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November 2022
Oceanfront Custom Modern Architecture– Fronting the Ocean – Water’s Edge

Is there a more challenging location? Does anything humans can touch loom more vast? Massive power, epic scale, grand mysteries and a most evolutionary, elemental source of peace and beauty. The ocean is moody, and with its sister, the sky, it is a teacher. The challenge we took on was how to build on this edge so our clients and their guests could remain open to the peace, beauty, and lessons of contemplation and perspective; how not to lose the feel for the vastness of the firmament while enjoying luxury living.

Like the architectural process, the analysis of this home moves from big picture to tiny detail, balancing the fixed constraints against the varying, respecting that the sea’s moods range from tranquil to terrifying; that it can get very hot and humid, blisteringly sunny; that the environment is corrosive. And it’s worth noting that a complex process ultimately ran headlong into a massive pandemic driven disruption spawning near daily unanticipated challenges.

The form, an ‘H’, provides mystery, privacy, and acknowledges the ever-present east to west motion of waves and light – the winds responding. The color palette is neutral but with depth and with subtle shifts in texture and hue so that it responds to changes in sea and sky. This dynamic play of light is essential to the design and experience of the home.

The house is unabashedly large and on approach, multiple planes vie for attention. But silvery wood, brick laid sheets of veiny tile, and lots of glass stud the façades with myriad reflections taming the mass. The entry is not obvious, nor is the ocean. Subtle cues from the landscape design and a purposeful organization of forms orient the gaze and one rounds a vibrantly planted wall heading for relief, the gravity of the recess in the ‘H” as it pulls you and suddenly, bright treads of a wide stair announce the flight to the entry. It’s a bit of a circuit, but the stepping slows one down and there’s a closer introduction (introspection) to the building’s make up.  It’s an old trick but forcing a bit of mystery on arrival heightens anticipation and punctuates the inevitable tension of the journey. All is forgotten at the top of the stairs when the eye receives its reward, the powerful ocean in sight, the sparkling pool mid-ground, and near, the main stair. The stair is sculpture, a nod to Richard Serra – its form a Fibonacci spiral, stainless steel ribbons with a hammered finish reflecting light from east-west and the massive skylight above in an ever-changing expressionist canvas. The treads are wide enough to sit on, and they delicately float between the ribbons, their soft, sandy stain on rift sawn European white oak. The handrail is a shot of bright red spiraling like a spark up to and out the skylight, its motion echoed in the light fixtures.

The first floor, one flight up from the hazards of flooding at ground level, is at once, the primary entertaining level and the guest bedroom level. The open entry area is a gallery with the stair as its signature art; no furniture – a place to receive, to gather, to move through, to grab something to eat and drink, to marvel at the ocean as art, and when the massive east folding door opens, blurring boundaries – a place from which to venture into the sounds and smells of ocean, beach, fountain, and party. To the right, the stair marks and lends privacy to a transition to two flanking portals that lead to 3 luxurious guest suites. Each suite is enveloped in soft wood, cool tile floors, and soft light to set a relaxed hotel getaway tone. Each features a bath fully appointed with the finest fixtures and accented with deftly laid, beautiful tiles. In addition to built-in closets and drawers, there is a space for the roll away suitcase and a desk. The furniture, leather and glossy lacquer, are the displays of flower in the garden that illustrate my underlying architectural philosophy – that color has most effect when sprinkled judiciously in the earthy undertone of the volume. (Sometimes, like at the pool deck, the color can become a wash of wildflowers.) From the entry, to the left there is bar and then through a large portal a small kitchen and then one more layer back to a den bursting with color that serves as retreat from the activity of the entry and pool. For young families, we anticipated a progression from frantic pool play to light bite to mild play time and then off for a nap in one of the three other guest suites, these also fully appointed, cool, and calming, one featuring magical themed bunk beds.

Stepping through the large opening onto the pool deck, one is still in the shade of an upper deck, there at the pool’s edge, are an outdoor TV lounge and dining room but there, sunlight’s intensity is moderated a bit before stepping out into bright sea and sky. The pool deck is large and, like the house, is segregated into areas of varying intimacy – to the South two large cabanas shade double daybeds, then moving North the spa, glossy black with a laminar overflow that silently sparkles and cools, then a shallow pool hosting wet-foot chaise lounges and finally the deep pool whose flow works East via a clear infinity edge towards the ocean, a little, literal watershed. For parties then, when contemplation takes a back seat, the pool pulses with multi-colored lights, arcing water jets and a splashy fountain. At night, a linear fire dances above the fountain. The main seating lounge shares pool and ocean – it is large and features the aforementioned burst of a magnificent Roche Bobois Mahjong sectional. To get to the beach, flanking steps lead down to a sundeck where two chaises bask in the splash of the infinity edge and the twinkle of distant ocean, its shore hidden by the grassy dunes and drifts of native, blooming plantings.

When you’ve enough of the beach or it’s time for dinner, a cool cocktail or glass of wine, it’s back to the sculpture (or nearby elevator), and up with the sparks to a wide-open living level. One is first struck by linearity, a dark wood ceiling that focuses the light pouring from east and west that illuminates the simple, large glass dining table with its 3D printed, organic pedestals. Decks on either side of this dining space lead to sunrise and sunset – an eastern deck is partially covered and handles both outdoor dining and sunning. The western deck is more a balcony, a spot for two to sit, maybe four to stand and gather in the sunset over the bay (water views are visible from nearly every space in the home.) A simple yet stunning circular pendant anchors the table, embraces those seated creating a sort of invisible boundary for conversation. From the dining space, the view terminates at the kitchen. Like the house, the kitchen is a carefully selected group of colors, textures, and depths; its size and utility masked by an overall shadow like a silhouette accentuated by the light of the gathering room to the east. It is equipped with an array of appliances, but they take a second seat; the ovens hidden in smart cabinets, the refrigerators only distinct by the mirroring on their cladding. A door in the kitchen leads to the grill deck, a trail of teak decking surrounded by green roof planting, a set of simple stools attending the large outdoor kitchen. This is separated from a stainless steel and glass railed stair that takes one up to the elaborate roof deck. These stairs protect a fall and outsider’s gaze by the ingenious use of a braided stainless-steel curtain, like chainmail, that forms a shimmering edge and features a surprise; when the frequent wind blows, the curtain sings like tiny chimes. Back inside, the island, long and sleek is part of an effort to turn a gaze and one’s energy 90 degrees east from the dining room and out into the higher ceiling, bigger windows, biggest volume that opens to the dominant ocean view (now above the dunes, the sea runs from dune to horizon and wide.) Light colors dominate, lighter yet because of all the sun. With tall, 12-foot windows, a run of Sea Ranch inspired window seats and swiveling recliners, one is inclined to gaze at the waves, the grasses, the birds; but when darkness falls or too much thinking ensues, there is the attendant television, long fireplace and, just behind you, a bright little alcove, white marble flanks glittering with wine bottles – the wine room.

Two private spaces on the top floor share the same interruption the stair’s demands: a dark, almost brooding study with a balcony and a perch above the drive. Minimal, with a sculpture for a desk and fine art on the walls, it is the furthest from the pulse of the gathering spaces. With its own powder room of a golden, Byzantine cast with blood red fixtures and a nearly ritual basin, it is like a hidden gem within the more Zen overall atmosphere of the home.

The Owner’s Suite is a layer of curated views, pool and sky and sea. Like the study, it is a cocoon of deep blue grays but like the house, of just a touch of reflection from silvery textures and a judicious use of mirrors and bursts of color from the furniture. Attended by a little dressing area and a perfectly organized closet it opens to a lovely bath; ocean view tub, book-matched marbles, glossy sinks, and an intricate accent tile of bursting black sunflowers. The shower is, of course spacious, and features a European steam unit and it too has a door to the outside where a second shower shares sun and ocean views.

What you never see is the structure and the carefully engineered systems that support, heat, cool, pump, drain, power and control the house. For all the benefits of oceanfront living, it occupies an invisible edge where hurricane force winds and storm surge can bring to bear massive wave forces. Hence the structure; piers, walls, floors and roof all reinforce concrete braced by massive steel moment frames. The resulting structure is designed not only to withstand punishing storms but there is a feel of solidity and a quiet that belies the mass. And concrete, properly deployed as here with insulated concrete forms is an excellent green building choice. For its size and features, this home is surprisingly energy efficient from its core structure and insulation values to the LED lighting to the light and shade controls – both passive and active to multiple green roofs. The shore environment is de facto humid and the heating and cooling system must account for this limiting condition. Using variable refrigerant technology, the system affords each space its own environmental controls (also green), senses and compensates for humidity differentials, and allows for a cool feel at higher room temperature due to the lower wet-bulb value.

Quality craftsmanship, true artistry at any scale is notably inverse to speedy work. Take on a tight site, a demanding client, a compressed schedule due to seasonality, a once in a hundred-year pandemic and resulting crippling of the supply chain, and an unforgiving design of sixteenth inch tolerances and tiny margins of error, and it is nearly impossible to believe this only took 20 months to complete. The General Contractor, Spectracon, managed a team of incomparable subcontractors in a dance of dizzying complexity – all with good nature despite inevitable stress – and with honesty and nothing but good decisions. It was an honor to work with them. Likewise, our team of designers (Diane and Rachel) and premium vendors of tile (Artistic) and fixtures (FLOW) and furniture (Roche Bobois Philadelphia and RH New York) were intricate partners in a composition whose leading edge are the things you see and touch. But behind the scenes were the countless hours of design; decisions, consideration, detailing, coordination, push back, feedback; the juggling of thousands of interdependencies. Bryan, Nick, Laurie and Rich danced too, each bringing their special talents to bear on what is for OMNIA, a signature.