The first thing you notice about the new house on Mill Cove in Westport is what’s parked out back. Instead of a Volvo SUV or the latest hybrid, there’s a large hand-pulled wagon sitting on the grass. There is no garage or driveway on the property, and wagons are the only vehicles, other than bikes and boats, to be found anywhere in the neighborhood.
Mill Cove is an island. To get there, you have to leave the car in a beach parking lot on the mainland, and then walk along an unmarked path between two houses and over a series of wooden footbridges onto the private spit of land. And that’s where the wagons come in: Everything that comes on or off the island — from groceries to garbage — must make the trip over the bridges in the people-drawn buggies.
It takes a relaxed, informal lifestyle to live a tenth of a mile from the family car— especially all year round. And in every way, the house reflects its unique location. After all, it’s an extremely rare building site that has two different jaw-dropping views. The front of the house overlooks Mill Pond, a marshy tidal pool filled with wildlife, and the sidewalk, the pedestrian-only Main Street for the 14 houses on the island. The family’s backyard is a private beach overlooking Long Island Sound.
With its weathered shingle siding and inset porches and balconies, the house has a decidedly shingle-style flavor. But its simple A-frame roofline and unpretentious detailing make it feel more like a lakeside cottage than a beachfront mansion. “The footprint could easily have yielded a 6,000-square-foot home,” says architect Bruce Beinfield, a prolific designer who may be best known for handling the vast majority of the redevelopment of South Norwalk. But the homeowners gave up space on the second floor for a peaked roof that wouldn’t overwhelm the beachscape (and wound up with about 4,400 square feet instead).
Inside, the home’s focal point is clearly the Sound. The back wall is covered entirely with windows and with pairs of sliding glass doors that open right onto the beach — somewhat reminiscently, actually, of the folding front windows on a few SoNo restaurants. “On the right summer day, the family can open them and remove any distinction between indoors and out,” says Beinfield. An airy, open floor plan maximizes the beachfront view throughout the first floor, as well as the master bedroom suite upstairs. The kids’ rooms, den and office look out on the pond, which may actually be the better view, if you prefer nature to boats. Only the kitchen, guest bedroom and screened porch have dual vistas.
To create the informal, beachy feel of a vacation home, Beinfield and his team, project architect Mark Goodwin and interior decorator Tricia Izzo, emulated motifs he had noticed during a visit to Lake Muskoka, a century-old vacation community just north of Toronto. Boathouse-like columns divide the living room from the den and dining room. The floor boards and ceiling beams are made from antique, recycled lumber from barns and then given a light screening to knock off splinters while maintaining its rough textures, holes and other imperfections and then faintly whitewashed. And the walls of random width planks, complete with slightly uneven spaces between them, re-create the look of an uninsulated beach home (though these walls are packed with high-efficiency insulation).
But even with all of its rich, time-honored detailing, the house is far from a period piece. There are plenty of modern — if not downright industrial — touches. The countertop on the kitchen island is a one-quarter-inch-thick sheet of chemically washed stainless steel, for example. The sconces in the living room are assembled from pieces of piping and fitted with cylindrical bulbs designed for use in retail signs. And the minimalist bedroom floors consist of large planks of painted birch plywood with wide grooves between them.
The house’s finishes take their inspiration, more than anything, from the coastal setting. The fireplace is made from baseball-sized rocks salvaged from the site’s previous home. The stones had originally been collected from the property so when the builders ran short, the beach yielded plenty more. “Every time I was on the beach, I kept my eyes out for rocks,” says the homeowner. The limestone kitchen countertops display dozens of fossilized nautilus shells on their surfaces. And the home’s color palette is sea glass and sand. “We developed the colors based on the homeowners’ existing collection of antique painted furniture,” says Izzo. “And their taste in colors really connects the house with the beach.”
Still, as much as the location directed the architectural and interior design of the home, it had a bigger impact on the nuts and bolts aspects of the job. First and foremost, because it’s on a sandbar surrounded by tidal waters, strict post-Hurricane Katrina building requirements dictated that the house that previously stood on the spot could not be brought up to code and had to be demolished. That allowed the new building to be set a whopping 14 feet above sea level (the elevated effect was diminished with the A-line roof and with judicious landscape grading). For added protection, the builder installed high-tech doors in the concrete walls of the crawl space underneath, which will open in the event of a flood to allow water to enter and exit with the least possible damage to the building.
The biggest challenge for contractor Marc Shaw of Shaw Builders, though, was how to get many tons of materials onto the island and many tons of debris off. It certainly couldn’t get walked over in wagons. So, he purchased a World War II surplus amphibious vehicle, the kind that can operate as both a boat and a truck. Every week or two, he would load it with supplies at a dock he rented in Norwalk and ferry them over, delivering them right onto the beach. And he’d cart away full dumpsters on the return trip. That process added significantly to the job cost, but extra effort comes with the territory when you live on an island. “You can build a nice house anywhere,” says the homeowner. “What makes this place special, without question, is the setting.”
Beinfield Architecture PC, Norwalk, 838-5789, beinfieldarchitecture.com
Shaw Builders, Bethel, 744-8600