Time Well Spent
A Long Island Home Proves More Than Worth The Wait.
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.