written by:
photos by:
June 14, 2016
Originally published in Young Americans
as
Worth the Wait

On an island 20 miles off the coast of Maine, a writer, with the help of his daughter, built not only a room but an entire green getaway of his own.

Exterior view of modern cottage in Maine

The Porter cottage makes the most of its unwieldy site. The cottage was sited as close to the water as legally allowed to take advantage of the views and far enough away from the graywater leach field where the soil is deep enough to allow for proper run off. The screen porch was angled to capture direct southern exposure for the solar panels.

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Wood clad living room with CB2 furniture

The interior is furnished with Lubi Daybeds from CB2, which Howell and Porter designed to include hidden cubbies behind and beneath the cushions.

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Exterior view of aluminum clad cottage

Alex devised a system that takes advantage of ocean views while protecting the cottage from that same northeasterly orientation. The large windows and doors can be shuttered with corrugated aluminum panels.

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Interior view of outdoor deck

The deck off the front is also minimally furnished with elegant lines of beach rock and two Leaf chairs by Arper.

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White pine clad bedroom

The interior is clad exclusively in white pine, the diagonal orientation adding visual interest to the neutral palette. Alex sourced utilitarian features like cattle fencing and plumbing pipe for the loft sleeping area.

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Morsø wood stove

The diminutive Morsø wood stove and its hearth of local Criehaven beach stone gives off enough heat to warm the entire cottage.

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Pine clad dining room with built-in furniture

Alex enjoys a sun-filled breakfast at the built-in dining table and bench, one of many space-saving designs.

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Outdoor shower and rain-catchment system

The rain-catchment system next to the outdoor shower collects and disposes of the first five gallons of rainwater to ensure that the cleanest water is diverted into the cistern.

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Corrugated aluminum screen porch

The screen porch serves as an auxiliary dining area and extends past the house to capture views and cross breezes.

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Sun-Mar self-contained composting toilet

Since septic systems are impossibilities on Criehaven, the Porters chose a Sun-Mar self-contained composting toilet as the ideal alternative.

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Wooden bookshelves

Alex designed the entire home based on a 24-inch grid. "I was in New York and Josh [Howell, the contractor] was up here in Maine, so I tried to make it very easy; you could always tell what size everything was going to be."

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Lake view of green cottage

One of the early challenges of building the house was defining the property lines of the lot, which had come to be known as "the floating acre" among the local fishermen.

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Modern living room with red sofa

Alex relaxes on the first-floor couch, with is filled with an array of pillows from Crate and Barrel, CB2, West Elm, Muji, and Blu Dot.

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Sliding corrugated metal window panels

When Alex or Bruce leave the island, closing up shop is as simple as sliding panels of corrugated metal into place to protect the windows.

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Screen porch dining area with Teak table

The screen porch serves as an auxiliary dining area and is furnished with a Teak outdoor table from Ikea surrounded by three chairs, including two vintage chairs and a silver 1006 Navy chair by Emeco from Design Within Reach.

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Modern kitchen with Sunfrost refrigerator

The Sunfrost refrigerator nearly disappears into the simple kitchen.

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Lighting by rooftop solar system

The entire cabin is powered by the rooftop solar system from Solarwinds Northernlights. "I still can't get over the fact that I can get an ice cube from the sun," Bruce says.

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Waterfront cottage clad in aluminum panels

The view from Bruce's cabin is a sight for sore eyes. One of the outermost inhabited islands on the American eastern seaboard, Criehaven (technically Ragged Island) is located 20 miles off the Maine coast and one mile south of Matinicus Island.

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Living room with red sectional sofa

Though Bruce has thus far only managed a week or two here or there on the island, he's hoping to make it a more frequent—and extended—part of his regular routine. "I'm thinking about going out for a month to write," he says.

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Wooden stairs with plumbing hardware handrail

Howell was creative in his space-saving techniques as well as for practical matters. The handrail for the stairs to the loft was pieced together with lengths of PVC pipe and plumbing hardware.

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Exterior view of modern cottage in Maine

The Porter cottage makes the most of its unwieldy site. The cottage was sited as close to the water as legally allowed to take advantage of the views and far enough away from the graywater leach field where the soil is deep enough to allow for proper run off. The screen porch was angled to capture direct southern exposure for the solar panels.

Project 
The Porter Cottage

Living on one of the outermost inhabited islands on the American eastern seaboard requires a vigilance in numbers, and the villagers of the community of Criehaven (technically Ragged Island) take their record-keeping seriously, but not too seriously. The library—–still littered with evidence of a raucous game of Texas hold ’em—–is a fine example. In addition to portraits of the Crie and Simpson families, early residents of the 0.7-square-mile island 20 miles off the Maine coast, one mile south of Matinicus Island, there are photo albums dating back to the early 1970s documenting island life. There’s also a copy of the “2010 census,” a cartoonish rendering of the 20 family homes on the island. In it, a series of circumflex rooflines populate the page, save for an aberrant addition on the eastern end: a simple backslash of a roof, under which is written “Welcome Porters!”

Wood clad living room with CB2 furniture

The interior is furnished with Lubi Daybeds from CB2, which Howell and Porter designed to include hidden cubbies behind and beneath the cushions.

Bruce Porter, a journalist and retired professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has owned a roughly three-quarter-acre lot on this remote, off-the-grid island for years, but it’s taken nearly a lifetime for him to build anything. The Porters first came to Criehaven in 1971, the summer his oldest daughters, Alex and Nell, turned two and six, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he seriously considered building. “I was getting older and older, and I thought, If not now, when?” Bruce recalls.

Over the course of 30-plus years, Bruce devised and abandoned countless plans for what to put there, including a Sisyphean scheme that involved shipping a tiny cabin from the Adirondacks. The lot, however, mainly sat empty and unused. It wasn’t until Bruce divorced, remarried, and adopted his third daughter, Hana, that he finally resolved to build. By that time, Alex had grown up and become an architectural designer, founding her own practice, Alex Scott Porter Design, and Bruce’s last and best plan was to have her design something. He’d envisioned an unobtrusive abode that would blend with the local color, to which Alex replied, “Well, Dad, if you want something like a Maine farmhouse, you don’t need me!”

Exterior view of aluminum clad cottage

Alex devised a system that takes advantage of ocean views while protecting the cottage from that same northeasterly orientation. The large windows and doors can be shuttered with corrugated aluminum panels.

Despite the aesthetic differences, their first real hurdle was finding the borders of the lot, which had come to be known as “the floating acre” among the local fishermen. Nobody was exactly sure of the property lines, so as soon as she graduated from ­architecture school in 1997, Alex flew to the island with a surveyor. (In clement weather, chartering a flight to Criehaven is the cheapest and easiest way to get there.)

After determining the site lines, Alex, Bruce, and their contractor, Josh Howell, spent one stormy afternoon in June 2008 siting the house. From the shelter of a pup tent, Alex rendered the house in CAD on a laptop while Bruce and Howell braved the rain with a compass. The difficulty of this task made it clear that building on the island would require foresight and exhaustive precision. “I wanted the interior to be super simple, using local material,” Alex explains. “We did every­thing on a 24-inch grid. I’m in New York and Josh is up here in Maine, so I tried to make it very easy; you could always tell what size everything was going to be.” Additionally, over 90 per­cent of the building material had to be organized and shipped to the island on an amphibious vehicle, or “sea truck.” Compared to mainland projects, much of the construction work of the home was done without the aid of power tools, and the primary vehicle used to haul supplies on-site was
a converted riding lawnmower.

Interior view of outdoor deck

The deck off the front is also minimally furnished with elegant lines of beach rock and two Leaf chairs by Arper.

Time, it seems, has had a curious effect on Criehaven. Technologically speaking, it has moved backward, not forward. When the year-round population of ten lobstering families held tight, there was a telephone line and a power generator (plus a schoolhouse, post office, and general store). Over the years those services withered, leaving the island’s transient residents to their own devices. Personal generators are now the norm, but the Porters have challenged this by installing solar panels and an on-demand water heater. Bruce’s motivation for incorporating these systems, however, was more practical than ideological. After watching a friend haul propane tanks over from Matinicus then schlep them on foot to his house, Bruce was determined to make island life a bit more leisurely. Fortunately, Howell, an avid outdoorsman, armed with an equally intrepid crew, was up to the challenge of building in harsh conditions. The Porters would have been hard-pressed to find a better man for the job. As Bruce recalls with both horror and admiration, “Josh and the workers would drink straight from the cistern!”

In their defense, the water was—–and is—–quite clean. The catchment system operates in conjunction with a clever mechanical contraption called a roof washer, which collects and disposes of the first five gallons of sullied rainwater before directing it into the cistern. The water is then siphoned from the center of the tank, ensuring that any sediment collected on the surface and bottom does not infiltrate the drinking water. Even when the system is taxed by unrelenting sunshine and a slew of  summer visitors, the cistern remains half-full and the bathroom—–equipped with a composting toilet (see sidebar)—–smells pleasantly of pine.

Four solar panels, affixed to the southeast-facing porch, collect a surplus of energy—–easily a week’s worth when stored in auxiliary batteries—–and the DC-powered solar fridge is effi­cient enough to run indiscriminately. “I still can’t get over the fact that I can get an ice cube from the sun,” Bruce quips—–which isn’t to say he doesn’t appreciate it or the luxury of having a hot outdoor shower thanks to the on-demand, gravity-driven water heater, one of only two appliances to operate off propane (the other is the stove). “There was a general feeling that this house wasn’t going to work,” he laughs. “But everything works great, just like a normal house!”

With the cabin up and running for its first season, there’s the lingering question of how frequently it’ll be used. According to Bruce, “It’s best being out there for a time—–I’m thinking about going out for a month to write,” which may seem like a drop in the bucket, considering the number of years “the floating acre” sat vacant. But to be sure, every drop counts.

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