The Shape of Water
After a years-long search for the perfect spot, a Boston architect builds a mould-breaking seaside home in Rockport
It’s hard to say what is more striking about William Ruhl’s Rockport house: Its appearance or its location.
While the exteriors of houses along the water here tend towards cedar shingles with white-painted trim, Ruhl’s 1,800-square-foot home is sheathed with copper. Shiny and garish when new, it has begun weathering to a dull bronze finish. Soon it will display the aged material’s characteristic (and beloved) verdigris green color.
Then there is the location: so close to the ocean’s edge that one corner is just 25 feet from the high water line.
“The lot is a triangular shaped half acre,” says Ruhl, an architect who works from his Rockport home and an office in Watertown. “One third of the lot is literally under water.”
Today’s building codes do not allow for buildings so close to the water’s edge, but Ruhl created his and his wife’s new home from the bones of an existing house. That house was, in itself, a departure from zoning regulations driven by a non-conforming structure of the past.
“Once, there was a steel observation tower here that fell into disuse and disrepair,” Ruhl explains. “Kids climbed up there to drink and smoke pot. They allowed a house to be built because it was an improvement to the site.”
When Ruhl bought the prefabricated house six years ago, it was about nine years old.
“While its design was nothing special, the structure was good. We were aiming for a net-zero house, so we decided not to raze it. We lived here for a few years while we decided what kinds of changes we wanted to make.”
His design was vastly complicated by the exposed location. Waterfront living, the gold standard of real estate value in days of yore, is challenging and complicated. Salt spray etches window glass, storm winds tear shingles from walls and roofs, and winter fog turns to ice on siding and sills.
But Ruhl and his wife, Jennifer, a psychiatric social worker, had been searching for a home site for some time. A waterfront location was their one non-negotiable criterion.
“We looked all over Maine, the Cape, Westport, and ended up focusing on Gloucester and Rockport because we love the rocks.”
Ruhl used the existing house as a framework for an energy-efficient home. Windows are double and triple glazed. On the storm side, the glass is laminated in the mode of car windows. With a clear structural membrane between layers, the glass has a coating that causes it to self-clean and to resist salt spray etching. Insulation in the roof and walls is 50 percent more than is required, and utilities and water come into the structure via heated space. Invisible solar panels on the roof provide electricity.
Construction in flood plains is guided by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) regulations. Ruhl had drawn up plans for the house and they were under review by the Rockport Building Department, which administers federal building codes, when the FEMA regulations suddenly changed.
“Under the house, what had been a two-foot crawl space, had to be heightened by six feet,” Ruhl explains.
The architect made lemonade from that sour surprise by turning the former dank crawl space into a eight-foot-high ground-floor porch. Open to the elements on the sides, its floor is a handsome ground and polished concrete surface that, for three seasons, is full of lounging and dining furniture. What was unusable space is now a gathering place for family and friends that is close to the water, ventilated by fresh breezes and shaded from the sun. When winter storms raise water levels and drive waves towards the house, the porch is an open area that allows possible storm surges to pass under the house without impacting the structure.
“In order to do that, we had to jack the house up in the air 12 feet,” Ruhl says. It was, he admits, a stressful part of the building process.
His design was also limited by local zoning ordinances. “We were limited in height to 2 ½ stories, and we could not have a flat roof.” And, before taking his plans to the building inspector, he created sketches that showed his neighbors that they would not lose their views. All went well until he began to apply the copper siding.
“Originally, I was going to use wood siding,” Ruhl says. “But I was drawn to how, when copper oxidizes, it ends up looking like the lichen on the rocks. It is very expensive up front, but then is maintenance free. In the winter, when storm winds are blowing shingles off my neighbors’ houses, this house is impervious. And,” he adds, laughing, “I never have to paint it!”
But the shiny new copper did not please neighbors and passers-by, who regularly stopped by to tell him so. Although he assured one and all that the copper was only temporarily bright and shiny, it took the passage of time and the material’s oxidization to dull the finish and the neighbor’s objections. Today the copper siding is beginning to show evidence of its eventual patina in some of the more exposed areas.
To the road, the house presents a modest face. The water side, however, is dominated by large windows that bring light into all parts of the interior.
“Things I’m obsessed with include translucency, bringing in daylight artistically,” Ruhl says. “It’s all about light: bringing in light, warming up light.”
References to light and the ocean abound. The pierced metal balustrade of the stairs is designed to look like an abstraction of the way light looks on the water. The Vermont Verde Serpentine stone covering the kitchen island and counters resembles sunlit water. There are water views from most of the rooms, and a view of the ocean from the kitchen stove was an important goal.
The architect, whose work is usually in a contemporary style, created a house he defines as “small, but not tiny. It feels bigger than it is. It’s a great multi-generational family house and feels great when there’s just the two of us, or when we have 12 people for Thanksgiving dinner. Designing this was a really good education for me as an architect.”
As it attains patina and blends in with its surroundings, the house continues to be educational for the neighborhood.
▶︎ For more information, visit the Ruhl Studio Architects website.