An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family

Add to
Like
Comment
Share
By Kelsey Keith / Published by Dwell
A family escapes their urban environs to a vacation home attuned to its coastal landscape.

It’s a still 87 degrees, in the thick of summer, on the southern edge of Rhode Island, and Christine Urban Merola walks briskly through her house, throwing open giant metal sliding windows on the second floor, creating a crucial cross breeze. 

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 1 of 16 - Native New Yorkers, the Merola family have long held a tradition of spending summers in Rhode Island. When they learned the costs of renovating their existing cottage would significantly outweigh the benefits, they instead opted to build new. The result—a distinctively modernist box structure clad in milled slats of charred, brushed, and oiled cypress manufactured by Delta Millworks—sits nestled within the marshy landscape of Quonochontaug Pond.

Native New Yorkers, the Merola family have long held a tradition of spending summers in Rhode Island. When they learned the costs of renovating their existing cottage would significantly outweigh the benefits, they instead opted to build new. The result—a distinctively modernist box structure clad in milled slats of charred, brushed, and oiled cypress manufactured by Delta Millworks—sits nestled within the marshy landscape of Quonochontaug Pond.

The vacation home that Chris and her husband, Andrew Merola, commissioned from Brooklyn-based Bernheimer Architecture isn’t what you’d expect to see when tooling around the marshy coastal plains of South County. The rectilinear black box—oriented on an east–west axis, along the shore of Quonochontaug Pond—only reveals its rich and varied texture up close: Cypress boards charred using the Japanese shou-sugi-ban method subvert the pattern of gray shingle siding found throughout the region. Despite its discernible deviations from the local vernacular, however, the house’s effect is hardly jarring. "When you’re coming in from the water," Chris says, "it’s just this little square! It’s not a loud house; it sits there quietly."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 2 of 16 - The east-facing pool terrace is outfitted with a series of Eos lounge chairs (and plenty of inflatable swim toys).

The east-facing pool terrace is outfitted with a series of Eos lounge chairs (and plenty of inflatable swim toys).

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 3 of 16 - White walls and concrete floors define the ground level, where a Bend sectional and Metropolitan chair by B&B Italia, an Arper pouf, Bella coffee tables by HAY, and a Peace Industry rug furnish the main living area.

White walls and concrete floors define the ground level, where a Bend sectional and Metropolitan chair by B&B Italia, an Arper pouf, Bella coffee tables by HAY, and a Peace Industry rug furnish the main living area.

The Merola family had been escaping from New York to Rhode Island for a decade, spending summer vacations in a nondescript saltbox-style house, before they decided on a change of scenery. "It was nice to be up here, but our house was really dark, like a log cabin," says Andrew. "If you were on the ground floor, you didn’t know you were looking at the pond you had no sense of where you were. It could have been anywhere." The couple initially considered a light remodel—"just putting in some new windows," as Chris says—but learned that a renovation would be tough, considering the structure’s 1980s post-and-beam construction. Along with Andrew Bernheimer, principal at Bernheimer Architecture, and his team, the couple analyzed the ROI on adapting the cottage. The project "quickly seemed to be more trouble than it was worth, based on noncompliance [with contemporary flood code], issues of resiliency, and a time-to-cost-benefit of severe adaptation versus building anew," says Bernheimer. "There was no simple Band-Aid solution to make the existing house work."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 4 of 16 - The overall program is centered around the notion of light and shade as a "pervasive experience," says architect Andrew Bernheimer, whose firm collaborated with Wes Deane of Highland Builders. Double-height skylights alternate along an east–west axis to take advantage of natural light patterns throughout the day. The aluminum-clad wood windows are by Unilux, and the sliding doors are by Arcadia.

The overall program is centered around the notion of light and shade as a "pervasive experience," says architect Andrew Bernheimer, whose firm collaborated with Wes Deane of Highland Builders. Double-height skylights alternate along an east–west axis to take advantage of natural light patterns throughout the day. The aluminum-clad wood windows are by Unilux, and the sliding doors are by Arcadia.

The architects began by elaborating on a few key needs outlined by the Merolas: a modest house requiring little maintenance; an open and flexible living space on the ground floor, oriented toward the pond on one side and the swimming pool on the other; simple—almost monastic—bedroom spaces, to encourage family time downstairs; and hardy materials that would stand up to the region’s salty atmosphere. Mainly, according to Chris, "We needed a house to relax in. We didn’t want to feel pressured to socialize on the weekends."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 5 of 16 - Outside, the deck is equipped with a grill, a concrete dining table by Landscape Forms, chairs by Zanotta, and retractable insect screens from Phantom Screens—a necessity in the humid climate.

Outside, the deck is equipped with a grill, a concrete dining table by Landscape Forms, chairs by Zanotta, and retractable insect screens from Phantom Screens—a necessity in the humid climate.

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 6 of 16 - A custom entry door by Creekside Millwork is positioned diagonally from the home’s rectilinear form.

A custom entry door by Creekside Millwork is positioned diagonally from the home’s rectilinear form.

The narrow site defined both the volume of the new structure and the openings into it—with one notable constraint: Adding windows to either the north or south side of the house would mean up-close-and-personal views of their neighbors’ properties. "One dilemma in our office was how to create a bright, airy, open space that connected to nature and the landscape," Bernheimer says. 

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 7 of 16 - White-and-blue, wood-grain–patterned UonUon tiles by 14oraitaliana line the bathroom walls in a loft above the garage.

White-and-blue, wood-grain–patterned UonUon tiles by 14oraitaliana line the bathroom walls in a loft above the garage.

The resulting solution turned out to be the defining characteristic of the new home: a series of double-height skylights that taper at the apex and flood the ground-floor spaces with natural light. "In New York, we experience light, shade, and color mostly as an exterior experience," Bernheimer explains. "The opportunity to allow sunlight (and moonlight) into the deep interior of a house, and not just from windows but from the sky, was something special."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 8 of 16 - The kitchen contains an island countertop made of Corian in Glacier White.

The kitchen contains an island countertop made of Corian in Glacier White.

Bernheimer and his team oriented the second-floor bedrooms and one shared bathroom around the negative space created by the skylight voids, which extend upward to the roof from the first floor. "When you cut in the big voids, you experience these massive spaces," says project lead Max Worrell of the telescoping, faceted openings. "You’re moving around them upstairs, but you don’t perceive them as lost space."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 9 of 16 - Light streams from above into the living room and kithen thanks to the home's largest skylight. This skylight isn't one large window but two: one on the eastern side of the double-height volume, and one on the western. In between them are sculptural, pyramid-shaped forms that block and diffuse the sunlight throughout the day. In the words of the architects, they "add to the unexpective quality of light" in the space.

Light streams from above into the living room and kithen thanks to the home's largest skylight. This skylight isn't one large window but two: one on the eastern side of the double-height volume, and one on the western. In between them are sculptural, pyramid-shaped forms that block and diffuse the sunlight throughout the day. In the words of the architects, they "add to the unexpective quality of light" in the space.

For the interior, Bernheimer specified a material palette of concrete for the ground floor; plaster, painted in Benjamin Moore Super White, for walls and ceilings; ash plywood for cabinetry and details throughout; whitewashed ash for the upstairs flooring; and pine for the guest house. The one overtly decorative move occurs in the second-floor shared bathroom, which sports a panoply of Mutina Tex tile in shades of white, gray, and mustard yellow, with variegated textures. The design team "played with tile pattern in Adobe Illustrator and generated an Escher-like drawing for our local tile guy, with the idea that he would interpret the design on his own," Worrell explains. "But he followed it exactly and worked on it for two-and-a-half months!"

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 10 of 16 - The second-floor bathroom's colorful Tex tiles from Mutina sport an array of different textures for a unique tactile experience.

The second-floor bathroom's colorful Tex tiles from Mutina sport an array of different textures for a unique tactile experience.

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 11 of 16 - In the home’s west-facing wing oriented toward the pond, Christopher, 10, sits in the dining area, furnished with a Luxor table by Cappellini, chairs by HAY, and a Counterweight pendant by Fort Standard. The fish sculpture is by Mark A. Perry, a local folk artist.

In the home’s west-facing wing oriented toward the pond, Christopher, 10, sits in the dining area, furnished with a Luxor table by Cappellini, chairs by HAY, and a Counterweight pendant by Fort Standard. The fish sculpture is by Mark A. Perry, a local folk artist.

Contrasting with the luminous interior is the blackened-wood exterior shell. The team first did a number of studies with natural and whitewashed cedar before hitting upon charred cypress. Aside from its distinctive color, the char acts to seal the wood and protect it from insects and sun damage. 

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 12 of 16 - The home is defined by two types of windows: large punch openings for views onto the landscape and vertical windows everywhere else.

The home is defined by two types of windows: large punch openings for views onto the landscape and vertical windows everywhere else.

"We like that it’s not uniform," says Worrell. "The machining is exact, and the installation, but the surface has imperfections." From afar, the house reads like a monolith, solid and dark. "Up close, as the slats reveal themselves," Worrell explains, "the house is lighter, corners are dematerialized, and the overall color of the wood is softer, as the grain and texture of the wood is exposed."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 13 of 16 - The structure blends into the site’s informal English-style garden, complemented with native coastal plantings by landscape designer Paula Hayes. Accessed by sliding doors, a second-floor garden is filled with a bed of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant sedum.

The structure blends into the site’s informal English-style garden, complemented with native coastal plantings by landscape designer Paula Hayes. Accessed by sliding doors, a second-floor garden is filled with a bed of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant sedum.

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 14 of 16 - "This house is designed to offer simplicity, clarity, and balance." —Max Worrell, project lead

"This house is designed to offer simplicity, clarity, and balance." —Max Worrell, project lead

Since migrating to the new home for their summer stays, the Merolas haven’t looked back, spending every summer weekend and most of August at their home away from home. Chris favors passing time on the ground floor, whether doing a puzzle around the dining table with the kids—Olivia, 15, Nicholas, 14, and Christopher, 10—or taking a dip in the pool. "We just come up here and don’t have to do anything besides barbecue, hang out, use the pool," Andrew says, with content. "When the sun goes down, we can watch the sunset over the pond, and it’s really nice to go upstairs with that big window."  

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 15 of 16 - The skylights are constantly changing the home's interiors. It's "not just day/night, or dark/light," says Bernheimer, "but the quality of light...changes at any given hour, depending on where clouds are, where the sun is, whether the moon is full or not, all dependent on the time of day, time of year, and so forth."

The skylights are constantly changing the home's interiors. It's "not just day/night, or dark/light," says Bernheimer, "but the quality of light...changes at any given hour, depending on where clouds are, where the sun is, whether the moon is full or not, all dependent on the time of day, time of year, and so forth."

An Idyllic Rhode Island Summer Cottage Is the Perfect Escape for a New York Family - Photo 16 of 16 - In the master bedroom, a custom ash frame takes advantage of the expansive view.

In the master bedroom, a custom ash frame takes advantage of the expansive view.

Get a Daily Dose of Design

Sign up for the Dwell Daily Newsletter and never miss our new features, photos, home tours, stories, and more.