IN SHELTER LINGO, “ELEGANT” usually conjures up sumptuous trappings with no-expense-barred finishes. But it can also refer to dressed-down design solutions more notable for ingenuity. A residential renovation on Cape Cod, recently completed by Boston-based Kennedy & Violich Architecture, is a case in point. Working with a constrained budget and an existing footprint, the firm transformed a bland twin set of bungalows into a bright, modern dwelling that now boasts an unexpected feeling of spaciousness.
After a prolonged search, KVA’s client, a professional couple, bought property for a second home near a scientific research community. A sanctuary surrounded by trees and perched on a hilltop, the house looks out over a pond at the back of a pie-shaped plot. The site is remarkably private, considering the proximity of neighbors, and offers a tranquil buffer against village traffic. Accessible by a circular drive near a small harbor, the house is close to the shore, though the ocean is not in direct view.
The house on this picturesque site was assembled in the early 1980s from two Acorn modules, a brand of prefabricated (or in the manufacturer’s term, “pre-engineered”) structures now produced with a former competitor, Deck House Inc. Today the line may be larger and more stylistically varied, but the company’s mission remains the same: providing customized homes without the expense of building from scratch or paying professional fees. In this case, however, the house was inefficiently laid out and visually bland inside. At best, the unpretentious exterior suited the context of vernacular Cape Cod architecture without distracting from the plot’s spectacular topography. So KVA worked from the inside out, creating an integrated space where, according to one of the clients, “we could unwind and feel calm…a simple, modern, and serene place that eliminates the barrier between inside and outside.”
KVA approached this project with the same concerns they apply to their award-winning designs for institutions. Principal Sheila Kennedy explains, “What makes us different from other studios is that we have a very pragmatic commitment to building, but at the same time we are interested in exploring a set of research issues…. In our work, invention resides in a critical revision of what already exists.” Specifically, she and partner Frano Violich concentrate on new uses for extant spaces within infrastructure typically ignored by architects and more often the province of engineers. Iconic KVA projects include a library nestled in a landing at an elementary school, a gallery addition featuring a multi-purpose plywood ramp with embedded circuitry, and a luminous museum sited underneath an interstate highway.
Kennedy’s research on the Cape Cod project revealed that many spaces within the Acorn’s interior, as in other wood frame buildings, were underutilized. There were impractical storage areas and inaccessible attics, and fully 15 percent of the cubic volume was trapped as gaps within the wall structure. “We decided to find th e hidden parts of this suburban house and make them more mysterious by turning them into a landscape,” Kennedy says. KVA eliminated the living area’s oppressively low-hung ceilings and replaced them with custom-perforated metal panels. The resulting scrimlike surface opens up the module’s full cubic volume, exposing the space under the pitched roof. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, as well as on lighting and weather conditions, the ceiling dissolves from one level of translucency to another.
Approached at an angle, it initially looks opaque, directing one’s line of vision horizontally toward the windows. But when seen from below, the same scrims suddenly becomes transparent, revealing cloudscapes through skylights by day and a handsome white-on-white composition of trusses at night.
Kennedy points out that this permeable membrane is not merely for visual effect; it also improves ventilation with the aid of an extracting fan that draws air through the perforations. Another practical matter was to bring the house up to current local building standards. After the hung ceiling was removed, the contractor reinstalled insulation under the roof and covered it with sheetrock. To make the exposed roof infrastructure more presentable, they sprayed the entire area with a uniform coat of white industrial paint before hanging the perforated paneling. Based on the clients’ input, KVA chose to powder-coat the panels an off-white, brightening the room and disguising any suggestion of a metal surface. With exis ting plumbing in place, the kitchen could not be extensively reconfigured or moved from its corner of the squarish wing, so they opened up the surrounding L-shaped living room by introducing illuminated translucent walls. The frosted glass panels transmit light in both directions, serving as a back-splash inside the kitchen and a glowing ambient surface in the living room. Inside the kitchen, a skylight hovers over the counters and eating nook and is also veiled by the perforated metal paneling.
A new glassed entrance hall linking the two Acorn wings offers a glimpse of the landscape at the rear of the property. Previously, visitors arrived by walking around the house and entering on the pond side. (VA gave the house a more welcoming presence by reorienting the entrance toward the road. The front door is now approached via a newly landscaped pathway that leads to a short deck. This rectangular platform intersects the hall, reemerging out the back of the house as an overlook. Inside, its slatted deck flooring allows thin shafts of light down to a lower level used for office space, guest quarters, and utility room. Cedar shakes and the deck’s railing also make an appearance in the hallway.
The “private” Acorn wing to the left of the front dooris a little more conventional: it includes two bedrooms, each with an adjoining bath, that retain the living room’s airiness while offering a sense of enclosure. The architects’ most dramatic change there was to transform an inefficient storage area into a bedroom reading nook. Not only does this alco ve provide a bonus space carved out of existing square footage, but it also visually thickens the prefab wall volumes. KVA achieved depth effects elsewhere by introducing wall niches as well as custom built-in cabinetry running the length of the living room with the fireplace at one end and a window seat at the other.
Ultimately, the homeowners’ dedication to modernizing the Acorn house grew out of their distaste for suburban blandness and predictability. Kennedy empathized, having grown up in a 19th-century residence on the Cape, where as a child she was fascinated by a “weird communicating closet” in her parent’s bedroom. On occasion she has dreamed about it as a passage leading to unexplored rooms. From this reverie she segued to thinking inside the box: “Although we may not view a suburban house as high architecture, it still has a lot of cultural associations,” she says. “How do you find modernism in a pre-existing pitched-roof structure? We did it by thinking about how surfaces reveal themselves, abou t spaces that were banished from the typical suburban house but reoccur in your dreams.”