Perfectly Small Guest Houses

Billy Meegan specializes in compact but refined form and function, as seen in three distinctive Island guest houses.

He’s a builder, a Buddhist, and an advocate for small, smart houses on Martha’s Vineyard. Billy Meegan, long-time Chilmark resident and owner of William Meegan Fine Carpentry, has become somewhat of a specialist in the painstakingly detailed, small-scale guest houses that he refers to as “tiny gems.”

While many of the more recently constructed homes on the Island have gone the way of “bigger is better,” Billy clings to the somewhat quaint notion that smaller structures, crafted by a personally hand-picked crew of highly skilled local artisans, are the most satisfying to build.

“Do people really need all that much?” he asks rhetorically. Sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion in his treetop-level zendo, a space designed for quiet daily meditation, Billy is relaxed and candid about his life.

Now sixty-one, he came of age during the Vietnam War era, growing increasingly disillusioned with what he saw around him. “It was about the time of Kent State,” he explains, referring to the bloody 1970 anti-war protest on the Ohio college campus that led to the deaths of four unarmed students by the Ohio National Guard. “The country wasn’t going in the direction I was thinking in. I would have been drafted, so I decided to move to Canada.”

He lived in Montreal and Canada’s Eastern Townships for six years, returning to the US following the war and, as he puts it, “gravitating to Martha’s Vineyard around 1980.” Following a stint as a bartender at the Hot Tin Roof nightclub (now Nectar’s and Flatbread) in Edgartown, Billy began working in the building trade as a finish carpenter and subcontractor. By 1990, he started to take on small additions as a general contractor, developing a steady business centered in Chilmark. Mentored by more experienced builders on the Island, Billy credits them with his professional growth.

“I fell in with great builders and craftsmen,” he says. “They were willing to share, to teach, and to demonstrate. I have so much gratitude for people like contractor Lee McCormack. He was a talented builder out of West Tisbury who let a wash-ashore like me work on his houses. I love the atmosphere here in the trade.” He chats about his luck in working with skilled artisans including Isaac Taylor of Chilmark, who crafts concrete counter tops, fine metalworker Whit Hanschka of Vineyard Haven, and Aquinnah’s Jimmy Sanfilippo of Sparrow Plaster & Tile – people, he says, “who take pride in their work and who are much more talented than I am.” He enjoys nothing more, he says, than assembling a skilled group to tackle the next project. And he firmly believes in giving his crew a heavy share of responsibility: “I don’t try to channel their talents,” he says. “If you’re a plasterer, let it rip. You show me what you can do with it. I learn so much from other people. I feel more like a stage manager than a contractor sometimes.

“I’m blessed by having really great projects,” he continues. “I love small projects, nothing grandiose. I shy away from trophy homes. I don’t want big crews. I’m not looking for the next big thing.”

Billy bemoans the demolition of Chilmark’s older structures, some of them hunting shacks. “People knock them down and rebuild, removing themselves from natural elements, living in elaborate, hermetically sealed houses with central air conditioning, not smelling the salt breeze. But at what cost?”

Because of his concerns about Island development, Billy has played an active role in the Chilmark community, serving on the planning board for a decade, as well as on the parks and recreation committee, the community preservation committee, and the Tea Lane Farm Committee. Fellow longtime Chilmark resident and custom-window craftsman William Parry credits Billy for his contributions: “He has common sense, expertise, and he’s someone who’s not afraid to speak his mind. I like the fact that he’s looking over what’s going on in the town.”

Living on a smaller, simpler scale segues right into a discussion about his Buddhist beliefs. “Billy the Buddhist builder?” he asks, chuckling. “I don’t think so. I don’t advertise it. But I am fully engaged in anything I take on. I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism for over thirty years.”

Each day now begins with a one-hour meditation; each week includes two group sittings in his zendo for two hours at a time. The zendo, a simple, unadorned space built about fifty feet from Billy’s house and just steps away from his new guest house, provides a private, light-filled sanctuary. Its white walls, natural-hued carpet, and dark blue meditation cushions create a serene setting.

“Zen Buddhism has been evolving in the US over the past fifty years. It’s taking the direction of a lay practice,” he offers. “It’s not meant to be a big deal.”

Although Billy has spent weeks at a time on retreats in Hawaii and Nevada, he explains that the movement now is toward “bringing Zen Buddhism home, not off to the mountains, but back to your living room.” While he was raised in the Catholic faith, he says he felt a lacking in life, a dissatisfaction that followed the Vietnam War era.

Today he values what he calls a “strong, silent sitting” and the gratitude that comes out of it. “I appreciate clients, friends, and the beauty of the Island,” he explains. “I try to be light and to enjoy my work, to not be so solemn.”

In fact, Billy’s clients and co-workers describe a man who is patient, flexible, funny, and methodical – a product, might he speculate, of his Buddhist practice?

“When you’re as old as I am,” he begins, then dissolves into self-deprecating laughter. He continues: “A famous Zen master once said: My life has been one big, continuous mistake. But sooner or later, we start to get things right. We always have the ability to learn from our mistakes.”

And if what we choose to build reflects who we are, then a closer look at Billy’s own guest house and two others he has crafted for clients helps tell his story.

East meets West in Billy’s own guest house

Low to the ground with a distinctive Asian-inspired roof line, the eight-hundred-square-foot guest house Billy recently designed and built for his mother-in-law might well stand as a metaphor for his own credo.

“It’s simplistic,” he says, searching for the right words to describe the natural shingle structure situated in a clearing about fifty feet away from his own house, “kind of an Asian/Shaker-type mishmash of Eastern and Western simplicity.”

Created to house one or two people comfortably, the one-bedroom, one-bath guest house is a tribute to Billy’s proclivity for salvaging, recycling, and using green materials. His favorite aspect of the structure is, in fact, its abundance of natural and recycled resources. The wood flooring, paneling, sheathing, side walls, roof, and interior trusses all came from eastern white pine harvested from the Island’s state forest by furniture and cabinet maker Carlton Sprague of Vineyard Haven. The trees were felled, milled, and taped together in the forest for transport to the job site. Billy also used recycled antique heart pine, recycled lumber, reclaimed cypress, and mahogany sliding doors built by Island window maker William Parry and salvaged from another home.

“We never just level a building,” Billy explains. “We always reuse. We have a responsibility not to waste and we have the opportunity to respect and reclaim wonderful materials here on the Island – after all, the things we build will be around longer than we will.”

Billy points out the small luxuries he built into the cottage: a silky smooth marbleized plaster wall finished in Venetian style by artisan Jimmy Sanfilippo, and a deep Japanese soaking tub that has been Billy’s occasional reward after a long day on the job. Though the guest house is unoccupied at the moment and still in the final phases of completion, he says he has made it available for occasional meditation and yoga sessions.

Creating his own architectural plans, he borrowed elements he’d seen around the Island and adapted them to the site, including the Dutch gable hip roof and the low profile of the house, designed to fit into the landscape. Another favorite feature: the cement counter top crafted by Isaac Taylor that was so heavy it took five men to carry it into the kitchen.

The house clearly reflects Billy’s signature values: a marriage of simplicity and high-quality materials, with an unwavering attention to detail.

The “Boatshouse” on Quitsa Pond

Shoehorned between State Road and Quitsa Pond is a site that inspires a gasp of appreciation from first-time visitors. Edward Miller and Monina von Opel recognized its uniqueness and embraced the challenge of creating a guest house there that would take full advantage of the dramatic setting.

Residents of both the Vineyard and New York City, the couple owns a primary home on North Road in Chilmark but was drawn to the notion of a waterfront guest house with boating access and storage.

The existing house on the site was a small, tired cape plagued by mold and rot. In spite of its condition, Monina and Edward were determined to live there temporarily in order to identify key features for the replacement guest house they envisioned. They retained Cambridge-based architect Paul Krueger, principal of Krueger Associates, a specialist in designing coastal residences, after visiting a home he had created on the Outer Cape. But first came a part-time, three-year trial residency.

“Because we lived in it, we could pick out what was wrong,” says Edward, a retired Smith Barney executive. “It had windows facing the road on the uphill side, allowing noise into the house and headlights to shine in on the wall. Now there are no [first-floor] windows on that side.”

Monina adds that when they first toured the house, the windows were so small and poorly placed that the expansiveness of the view was undetectable. “Now the huge sliders and windows perfectly frame the outdoors,” she says. “We can see the weather and watch the human drama that takes place every day on the water. We love it!”

The major challenges facing both architect and builder were the difficulty of the site and the requirement to adhere to the former house’s small foundation and footprint. The new house, just 1,160 square feet, serves as a testament to the creative collaboration of owners, architect, builder, and skilled subcontractors.

While Monina and Edward would have preferred to design a contemporary-style house, they realized that because of its highly visible roadside location, they would have to adhere to a more traditional exterior, confining their passion for clean, contemporary living to the interior. Paul characterizes the final product as “transitional vernacular,” a bridge between traditional and modern.

“If you’re driving or walking by, the house looks like a traditional cape,” he explains. “You have no idea until you walk in behind the fence and onto the property that it features a dramatic, open interior with spectacular wall-to-wall glass overlooking the water. It creates a wonderful surprise.”

Dubbed the “Boatshouse” by Monina, a native German speaker, the name stuck. “The house also became like a boat in our minds,” she says. “Because of the limited square feet, we had to figure out how to get the most out of every inch.” A career in theater production gave Monina an eye for design and detail, both of which she put to good use in creating the warm, one-of-a-kind interior.

She and her husband spent months doing their homework, visiting properties such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania and the Gropius House, twenty miles northwest of Boston, designed by German architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school. They embraced clean modern lines, organic materials, and maximum functionality of space.

Edward, who studied architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, defines the discipline as “resolving problems in a beautiful, utilitarian way.” He feels no shame in what he calls “stealing” an idea (like the bookshelves that line the stairway to the second floor, inspired by those in Fallingwater) but says he was chided by an architect friend who gently corrected his terminology: “No, you didn’t steal the idea,” his friend told him. “You were influenced by it.”

Two extraordinary elements flank the living room: a customized wall designed to display sculptures commissioned and made on the Island by British artist and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy, and a handcrafted fireplace made from random, four-inch-width roofing slate (an idea “stolen and adapted,” as Monina reports, from a friend’s house), which took Jack Wildauer of Vineyard Haven an entire year to build.

The sculptures, all made from natural materials gathered on the Island – clay, marsh grass, and stones – sit in niches along an entire wall. “We share a love of the outdoors with Andy,” Edward explains. “His work opens eyes to the beauty in nature.”

Although small in square footage, the house abounds with detail, one of the primary reasons that Edward and Monina insisted on retaining Billy as contractor. “He cares about the quality and the finishing,” Edward says. “While we were building, there was a ton of construction going on across the Island. But artisans like working with Billy, so he can get the best people. Everyone took pride in their work. That’s the spirit of his projects and the spirit he has in the workplace.”

With characteristic modesty, Billy pays tribute to the “superb talents” of carpenter Patrick Broemmel of Oak Bluffs and finish carpenter James Langlois of Chilmark in achieving the high level of detail the project demanded.

Today, the Boatshouse is a multi-generational gathering place all summer long. Grandchildren scamper in and out of the water from the sandy bulkhead and ramp that served the boat yard that once occupied the site. Edward and Monina sail and row, returning to the sun-drenched deck to relax and dine al fresco.

“Building the house was a wonderful experience,” Monina concludes. “Billy became a friend. He likes challenge, so it was a marriage made in heaven.”

Mid-century modern suits a growing family

It was love at first sight when Tim and Lucy Scanlon first saw a friend’s new guest house on Chilmark Pond.

“We’ve always liked contemporary things,” says Tim, a philosophy professor at Harvard.

“We’re excited by modernism,” Lucy, a potter and longtime ceramics instructor at the Harvard University Ceramics Program, chimes in.

Dividing their time between Cambridge and Chilmark, the Scanlons built their main house on the Island in 1991. But by 2009, with two adult daughters and two young grandchildren as frequent visitors, they decided it was time to create separate guest quarters. They had met architect Patrick Crosgrove socially on several occasions around the Island and that fall they consulted him about their desire to expand. A sole practitioner based primarily in New York City, Patrick lives and works part time on the Vineyard as well.

“We had built our main house to look traditional from the outside but with a modern feeling on the inside,” Tim explains. “But this time we wanted to build in the style we knew Patrick had designed for our friend.”

Known for his mid-century modern aesthetic, Patrick is an enthusiastic proponent of signature elements from the 1950s: flat planes, large windows, open space, and integration with nature. With the town’s size limit of eight-hundred square feet for guest houses, his challenge was to meet the Scanlons’ need for more space in a very tight footprint. “But it’s a fun and creative challenge,” he says. “You have to be inventive to make it seem spacious.”

His specific task: To design as open a structure as possible with one large common space and two separate sleeping areas that would offer a lot of flexibility. In addition, the couple wanted Lucy’s distinctive architectural ceramics to provide bold color and a primary aesthetic element throughout the house.

The Scanlons’ final request to Patrick was that he meet builder Billy Meegan to see if their personalities would click. Billy had been the finish carpenter on the crew that had built their original house nearly twenty years before. He had become the couple’s caretaker, had built Lucy’s pottery studio, and was renovating the main house. No pressure, they assured Patrick. Just have a chat and see how you get along.

“The guest house wasn’t going to be Billy’s normal style,” Patrick says. “He’s not as modern as I am. There was a learning curve for both of us to talk through but we hit it off immediately.”

Through the months of collaborating, Patrick witnessed Billy’s meticulous nature. The architect watched the builder tear out anything that wasn’t perfect. “He’s a very careful man,” Patrick says. “He’s on the project every day, involved in every detail. The house is like a little jewel box.”

Under Billy’s careful guidance, Patrick’s signature mid-century modern design took shape with abundant glass, a flat roof, and large overhangs. Inside, the house features a suspended fireplace called a “Fireorb” that seems to float in the main room’s open setting. Patrick had always wanted to see it in one of his houses and was delighted when Lucy became an enthusiastic supporter, creating custom tiles for the floor beneath it as well as for the adjacent wall.

Tile and plaster expert Jimmy Sanfilippo, one of whose specialties is laying handmade tile, called on his nearly thirty years of experience, painstakingly installing Lucy’s irregular and varied tiles in the kitchen, bathrooms, and common space.

“The project demanded a high level of intensity and detail throughout,” Jimmy explains. “But that’s where Billy excels. He’s not some clipboard-and-cell-phone contractor who shows up occasionally and delegates work he could do himself. Billy’s on site, wearing a tool belt. At the end of the day, he has to wash his hands like the rest of us.”

As for Billy, his greatest reward, he says, was seeing Lucy’s artistic skills and labor come to fruition through Patrick’s design. Today, this minimalist modern space lights up with the sun, its warm natural wood, and palette of teal, green, and gold, providing a welcoming refuge for the Scanlon family. u

Making the most of small spaces

We’ve culled some tips from homeowners Monina von Opel, Edward Miller, and Lucy and Tim Scanlon on how to stretch your living spaces:

• Decide how much room you really need in the bedrooms. Since the Vineyard beckons with so many outdoor and communal activities, think about maximizing common living space, keeping an open feel.

• Design a kitchen that’s big enough to work in.

• Build flexibility and function into private areas with spare bedrooms that double as play spaces for children or work spaces for adults.

• Add a lot of glass and lighting to make rooms feel larger.

• Include outdoor decks to extend your living space without the cost of finished interior rooms.

• Locate the master bedroom and other bedrooms at opposite ends of the house for privacy.

• Utilize every square inch if possible, including space under stairs and eaves, constructing built-in storage under beds and within closets.

• Keep the house simple. Don’t try to incorporate every feature you’ve ever wanted in a larger home.

• Use similar materials throughout the house to create a smooth, uninterrupted flow and visual unity.