Anyone involved in the building business knows the truth of the old aphorism: Appearances can deceive. The sturdiest-looking old row house could be crumbling to dust inside. And the simplest detail in a contemporary dwelling may have taken months of trial and error to perfect.

At this waterfront house for an empty-nester couple in Riverside, Conn., architectural sleight of hand conceals the typical trappings of a Modern residence—a mostly steel frame, an open floor plan, and lots of glass—within the guise of a traditional, Arts and Crafts-influenced design. The need for steel stemmed from the project's wind-pounded location on a cove that flows into Long Island Sound: The owners wanted an open first floor without visible posts or supports, and the steel frame satisfied that request while still meeting local wind load requirements. Architect Duo Dickinson worked with builder Bill Manderville and structural engineer Ed Stanley to plan the frame's exact dimensions. Luckily, Manderville had some past experience working with steel on commercial projects. “There's zero margin of error for steel construction,” says Dickinson. “You can always cut and adjust wood in the field very easily, but you have to cut and fit and prepare connections for the steel off site.”

The lot measures a quarter of an acre, and local siting restrictions considerably reduced the buildable envelope. So Dickinson, the author of two books on small house design, finessed the owners' program into a relatively modest 3,100 square feet. A combination kitchen, living room, and screened-in dining porch takes up over half of the first floor, but somehow it feels comfortably spacious, never overwhelming. Dickinson carefully managed the proportions, giving the ceilings 11 feet of height to counter the room's 38-foot length. Five-inch-wide white oak floorboards also suit the space's oversized scale. “That was as wide as you could go, with the moisture in the air,” says Manderville. “Wider boards get more movement across the grain.” And Dickinson paid particular attention to the width and height of the room's entries and exits. “What makes it different is the scale of the room openings,” he says. “They come close to the ceilings and get low to the floor. It gives you a sense of release.”

In another gesture more typical of contemporary-style houses than traditional ones, he designed long rows of windows, one series stretching 26 feet across the south side of the house. Each individual window is set into its own steel frame and laid in a pre-existing steel grid for extra strength and rigidity. After all, the site features water views in three directions, and Dickinson, Manderville, and the owners weren't about to let those go to waste. The home's roofs consist of pressure-treated cedar shingles on the second floor and standing-seam lead-coated copper on the first; both levels feature deep overhangs that protect the windows without descending low enough to mar the views. All the fenestration, plus the waterfront location, adds up to a golden opportunity for passive cooling. “[The idea was to] have the air conditioning on as little as possible,” says Dickinson. “The combination of large openings and small openings creates airflow.” To encourage cross-ventilation even more, he designed hooks that hold open each interior door.

With cool breezes blowing through the rooms three seasons out of four, the house starts to feel a little like a sailboat. The effect is entirely intentional; the husband, an avid sailor, asked Dickinson and interior designer Ray Forehand to incorporate nautical elements into the project.A cherry-paneled first-floor library, conceived as the equivalent of a captain's quarters, received several coats of Epifanes boat varnish for an extra-glossy finish. In the kitchen, cherry cabinetry got the same treatment, and an old porthole salvaged from a 1930s ship forms a pass-through to the screened-in dining porch. Manderville used leftover scraps to make a sumptuous cherry veneer for the porthole's jamb.

The main living area features a set of nautical instruments built into the wall, telling the barometric pressure, wind speed, wind direction, and outdoor temperature at any given moment. And a compass-shaped granite mosaic set into the limestone entry floor helps visiting sailors get their bearings. The winding, site-built central staircase exemplifies the home's precise detailing, another hallmark of boat design.

The house is well equipped to handle rainstorms and flooding. During excavation, Manderville's crew employed pumps to de-water the site, and dug the foundation three feet below the mean high tide level. They drove 125 timber piles 12 to 35 feet through the ground to reach bedrock, giving the foundation some extra support. A waterproofing membrane of bentonite, a volcanic ash and clay mixture, tops the piles. And the crew poured a 3-foot-thick, 220-cubic-yard concrete slab over the membrane. “The slab is used as a weight to counteract buoyancy, so the house doesn't pop out of the ground when the water table comes up,” says Manderville. Dickinson tucked the combination garage and basement into that foundation level, specifying a dual-pump system, gravity drain, and flood vents to keep water out. The wisdom of all this preparation became evident early in the construction process, when a simultaneous nor'easter and a full moon tide filled the excavation hole with about 8 feet of water. Similar conditions have occurred since the house was built, but the lower level has stayed completely dry.

The comprehensive flood-control strategy matches the complexity of discreetly located items like lighting control panels, a whole-house audiovisual scheme, radiant-heat floors, and variable-speed HVAC. Once again, this seemingly simple project gives no hint of the intricate systems within its walls. “You don't notice them,” says Manderville. “It's a sophisticated house, but it feels very subtle.” The clients' true appreciation for their home, however, is no secret at all. “I wanted to live in beauty because beauty speaks to your soul,” says the husband. “I feel like I live in a piece of art.”

Project Credits:
The Tallman Building Co., Westport, Conn.
Architect: Duo Dickinson Architect, Madison, Conn.
Landscape architect: Rutherford Associates, Old Greenwich, Conn.
Interior designer: Raymond Forehand Associates, Fairfield, Conn.
Structural engineer: Edward Stanley Engineers, Guilford, Conn.
Site engineer: Joseph Risoli, Riverside, Conn.
Living space: 3,100 square feet
Site: .25 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photography: Durston Saylo

Resources:  Bathroom plumbing fittings: Perrin & Rowe; Bathroom plumbing fixtures: Toto; Dishwasher: Asko; Hardware: Baldwin, Highline, and Merritt; HVAC equipment: Burnhamand Trane; Kitchen plumbing fittings: Bates & Bates and Kindred; Kitchen plumbing fixtures: KWC and Rohl; Lighting control: LiteTouch; Lighting fixtures: Bega, Iris, and Q-Tran; Motorized shades: Lutron; Oven: Wolf; Paint: Benjamin Moore, Ephifans, and Sikkens; Patio doors/windows: Pella; Refrigerator: Sub-Zero; Skylights: Velux; Stand-by generator: Kohler; Structural lumber: Boise Cascade.

Durston Saylor

The Builder: Long-Term Values