Striking Angular Cottage in Connecticut

Originally published in 
Light Motif

What happens when the guest house becomes home? Retired couple Suzanne and Brooks Kelley found out when a pair of brainy New Haven architects breathed new architectural life into the property they’ve inhabited for over thirty years.

Guilford Cottage

Suzanne and Brooks Kelley didn’t set out to make a bold statement. When they hired Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi of Gray Organschi Architecture five years ago, they simply were looking for ways to make better use of their property, a 3.5-acre gently sloping lawn speckled with granite outcroppings and large oak trees overlooking Long Island Sound in Guilford, Connecticut.

Their to-do list consisted of relatively simple, mostly cosmetic changes, starting with the expansion of a small bedroom on the ground floor of their house, a onetime barn and servants’ residence for a large mansion that had burned down in the 1920s. Once that was completed, the couple turned their attention to an unfinished space above the garage and a dilapidated clapboard cottage a short walk from the main house toward the shoreline.

“I needed more space for books,” says Brooks, a historian, writer, and former archivist and curator of historical manuscripts at Yale University. “I thought, we’ll turn the little cottage into a library, maybe have a little desk in there, and we’ll take the big attic over the garage and put in an apartment for help when we need a caregiver, or whatever. Then it was Alan who said, ‘Why don’t you put the library up there and put the extra bedroom in the cottage?’ I didn’t see any reason not to make the switch.”

There was, however, one major problem. The old cottage and its screened-in porch had been ravaged over the decades by carpenter ants. The structure, which Organschi described as “rotten and decrepit,” was beyond repair and had to be demolished.

“It was really falling apart, and I think once that building was conceived as coming down, it really opened up the whole way that Suzanne and Brooks were looking at the site,” Organschi says.

Brooks, in particular, seized on the cottage’s fate as perhaps his only opportunity to build something striking and modern. With the Kelleys’ blessing and encouragement, Gray and Organschi set about designing a new cottage that would in every way be the aesthetic opposite of its predecessor.

The original building was “very traditional and quite introverted,” Organschi says. Its windows were small and poorly positioned, shrouding the interior in darkness while failing to capitalize on stunning views of the lawn and Long Island Sound. The Kelleys, who bought the property in 1981, had invested considerable time and effort landscaping. They wanted the new building to do a better job of engaging with its surroundings.

Gray and Organschi, a married couple whose firm occupies a three-story former brush manufacturing company warehouse in New Haven, were ideally suited to the task. The couple splits their time between New Haven and a house down the hill and around the bend from the Kelleys, so they were intimately familiar with Guilford’s largely unspoiled coastal landscape. They also had a longstanding professional relationship with Betsy Burbank, a New Haven interior designer and Suzanne’s daughter. The Kelleys didn’t even bother with interviewing other architects.

Working with project architect Kyle Bradley, Gray and Organschi started with the simplest of designs—a shed-type structure with a steeply canted single-pitch roof—and, as Organschi puts it, “started blowing it open and filling it with large areas of glass.”

The approximately 1,000-square-foot building opens up, quite literally, to the southwest, where the hilltop meadow gives way to the sound below. Enormous sliding glass doors open at the corner onto a small deck made from Forest Stewardship Council–certified ipe, creating a seamless transition from the combined living and dining space to the yard outside. The architects placed an unobtrusive black steel support column a few steps inside the building, a feat of creative engineering that let them dispense with a corner door jamb, which would
have sliced the view in half.
The architects feared that too much sunlight entering the house from only one side would produce an uncomfortable glare as it reflected off the laminated bleached bamboo surfaces on the floors, walls, and ceilings. So they carefully composed additional openings to let in more light while controlling less desirable views. The positioning of a clerestory window that hovers above eye level in the loft sleeping area, for example, neatly edits out an unappealing view of a neighboring house.

A skylight over the loft area was the product of the Kelleys’ wishes and Guilford’s zoning ordinance, which imposes strict height and footprint restrictions on “accessory” buildings. Raising the ceiling created yet another light source while carving out enough headroom to make a second-floor loft space more inhabitable.

“Suzanne really wanted a skylight,” Brooks says. “I think it makes the building. Alan was very enthusiastic about the idea. He punched the whole roof up, like opening a tin can, so from the outside it’s a much more interesting building than it would be if that hadn’t been done.”

“It’s funny,” Organschi says, “because in a way it was kind of an exigency. We had to do it, but we really loved what it did to the space, because otherwise it would have been a simple sloping ceiling, and it would have been a lot less interesting.”

Suzanne and Brooks also insisted that the building be efficient and eco-conscious. Brooks had developed a fascination with sod roofs on a sightseeing trip to Norway and suggested that one be installed atop the cottage. The architects selected the same species of sedum to be planted on the roof and line the walkway. Now the roof mirrors the landscape’s seasonal color changes, from red in the winter to a rich bluish green in the spring and summer.

The Kelleys also requested a ground-source heat pump system to heat and cool the cottage by drawing groundwater, which, Brooks says, hovers around 55 degrees year-round, from beneath the house. The system’s reputation for durability and efficiency appealed to them, so they arranged to have a similar system installed in the main house.

Suzanne and Brooks—healthy and active at 68 and 81, respectively—are a long way from needing the round-the-clock care that the cottage initially was conceived to accommodate. Instead, they sometimes use it for guests, but mostly they make ample use of it themselves, typically eating breakfast and lunch there before retiring to the main house for the evening. Suzanne’s bridge and book clubs meet around the dining table in the cottage instead of in the larger house, whose open layout makes such gatherings problematic.

“There was no place where I could seal us off,” Suzanne says. “So now I use the cottage for game playing, and we can enjoy ourselves and know that we’re not inconveniencing Brooks.”

The building, which is clad with reharvested Atlantic white cedar, is, in a sense, the product of a happy accident, born of necessity when it was determined that the old cottage could not be salvaged. Where the old building was dark, uninviting, and failed to engage with the landscape, the new one is airy and open, giving the impression that the relatively small space is in fact much larger. For Suzanne and Brooks, it has upended three decades of habit and routine, encouraging them to rediscover their environment as new views of the sound and the surrounding lawn, including a formerly unseen bed of daylilies, have opened up before them.

The Kelleys have grown so attached to the cottage that it’s not entirely clear if Brooks is joking when he suggests he and Suzanne may set up camp there permanently if and when the time comes to hire a caregiver. Let the help have the bigger house—Brooks and Suzanne are happy where they are. 

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