A beach house ideal for outdoor entertaining
Building a beach house can be challenging. In addition to weather and water, there are many complex governmental restrictions to overcome. Homeowners Mark and Debbie Gagnon of Wells, Maine, turned to a team of beachside building experts to achieve their goal. The payoff is a family gathering place suitable for spending summers outdoors and watching the sunsets over the harbor each night.
Nestled on the relatively quiet harbor side of the beach instead of the oceanfront, the house has views of Wells Harbor, the Webhannet River, and the estuaries that are part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Wells Beach is a short walk across the street. But when the Gagnons purchased their property in 2012, it was the site of two small, rundown 1950s cottages. The wooden seawall separating the cottages from the harbor had rotted and could have failed at any time.
Nevertheless, the Gagnons saw the potential for a modern beach house that promoted entertaining and relaxing. “Our goals in building this house were to take full advantage of the beautiful sunsets over the estuary as well as the views of the ocean and sunrise,” Mark Gagnon says. To realize their vision for the property, they hired Matt Banow of Matt Banow Architectural Design and contractors Barry and Eric Chase of Chase Construction to design and build their house.
One of the original cottages was demolished to make room for the new construction; the other was renovated as a guesthouse. The first step in the rebuilding process was the creation of a new seawall using engineered concrete. Meanwhile, Banow drew up plans for a 2,900-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. The architecture of the house was influenced by West Coast beach style, especially that of Malibu, California.
The homeowners desired a structure that was sufficiently high to provide unobstructed views of the water from the upper floors with lots of large windows. “The design is consistent with houses that impressed us when visiting southern California,” Gagnon explains. They also requested low to zero exterior maintenance so that they could simply spend their time enjoying the outdoors. With these ideas in mind, Banow says he took his inspiration from the “wonderful and varied views that the site offered.” By strategically placing the windows and creating exterior decks at multiple levels, Banow ensured that the house is always oriented toward the landscape from both inside and outside.
The project took about 10 months to complete despite the physical limitations of building beside the water. Among those restrictions were to make sure that the structure was 20 feet from the seawall, 15 feet from the street, six feet from the adjacent properties, and no more than 35 feet in height from the average grade of the property to the highest point on the roof. In addition, the building’s footprint was constrained to the existing footprint plus 30 percent, which totaled 1,100 square feet. The structure consequently needed to be tall and thin. Barry Chase says that many homes along the beachfront are grandfathered under past regulations, but current regulations are causing beach communities to devise a new type of architecture. “To maximize the space, a lot of the buildings have an untraditional feel for New England, with a flat roof style and buildings that are tall and thin,” he explains.
To add another layer of complexity to the project were the floodplain restrictions. Because the living space must be above what is called the “100-year flood elevation,” the house needed a flow-through foundation, which had the advantage of providing parking underneath the house. The pilings for the Gagnon’s house are about seven feet tall to keep it well above flood stage, but that height took away from the height of the living space. Since the building could only be 35 feet tall from top to bottom, slightly less than 28 feet was left to construct the living space. Banow says, “We chose to keep the ceilings rather low at the first level (7'8") and at the top level (7'5") in order to maximize the ceiling height at the main level (8'7") to meet the overall height restriction.”
Although the house is not an example of traditional New England architecture, Banow enjoyed the opportunity to test his creativity. In terms of designing the house to meet dimensional constraints and yet provide maximum living space, he had narrow margins in which to work. “The final design is within inches of the restrictions on all sides,” he says. In terms of style, the house was a change of pace for Banow. “It was a fun house to design. The neighborhood is a tight, beachfront community with an eclectic blend of housing stock. There is no dominant style, which allowed a certain freedom and creativity in the design process.”
Geoff Aleva of Civil Consultants in South Berwick was instrumental in acquiring critical permits for the property and verifying that the structure would fit within regulations. For instance, special dune permits were required from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Even with permits and plans in place, the beachside weather presented further obstacles. “The wind blows almost constantly—most of the time very hard. Everyone working at the location would go home with sand in their eyes daily,” Chase says.
Yet for the homeowners and their team with whom they had a strong partnership, the results could not be more pleasing—a comfortable, contemporary, year-round home with a renovated guest cottage and a new seawall to last well into the future. Again referencing West Coast beach style, the interior is clean, bright, and ready for entertaining. Due to the height of the house, Banow inserted an elevator into the design to make sure that the Gagnons would be able to share their home with guests challenged by stairs and to keep the house accessible for when the Gagnons grow old there.
Most notably, generous windows throughout the house provide abundant light from sunrise until sunset. Banow says, “From almost every space within the house, you experience the environment, whether it is watching the boats at the harbor dock from the master bedroom or watching the sunrise from the kitchen.” In fact, he designed a curved, 12-foot-radius wall of windows on the northwest side of the house, spanning the first and second levels and framing the panoramic views of Wells Harbor from the master bedroom on the first level and the living room on the second level.
The homeowners chose a neutral, off-white color palette across most of the house, except for the pastel bedrooms and the entry, where vivid green paint matches the colors of the sea glass embedded in the concrete floor. They also incorporated a lot of natural elements so as to make the spaces warm and bright. “The idea was to keep the house simple and to use natural materials that speak for themselves,” Gagnon says. Maple is the wood used throughout the house, including some of the ceilings and all of the doors and floors.
The Chases did the woodwork themselves under the Webhannet Co., which they added to their construction business 10 years ago in order to highlight their custom cabinetry and millwork. They used water-based finishes that are environmentally friendly and help keep the maple close to its natural color. Barry Chase worked with the homeowners to complete most of the design work himself, although Cathy Rosen at the Atlantic Design Center designed the bathroom tile and custom showers; Integrity Tile did the installation.
A spacious second level contains the main living area. The idea behind the clean, open-concept kitchen and living area was to create a “commons” that flowed easily when entertaining. “The house has a fairly compact footprint, so a conscious decision was made to have this public part of the house be as open as possible and have the highest ceilings in order to make the house live bigger than it is,” Banow says. Honed granite countertops in the kitchen, instead of polished stone, enhance the natural feel of the space. The hardware is all stainless steel. In the living room, the striking fireplace, with its stainless steel surround, appears to be set into a solid wall of maple. Barry Chase designed the cabinets without any hardware so that they look more like decorative wall panels, and yet they provide the homeowners with plenty of useful storage.
The third floor, known as the “penthouse” and the Gagnons’ favorite space, has a playroom with a pool table and an indoor/outdoor bar with a tip-up window that was designed and custom built by the Chases in their millwork shop. The main feature on this level, however, is the large rooftop deck and its sitting area, fire pit, and hot tub. The deck railing is made from marine-grade, polished stainless steel with a mahogany cap and LED underlighting. “I think the west-facing roof deck in particular is a perfect place to unwind and watch the sunset while having protection from the prevailing afternoon breezes. The whole upper level was designed for fun and relaxation,” Banow says.
From their dream home, the Gagnons can enjoy the outdoors in a variety of ways: entertaining on the roof deck, having dinner on the living room deck, and reading on the master bedroom deck, not to mention playing on the lawn, sitting in the Adirondack chairs, and using the harborside beach for swimming or kayaking right in the backyard. “We love the outdoors, but the amount of time we get to spend outside is limited,”