The Tree House

A creative design trumps building lot limitations.

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What’s to be done with a challenged building lot? We’re talking steeply graded, bordered by a vernal pond, with just enough wetlands to wake up the Conservation Commission and shrink the building envelope to a trifle. And another thing: Smack in the middle of that trifle is a majestic beech tree begging for mercy.

When life hands you trees…you make a tree house. That’s what architect Benjamin Wood achieved when he designed a sleek modern home that shelters the stunning copper beech.

The 1.4-acre lot abuts Ben’s own parcel of fifty-three acres in the hills near West Tisbury’s Lambert’s Cove. In 2009, Ben’s real estate broker put a bug in his ear that the lot was up for sale. “I needed more land like I needed a hole in my head,” says Ben. So he suggested to his friend Dwight Law that he needed land – with a getaway home upon it – on a beautiful island he had never set foot upon. Dwight came, looked, liked, and bought. With barely a word of instruction, he commissioned Ben to design his house and get it built. Dwight was based a world away in Shanghai. Then again, so was Ben. But no problem: Dwight had faith.

As commercial and landscape architects, respectively, Ben and Dwight got to know one another as creative collaborators on several mixed-use urban developments in China. “I’ve only designed seven houses in my life,” says Ben. He does it only for people he knows personally – “people who don’t want an ordinary box or a French chateau.” As a man of trim, linear tastes similar to his own, Dwight fit the bill.

ben travis wood don keller
Clockwise from right: Architect Ben Wood, designer Travis Wood, and builder Don Keller collaborated across three continents on this simple house in the West Tisbury woods.

The first Vineyard home Ben designed was a light, airy cottage on the Tashmoo waterfront for Henry Grunwald, the late editor-in-chief of Time magazine, back in the 1980s. His only other Vineyard design was his own Lambert’s Cove home, a modern, camp-style dwelling worthy of a big-game safari or an ultra-cool party.

For the Tree House, setback regulations were the toughest nut: Buildings are required to sit at least fifty feet from the property bounds, ten feet from the septic tank, and a hundred feet from wetlands. The Tree House might have ended up too narrow to walk through sideways, were it not for some leniency from the town: The septic setback was waived, thanks to bell-shaped Bigfoot structures, which are implanted underground and attached to Sonotubes to support parts of the house, in lieu of a full foundation. The West Tisbury Conservation Commission, for its part, allowed the house to sit squarely in the wetlands buffer zone.

“It’s deeded as a buildable lot,” says the commission’s administrator, Maria McFarland. “That means we have to make it possible for someone to build on it.” The first fifty feet of any wetlands buffer is sacred, she explained: Touch nary a blade of grass there. On the remaining fifty feet, “we have some flexibility.”

When all was said and permitted, the approved building envelope measured forty by twenty-eight feet, wedged neatly between the road and the precipice. The envelope was spare relative to the size of the lot, but of little concern to an owner who wasn’t bent on building a McMansion in the first place.

Still, there was the nagging matter of the beech tree. “We discovered it when the property was first staked out,” says Ben. “Straight as an arrow. It’s one of the prettiest trees on the Vineyard.” One of Ben’s architectural idols is Thomas Jefferson, “for the way he cared for the land when he built Monticello.” Ben’s other architectural idol is Frank Lloyd Wright. Before designing the Tree House, Ben took Dwight to see Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania. He took him to Virginia to see Monticello, too.

If Wright could design an iconic house over and around a waterfall, surely Ben could design a house around a tree. Rising about sixty-five feet, it’s perhaps sixty to seventy years old, with a life expectancy of a hundred. Ben dreamed up a streamlined, two-story, 1,600-square-foot building that would surround the tree in a cozy atrium. Alas, arborist Mark DiBiase of Bartlett Tree Experts said it wouldn’t survive that way. A kinder, gentler Plan B opened two walls of the atrium to the elements, to give the tree more breathing room.

It was left to builder Don Keller of Vineyard Haven to manifest Ben’s design concept. “Ben talks really fast,” says Don. He paraphrases Ben’s directives: “We’d like clean lines. Something like this (sketch, sketch). Gotta go catch a boat. Bye.”

tree tree
The copper beech tree is enclosed on two sides by polycarbonate plastic panels.

As the project unfolded, Ben and Dwight traveled from the other side of the planet for site visits just a handful of times. Fortunately, Ben’s project partner and son, Travis, was closer at hand in New York. Travis is a film producer, “but home building is a family tradition,” he says. “I grew up around my father’s business. We’ve always built things together.” Ben tends to be the big picture man; Travis tinkers with the details.

The Tree House design is based on lines and rectangular forms. “Dwight is into horizontal,” says Don. “Hates curves.” Ben calls the home’s concept “minimalist Frank Lloyd Wright.” The outer walls are sheathed in moisture-resistant rubber – yes, rubber – and painted a vivid blue that peeks through an overlay of horizontal strips of cedar. Don credits Travis with the siding details: “He’s a very smart, out-of-the-box, artistic kind of guy.” Thinking practically, Don installed the cedar in large panels, for ease of removal when it comes time to repaint.

Front door notwithstanding, the house seems to turn its back on the road, preferring to open its embrace to the private, forested glen that makes up the rear of the lot. Upstairs and down, massive glass sliders lead out to cantilevered deck balconies – a Frank Lloyd Wright hallmark – to showcase the lush tree canopies. The balconies’ steel cables, in lieu of wood railings, make the vista all the more open and stunning. They also add to the feel of lines, lines, and more lines – along the mahogany boards of the decks, the cedar siding, and the underside of the upper balcony.

The exterior wall behind the beech is made of polycarbonate plastic. The material is also employed in walls, roofs, and high windows elsewhere in the home. The striated, translucent panels play with light beams and optimize the sense of openness. Yet they don’t fully sacrifice privacy, as would clear glass.

Polycarbonate is commonly used for greenhouses, but for people houses? “Ernie Mendenhall flipped out,” says Don, referring to the semi-retired West Tisbury building inspector, whose job it is to approve building plans – or not. “He worried about the ‘R’ factor [resistance to heat loss], but polycarbonate actually has a higher ‘R’ factor than thermopane glass.” Ernie was also skeptical about its strength. An X-frame was ultimately installed to brace the exterior wall against high winds. Still, Don delights in demonstrating its durability by banging polycarbonate samples against hard objects. The downside of polycarbonate is that it will cloud or yellow over time. Don installed the panels with screws, for ease of replacement, “and because architects tend to change their minds about what they want.”

The first-floor interior is an open expanse, with a living area that’s two steps up from the kitchen and dining space. Four-inch-wide bamboo flooring is present throughout. Dwight may eventually use one wall of the living area as a projection screen. Special high-reflection paints exist for that very purpose.

The otherwise laissez-faire homeowner paid close attention to the kitchen design, which feels masculine in charcoal countertops, warm hardwoods, cool stainless steel, and a wine cabinet. Adding whimsy to an otherwise straightforward space is a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard and a fishing boat seat Ben salvaged and planted in front of the center island.

Every effort was made to preserve limited square footage: The powder room does double-duty as storage space, and the basement stairwell is tucked under a hatch in the floor.

The second story evokes a Japanese teahouse, with glass sliders to the balcony from both the master suite and guest bedroom. A polycarbonate pocket door leads into the master bath, with its handsome matte black tiles on the floor and the walls of the shower stall. The building permit allowed for three bedrooms, but since space was limited and Dwight’s requirements were spare, Ben persuaded his client that two bedrooms would do.

Hanging near the entry to the master suite is a perpendicular ladder leading to a roof deck, a solar-powered greenhouse, and a future roof garden. “We vaulted the backyard three stories up,” Ben quips. The flat roof is engineered to withstand copious amounts of rain and snow.

The expansive island makes a functional centerpiece for the kitchen, whose wide sliding glass doors open the room up to the outdoors.

The eco-friendly roof garden was one of Travis’s ideas, aimed at mitigating heat absorption and energy consumption inside the home. Harkening to an earlier era of Vineyard vacationing, the Tree House has no air conditioning. “Alternative energy is one of my pet projects,” says Travis. “So is gardening and being closer to the source of food. In New York City, I was disappointed in the lack of connection to the natural world. I never got to touch dirt.”

Mid-project, Travis wound up relocating to Germany with his fiancée, but this being the digital age, Team Tree House continued to function like a well-oiled machine. Don even set up a YouTube channel and uploaded video updates and questions for his far-flung clients.

In August 2012, all team members were on-Island for Travis’s wedding. But for a few punch list items, the Tree House was complete. Prior to the homeowner’s arrival, Ben jazzed up the empty space up with an Oriental rug and a table shaped like an airplane wing. He set off a corner of the living area with a bass violin.

And what did the homeowner think of his new house? “Dwight said it was fine,” says Don.

That’s it?

“Seriously, Dwight was happy all the way along,” he says. “He wasn’t the type of person who could look at blueprints and envision how they would turn out, and no one ever knows exactly what they’re getting until they see it. But we all collaborated all the way along. We really had a consensus at a distance.”

There must have been something that didn’t sit quite right?

“He said ‘Put a trellis over the outdoor shower.’”

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