Every custom home represents a shared journey for its architect and builder. But architect Kenton van Boer and builder Arthur Trifari traveled an unusually long road to complete this East Hampton, EN.Y., project. “It was six years overall,” Trifari says. “I think there were four years of planning.” Touring the finished product, each man seems as proud of the home as if it were his own. In a guest room designed for the owner's grandchildren, van Boer points out a box-bay window whose broad sill serves as a sleeping platform. “It's like being on a screened porch,” he says. “Or on the back of an old sailing ship,” Trifari adds, searching for the exact term, “a frigate.” The project's long gestation period helps explain why the two men feel comfortable finishing each other's sentences, and also how they infused a house so new with so much depth of character. That frigate-like sleeping bay is only one of many inspired, original touches here. A window seat with a beautifully framed view, a sunny place to pause before entering a room, a bit of daylight funneled down a two-story skylight shaft into a landlocked space, a stone bench built into a south-facing wall; seemingly at every turn the building offers something unexpected to admire and enjoy. And getting this much life into a house takes time.

The owner of the house is evidently a person willing to take her time. An active professional in her 80s, she bought these 2 acres of shorefront land in the 1970s. “I was No. 5 to come and design houses for her over the years,” says van Boer. In the meantime, he says, she used the property, which borders a salt pond that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean, as a natural retreat, “just kind of playing with the land and cutting paths.” Her daughter and son-in-law spent their honeymoon here, camped out on a tent platform. The impetus for the current house came from a gazebo that the owner planned to build on the property. When she learned that accessory structures were not permitted on sites without a primary structure, she decided it was finally time to have one. Van Boer's first plan was for an 800-square-foot cottage. Succeeding proposals grew in height—to get water views over the wooded site—and in square footage, as the cottage morphed into a primary residence.

But as the scope of the project expanded, ultimately to 3,200 square feet, the intensity of design and the density of detailing remained at a level more commonly associated with small, boat-like buildings. Because the site lies in a coastal flood plain, and because its best views are at tree-top level, van Boer stacked functions in layers of ascending importance: utility and exercise spaces at ground level, guest areas at the second floor, living spaces and the owner's private suite at the upper levels. The first two floors are housed in a pair of massive, stone-clad piers separated by a broad, arched tunnel through the building. The first pier holds the main entry, a garage, and a small laundry at ground level, with a two-bedroom guest suite above. Across the tunnel, accessible only via outside entries, are a small ground-level indoor pool and a second-floor guest apartment. Only the third floor spans the full length of the building.

Van Boer calls the style of the building “Shaker, Craftsman, Shingle-style folly.” Outside, earthy Shingle and Craftsman themes predominate, with the massive stone base providing a solid grounding. Or, rather, seeming to. “We built on a bog,” van Boer says. “You go down 6 feet and you're into groundwater.” Supporting those battered ramparts—stone facing over poured concrete—are “71 pilings and a grade beam,” Trifari explains. Sided with extra-thick Alaskan red cedar shingles above the ground floor, the structure rambles upward through six separate levels and half-levels to a rooftop cupola inspired by 19th-century Long Island lifesaving stations. The house rambles horizontally, too, with an outside deck that runs along the main living spaces and steps down to a treehouse-like roof deck atop a separate utility building. With its bridges, bays, offsets, bracketed cantilevers, and deep overhanging eaves, the building is less an object placed in the landscape than a landscape in itself.

Inside, the house offers an unlikely mix of Shaker, Japanese, and mid-20th-century Modernist themes. The third floor constitutes a flat for the owner's everyday living, with a classic open-plan arrangement of kitchen, dining, and living spaces. But with its many staggered floor levels, this is a building that truly works in three dimensions. The owner's bedroom suite opens off of a landing several steps up from the main living area, a slight remove that marks the transition from the public realm to a private one. From the bedroom's sky-lit hallway, a half-story stair leads to a compact office with its own dormer, daybed, and opera-box view of the living and dining areas. Even the elevator has a view: a small window in the car scans a vertical art show hung in the shaft. Upon arrival at the cupola, the window looks out to sea.

Due to the house's great height, van Boer rented a four-wheel-drive scissor-lift truck and mapped the location and elevation of the best views before finalizing the design. Building the house, too, required some vertical assistance—as well as considerable powers of 3D visualization. Trifari rented two scissor-lifts of his own, thinking he would need them for only a couple of months. “In fact we had them for 13 months,” he says. “Working on a building of this height, with those overhangs, we would have had to scaffold the whole building. It made the job possible.” There was a lot of work to be done up high, too. Despite the ruggedly proportioned wood framing, there is structural steel sandwiched in the hip rafters, buried in the cantilevered balcony framing, and hidden elsewhere as well. “There's steel coming down in these trees,” says Trifari, pointing to the cedar-log columns that support the main deck (he ripped each log in half, channeled it for a pipe column, and glued the works back together). The house is notably short of conventional details. To match the thickness of the first-floor walls—12 inches at the top—exterior walls above were furred out with 6-inch rigid foam boards, creating deep, useful windowsills. Windows are custom units with red cedar sash and frames; interior doors are built of Brazilian cedar, which resembles mahogany. The ash used for countertops and other interior finishes was custom milled from a single log that Trifari and van Boer traveled to Massachusetts to select. “This house is not built with anything you can go down to the lumberyard and buy,” says Trifari, who had to field-modify even some of the products that did come out of a factory.

In custom building, painstaking care in design and construction is the coin of the realm. But, as in every field, some efforts stand out, and no known formula will consistently achieve that result. Some very fine houses proceed quickly from planning to construction to Thanksgiving dinner. Here the patient cycle of design, redesign, and construction yielded, one suspects, a result far richer than might have been achieved by a more direct route. This is a house that took time, and it shows.

Project Credits
Builder: Trifari Builders, Amagansett, N.Y.
Architect: Kenton van Boer, Sagaponac, N.Y.
Living space: 3,200 square feet
Site: 2 acres
Construction cost: Withheld
Photographer: Jeffrey Heatley (except where noted)

Resources: Bathroom plumbing fittings: Brass Tec, Kohler, and Sigma Brass; Bathroom plumbing fixtures: American Standard, Eljer, Kohler, Porcher, and Waterworks; Ceramic flooring: Walker Zanger; Dishwasher: Bosch; Elevator: Cemco Lift Inc.; Fireplace: Scanlon Fireplace; HVAC equipment: Carrier, and Weil-McLain; Kitchen plumbing fittings: Chicago Faucet; Kitchen plumbing fixtures: Whitehaus; Siding/roofing: Liberty Cedar Products.

Jeffrey Heatley
Jeffrey Heatley

Details: Watershed Window With their exposure to wind and spray off the Atlantic, the windows of this house have a lot of work to do. Installed at a 15-degree incline, the pool/exercise room awning units have an even greater challenge, one the window manufacturer declined to accept. “They wouldn't guarantee a sloped installation,” says builder Arthur Trifari. “So I said I'll figure it out.” Using red cedar sash provided by the manufacturer, Trifari fabricated his own frame units with a weatherproofing system of his own design.

The key to keeping water out is a rigid metal flashing that interlocks with a groove in the sash. Trifari lined the window frame with lead-coated copper bent to form a miniature gutter. One leg of the gutter sits in a kerf cut in the window sash, creating a positive seal. “I knew the water had to have a way to get down,” Trifari says, but the tolerances were tight. “The stiles and rails are very small,” and the flashing shares the narrow space between sash and frame with the window's hinges and struts, and the struts must clear the flashing when the window is opened. Careful design and execution made the installation work, however; Trifari reports that the windows have weathered heavy storms without a drop of infiltration.

Courtesy Trifari Builders

The Builder: Running the Numbers

Brush the sawdust off a custom builder, and you never know what you'll find. Arthur Trifari works with a single crew, building houses in the exclusive Hamptons communities of New York's Long Island. That career offers plenty of intellectual stimulation, but Trifari has other things on his mind as well. “My training is as an academic,” he says, “a mathematician.” After graduate studies in mathematical physics at Cambridge University, Trifari moved to eastern Long Island to teach at a private day school. But while he soon left teaching for construction, he did not throw away his calculator. “I still do my mathematical research,” he says, with the goal of someday seeing his papers published in scientific journals.

In the meantime, Trifari's facility with numbers has proven a significant asset in his day job. “I use trigonometry all the time,” he says. “I'm a big believer in calculation.” While others use rafter tables and field measurements to frame their buildings, Trifari prefers to run the numbers himself. “That way, you know if a structure is getting out of square or out of true.” As a result, he says, “I build a very accurate frame structure,” which reduces problems downstream in the construction process. And fewer problems on the job mean more time to ponder problems of a more esoteric nature.