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Size restrictions were one of the challenges of building a new home on this property on Moshup Trail in Aquinnah.

Randi Baird

4.1.10

Quality Over Quantity

What happens when big dreams meet conservation commission realities.

“It was a piece of junk,” says designer/builder Heikki Soikkeli, and homeowners Mary Pat Thornton and Cormac McEnery agree. Location aside, the 1960s-era “camp” house that Cormac and Mary Pat had owned in Aquinnah since 1983 was not much either to look at or to live in – with their two then-teenaged children, Thornton and Claire, stuffed into bunk beds, aged linoleum floors, lousy windows, no heat, and no insulation. “By October you’d die of exposure,” jokes Cormac. Time for an upgrade.

So Cormac and Mary Pat began to look for both a builder, and due to the abundant wetlands on their lot, a new property to build on. Both efforts proved fruitless. First, Mary Pat and Cormac found the combination of ocean view, beach proximity, and family memories couldn’t be replicated in another Aquinnah site. “We liked where we were,” says Cormac. And second, the wetlands created size restrictions on their lot, and builders were not interested in a modestly sized project. It may seem like a distant dream now, but the early 2000s were a boom time. “They all had trophy homes to build,” says Mary Pat. “We wanted a comfortable, non-trophy feel,” adds Cormac.

Eventually they met Heikki Soikkeli, a former MIT architecture student, who has been building homes (and boats and cabinets) on the Island for four decades. “We’ve designed and built as many as a hundred projects,” he says, “When I’m surfing off Squibnocket, I can see as many as five or more houses we’ve designed and built.”

Heikki notes, “I design from a builder’s perspective and build from a designer’s perspective. Good design is a collaborative ongoing process between the designer, the owners, and the people doing the actual building.” Cormac and Mary Pat collaborated with him on a beautiful home that manages to squeeze, what Heikki terms, “a pretty big wish list” into a smallish package of just over 2,000 square feet.

First on the wish list was an informal feel that mimicked the old house. “They didn’t want a formal house at all,” Heikki says. But after that, the requests piled up: a connection to the outdoors, a screened-in porch with a fireplace, a master suite separated from the other bedrooms, lots of stonework, high-end recycled wood materials, custom windows by Will Parry of Chilmark, and more.

The Town of Aquinnah had a wish list too. Mary Pat and Cormac own roughly two acres, most of which is protected wetlands. The lot is essentially unbuildable under current law, but a grandfather clause allowed construction of a house on the same footprint as the preexisting structure, as long as the roof line stayed under twenty-two feet from average grade. And since the water table is only about a foot below the new basement slab, the septic system had to be elevated.

Given these restrictions, Heikki notes that working with the town was “a fairly positive experience. They gave us parameters before we started design.” Cormac agrees, “The town treated us very well.” It surely helped that Cormac and Mary Pat were sensitive to the environment and their neighbors. “We were trying to respect Moshup Trail, and the land, and the town, and be efficient,” says Cormac.

The mixing of big ideas with environmental realities necessitated a close working relationship between clients and designer/builder, and both are quick to compliment the other: “They were a great client, great people.” “Heikki was great to work with...open to everything. We had a lot of laughs.”

It wasn’t all chuckles though. The first winter (2004–2005) was extraordinarily harsh on the Vineyard, and the restrictive building envelope also meant severely restricted space for staging building supplies, particularly all the stone that was going into the foundation.

But by summer, Mary Pat, who was living in a rented house, recalls she “came by nearly every day with sandwiches. It was fun being part of something being done from the start...fun seeing them make something out of nothing. They would have this wood, and then it would be our kitchen.”

The amity between Heikki and the homeowners enabled them to create a house that, according to Cormac, “feels much bigger than it actually is.” This is largely achieved through the open floor plan, with many windows on the upper level that look out over Philbin Beach in the distance. A large deck and a screened-in porch expand the living area in the warmer months; as Heikki puts it, “The outdoor spaces feel like part of the inside.” But the house is also well insulated, and with efficient radiant heating Mary Pat and Cormac, a retired investment banker and a lawyer respectively, can escape from their home in Brooklyn Heights to enjoy the Aquinnah quiet year-round.

A master suite in the rear of the house is up a short, open staircase from the kitchen/living area, and also features a small deck. The lower level boasts two modest bedrooms (one each for their now-grown children) with private baths that open onto a stone patio, an open area with built-in bunk beds, and a library nook with an extremely inviting bed. “Everyone fights over the library nook,” Cormac reports.

The nook is an example of the details that abound in and around the house. “It’s not a big house, so we stressed quality,” says Cormac. Heikki, a man of few words, puts it more simply: “They wanted a really nice house.” A big part of the quality feel is the stonework, all by Eben Armer and his crew from Contact Stone in West Tisbury. “Stone was a big, big focus of ours,” says Cormac, as he and Mary Pat initially wanted an entirely stone house before being convinced that the cost would be prohibitive and the look wouldn’t fit with the Vineyard aesthetic. The foundation and lower-level exterior are all stone, and the house features two stone fireplaces – one on the screened-in porch and another in the living room. The landscape also features stone retaining walls, pathways, and steps winding through native plantings designed by Carly Look of West Tisbury.

Another focus was the wood. Cormac and Mary Pat insisted on the highest grades of reclaimed lumber: wide-plank pine heartwood for the floor, cypress for maintenance-free exterior trim, and fir for the interior beams. Heikki notes that in addition to the ecological benefits of reclaimed lumber, there are practical benefits. He points to a ceiling beam: “That wood is at least seventy years old, maybe a hundred....Recycled wood is not as prone to cracking and twisting. It’s done its moving.” He also explains the older logs are larger, allowing for wider beams and planks, with more of the darker tones of heartwood, which comes from the inner growth rings of the tree.

Nautical touches also flavor the design. In addition to the boat-style bunks, the built-in shelves, drawers, and storage areas are reminiscent of those aboard a well-designed sailboat. Cormac grew up on City Island, New York, “surrounded by beautifully designed boats,” he says. He’s an avid sailor to this day, so it was a natural to mimic that feel in the house, both aesthetically and to save space.

The emphasis on quality over quantity and using available space wisely, while necessities in this project, are the foundation of what has in the last decade become a popular mini-movement in residential architecture: the not-so-big house. A book by Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big House (Taunton, 1998), spawned a number of spin-offs – websites, DVDs, and books, even The Not So Big Life (Random House, 2007) – with a simple concept: Toss out the “trophy house” idea for less formal, more comfortable, open, and inviting spaces that reflect the way people actually use their homes, and have less impact on the environment. While Heikki, Mary Pat, and Cormac are all familiar with the book, the ideas in the house came more from a natural process of Mary Pat and Cormac thinking carefully about what they wanted and what felt good to them, and communicating their desires with Heikki in a continual, open dialogue. The result is a finely crafted not-so-big house that both fits into the environment and fits Mary Pat and Cormac.

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