the house has beautiful curved walls that pull you along and take you up and down. Much like the energy and shape of an ocean wave.

The main entry is located on the lower level and opens to a staircase that leads to the Sconset courtyard and upper powder room and bedroom. To the immediate right the living room, room with harbor views and a grand piano at the end.

To the left a hallway that is actually a little tunnel where the bedroom above reaches over it for eastern morning light. Straight ahead an art gallery with natural light from above, that leads you to the kitchen and master bedroom.

The main living space conjures up the image for me of an upside-down hull of a boat.
The light well over the kitchen island is reminiscent of a ships hatch with a mysterious natural light source. Stones found on the beach become room thresholds,

The fireplace takes the traditional central location as the heart  of the house ,its mantle piece an echo of the living room trusses. The interiors used a lot of reclaimed old woods combined with white walls the nautical color influences are clear.

The master bedroom has its own private wing and primary water views. To be honest I don’t love the blue ceilings, but the owner does, and interiors are personal.
It is her house.

Two bedrooms and two and a half baths take their positions on the upper level. They orient towards the courtyard. The bathrooms are elevated above the main floor. This allows for gravity flow to the septic.  My mechanical systems all went between lower and upper levels fully concealed and above the flood plane.

The Madaket honeymooners shack, as it was known, was relocated on site and became a little boathouse and area where the water filtration system would go.

TWD - DB Floor Plan

This was a fun house to design and Thornewill Construction built it as well.
I have stepped away from construction now and want to refocus on design.
The design/build process was a 10-year fascinating ride. It is one like the singer – songwriter in a sense. Or perhaps another analogy might be a general in the trenches sort of experience. It is an amazing process to turn paper ideas into reality. It was very fulfilling for me. It gave me a completely different perspective and invaluable insight into design decisions and the building process. Even if I have to admit it was a bit like herding cats and involved a lot of cussing and swearing.

As a child for as long as I can remember, I was building things. As a young adult in my college years, I was a foreman and finisher for a pool construction company. Those days were happy ones for me. I loved getting covered in concrete dust and being sunburnt at the same time. Coming home with aching muscles after shoveling concrete or plastering all day. and having a beer on the couch. I didn’t do that here, I was primarily a manager, although I did make all the beach stone thresholds and I did drink beer;).  Here I pulled together a very skilled team of people and managed the work on a daily basis. As I said it was a total bitch.,but worth it! Sort of like climbing a mountain.

I was on this site from start to finish for about two years.
She was a dream client, the best ever. I will forever be grateful to her for the trust she put in me and Carrie. I know that she loves her house because as she said in  a thank you note to us, “it is the home of my dreams”. Of course this made it a complete success, because I think I captured a reflection of her in the architecture created.

The End

After note:

Months later after finishing construction. I was to return to the house. I took some perspective clients. They were very fancy city people. I suspected I was at a disadvantage being a little disheveled perhaps crunchy in comparison and I knew I was up against the big shot social architects in town.

The woman turned to me  in the midst of the interview and walk through. She said “love the house” she said “ love the house” she repeated “but we really need someone who can think out of the box”.

I said, “well if I was to tell  you this home was an architectural interpretation based on  a sketch of a woman sitting on a beach, it included shape and motion of an ocean wave that carries you through it, and the living room ceiling was abstractly the hull of a boat turned upside down, that I was to make a raised septic system disappear, and a I could make a big house only 9 to 12 feet tall would that be out of the box enough for you? Is that what you were thinking ?”

“No” she said, not quite getting it, “I was thinking more along the line as to  whether or not you could cleverly hide a toaster on the kitchen counter top”.

Ok, yep I could do that.

I didn’t get that job but in hind-site it was a good thing.