Unexpected Architecture

When a couple with a passion for design built a getaway home on the Island, they got creative with the overall look, worked closely with town officials to address size restrictions, and incorporated some unusual eco-friendly elements.

In a neighborhood of cedar shingles and clapboards, this mahogany-sided house draws stares from passersby.
Bill Timmerman

You could call it the oddest little house in Vineyard Haven, or you could call it the littlest odd house in Vineyard Haven. You could also call it the VH R-10 gHouse, as owners Darren Petrucci and Renata Hejduk have named it. Or you could quit trying to describe this architectural curiosity of Fairfield Avenue and simply contemplate the tale of how it came to be.

Darren and Renata – architect and architectural historian, respectively – were frequent visitors to the Vineyard while studying at Harvard some twenty years ago. Three days after marrying on New Year’s Eve in 1996, the grad school sweethearts packed the car and moved to Arizona. They’ve been driving to the Vineyard and back every summer ever since.

“Renata must see the Atlantic Ocean at least once a year,” says New Jersey native Darren about his New York native spouse. As academics at Arizona State University, the couple has three months of vacation every summer – plenty of time to languish on the Vineyard in a home of their own. They wanted an in-town place “where we could walk to everything” – i.e., a place not like their home in Scottsdale. In 2004, after just six months of scoping the marketplace, they lucked upon a buildable corner lot, the former garden of a neighboring home, sited less than a mile from town. It was a prime opportunity to build a grass-roots dwelling precisely to their taste, rather than spend their vacations working on a fixer-upper.

The zoning gods smiled upon them: On three-tenths of an acre, they could have a house and a guest house for a total of six bedrooms. Still, they were academics, rather than Buffetts or Trumps. They opted to build just the guest house for starters. The principal dwelling could wait. Meantime, the “guests” would be mainly themselves.

Zoning regulations wouldn’t allow the guest house to exceed 600 square feet in living space. Nor could the house rise higher than twenty-four feet. No problem. In an architectural sleight of hand, Darren eked out more than double the square footage – legally – and dubbed his design the “VH R-10 gHouse” in a stark nod to its zoning designation.

“Stark” may be one of the kinder words detractors use when describing the house. It is decidedly nonconformist, a breed apart from Vineyard Haven’s tradition-bound building aesthetic. Clean of line and spare of ornament, the quintessentially twenty-first-century design looks as if it came along for the ride from Arizona.

“Fortunately, there’s no neighborhood association – yet,” says Darren. He gets it. One neighbor told a subcontractor he shouldn’t have the right to build such a house; the subcontractor shot back that he fought in Vietnam for him to have that right. There’s positive feedback too. On their treks back to the Island at Halloween time, the couple notes that neighborhood parents have used trick-or-treating as an opportunity to get a look inside.

“We aimed to touch the land as gently as possible,” says Darren, noting the building’s footprint of a mere sixteen-by-forty feet resting at one end of a private Eden. While Darren presided over the house plans, Renata took charge of the landscaping. “We have clear contracts,” she says of their unwritten job descriptions. Sweat equity was key to the realization of the whole house-and-garden package. Together, they moved the garden’s hemlocks, lacecap hydrangeas, and other mature shrubs and perennials to the rim of the property and filled the interior with a lush lawn. Darren sings the praises of his Island and off-Island subcontractors, describing their level of craftsmanship as “phenomenal.” He points to the bottom of an interior wall where, in a “normal” house, a baseboard would be, complimenting the work of Island carpenter Scott Elsasser. “There’s nothing to hide sloppy work like unevenly cut drywall,” he says. “These walls are cut perfectly clean.”

Darren didn’t craft a thing before consulting with Tisbury Building and Zoning Inspector Ken Barwick to make sure his house plan played by the rules. “Every square inch was thought about, like a boat,” says Darren. The main level is a plane of three staggered modules – the high-tech steel and wood kitchen, the living-and-dining area, and the master suite – which together comprise no more than 600 square feet. The square-footage rule ignores the loft, which the couple uses as an office. It also does not include the finished walk-out basement – the guest suite of the guest house, so to speak – because it rises no more than six feet above ground level and has no access from the inside. (Though the town’s building department doesn’t consider the basement part of the final square-footage tally, Darren and Renata do pay taxes on 1,216 square feet.) The upper deck for entertaining, tree-house-style, also gets a pass, as does the compact sunken garage-workshop-laundry with the opaque glass door.

“It’s certainly an uncommon house,” says an unperturbed Ken Barwick, “but it was no more difficult to inspect or permit than any other house.”

Darren says, “We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the smartest house we could build on this island?’” Smartest meaning: compatible with the lot, the zoning, the pocketbook, and Darren’s commitment to what he calls “climactically responsible” design. For example, he framed the house with prefabricated SIPs, or structurally insulated panels – virtual ice cream sandwiches of plywood and foam – which have 50 percent more insulating value than a standard exterior wall. Darren then coated the entire house with a weatherproofing membrane of black rubber.

“The neighbors freaked,” he says. “They thought it was the final siding.”

To their likely relief, Darren shrouded the exterior in a horizontally louvered mahogany “rain screen,” stained a deep brown. It’s suggestive of an Asian tea house, especially with the tall Japanese maple beside it. When Darren and Renata aren’t in residence, the shutter-like panels close to envelop the house protectively against the elements. When the homeowners arrive in the summer or for occasional off-season getaways, the panels on the eastern exposure slide away, revealing soaring glass walls with a private view of the garden.

And that’s not the only garden: The flat rooftop is a veritable bed of low-growing succulents – perhaps the first “green roof” designed specifically for the Vineyard’s salty, dry clime and prefabricated off-Island. “From a design standpoint, I’ve lifted the ground up and slipped the house underneath,” says Darren. In addition to keeping the house cool in summer, the green roof collects the rainwater that irrigates the lawn and fills the home’s radiant heating coils. When the roof was at its peak of pink-and-yellow glory one spring, the couple hosted a visit by the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club. Renata says, “Every one of those ladies climbed the ladder, looked at the roof and exclaimed ‘Oh, my sweet Lord!’”

The thermostat stays at 55 degrees through the winter, and the home’s energy costs haven’t exceeded $1,200 per year. Darren performed a host of design and engineering tricks – window positioning, vents, efficient materials, and natural sunshine – to minimize the requirement for artificial lighting, heating, and cooling. “Today’s modern building systems are probably better in that regard than a traditional cape,” he says.

The high white wall of the living area becomes live theater during a rain storm, as it reflects the water streaming down the glass walls on the opposite side of the room. Darren admits that feature was a happy accident. In another unexpected surprise, the VH R-10 gHouse was one of only nine homes worldwide to receive the 2008 Record Homes award, bestowed by Architectural Record Magazine; the award honors environmental sensitivity as well as good looks.

Darren says the house is consistent with the design sensibility of other homes he’s conceived, focusing on the optimization of space and light and the building’s relationship to the site, the landscape, and the climate. “I try to synthesize these conditions with as few moves as possible, meaning I try to do more with less,” says Darren. He cites one of VH R-10 gHouse’s hardest-working elements, the mahogany rain screen, which shields hurricanes, shades the sun, circulates the air, and makes for a very private habitat.

Quiz: If you build your guest house before you build your main house, does the guest house become your main house? Would a new guest house have to be even smaller? Not in Tisbury. If you properly navigate your way through the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, you can have your little guest house now and your big main house later. Yet after three years in residence and counting, Darren and Renata doubt they’ll ever build their main house. They feel like guests in their own home – quite contentedly so.

The Petrucci-Hejduk house is one of twenty-five properties featured in Martha’s Vineyard: Contemporary Living (The Monacelli Press, 2010) by Keith Moskow and Robert Linn. Author Keith Moskow, an architect himself, explains that he included the VH R-10 gHouse as a well-designed contemporary home in a suburban setting. He says, “The architect made the most of his small lot and created an intriguing, innovative home unique for its site and the Island.”