New York City can be a difficult place to call home. Charming and exhilarating, it’s also dirty, crowded, and punishingly expensive. Now imagine New York with children. Tanya Wexler and Amy Zimmerman share their Greenwich Village townhouse with four of them, juggling birthday parties and play dates with work obligations and other commitments. It’s an exhausting routine, one that frequently leaves them worn out and hungry for a break.
Wexler and Zimmerman were more fortunate than most Gothamites in that they had a refuge—a beach cottage in East Hampton, New York, that they bought in 1999, three months after their oldest, now 10, was born. By 2005, however, Zimmerman was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, and the aging 1,200-square-foot cottage no longer seemed as large as it had six years earlier. The foundation had cracked, creating a nagging mold problem, and the place was only "somewhat winterized," Wexler says, effectively putting it off limits for months at a time.
Wexler, a film director whose movie Ball in the House was screened at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, and Zimmerman, who put an acting career on hold to stay home with their children, decided that they wanted a year-round retreat. They approached Joseph Tanney and Robert Luntz of Resolution: 4 Architecture in the spring of 2005 to explore the idea of demolishing the cottage and replacing it with a larger, stylish beach house where they could get away for a weekend or settle in for weeks at a time in the summer. Wexler sought out Res: 4 after falling in love with the firm’s winning design for the first Dwell Home Design Invitational in 2003. The Manhattan firm has spent the past decade honing what Tanney calls a system of "mass customization," in which prefabricated modules are inexpensively produced in a factory, trucked to a site, and configured to meet a client’s lifestyle and budget. "We have a series of what we call ‘typologies,’" Tanney says. "We arrange our modules specifically to your site, your program. And now, with the experience, we have a better understanding of the efficiencies that can be leveraged, and you don’t understand that until you’ve done it a few times."
"We were looking at it as a way to get both design and lower cost," Wexler says of the modular construction method. "The idea of building a stick-built house just seemed so expensive. And certainly with an eye for design and the finishes we had hoped for, we looked at this as an alternative."
In their initial discussions with Res: 4, Wexler and Zimmerman found themselves cycling back to one word: indestructible. They wanted a house that could hold up to the wear-and-tear of four young children running around, trailing beach sand and backyard dirt in their wake.
"That was a big, big part of our concept," says Zimmerman. "We wanted the materials to be really durable—able to withstand people coming from the outside, all the sand and stuff." Caramelized bamboo flooring was installed throughout the house with that in mind, as were the Corian countertop that runs the length of the dining area and the honed granite surfaces in the kitchen.
"We weren’t going to spend a bunch of money to build a house that we would then yell at our kids about destroying," Wexler says. "We weren’t interested in that."
They also wanted both a large space where the family could be together as a unit or entertain guests and private areas where they could go to be alone. Tanney and Luntz responded by giving the ground floor an open layout, with the kitchen island serving as a sort of command center looking out onto an expansive dining and living area. All of it is bathed in ample sunlight that filters through a canopy of mature oak trees before shining through a series of six eight-foot-tall sliding glass doors. For meals, the family can gather around one of two square tables, or push them together to seat 12. A pair of guest rooms is hidden at the end of a hallway.
The upstairs is given over to private spaces. An office and a television room occupy the eastern end of the house, separated from Wexler and Zimmerman’s master suite by a long corridor. The four children divide themselves among the three bedrooms and two bathrooms off the hallway.
The seven modules that make up the house were trucked to the property and lowered into place by crane over the course of two days in May 2006. They were assembled and outfitted with cedar siding, effectively creating a 112-foot barrier separating the backyard from the moderately busy two-lane road out front. "The design of the house is a long, linear bar to create a safe haven for child’s play in the back," Tanney says.
The first thing visitors see upon arrival is a breezeway that frames a view of a gently sloping hill leading to a swimming pool and a 200-square-foot pool house, which Res: 4 also designed. The effect is to pull visitors through the opening—past the house and its easy-to-miss front door—into the yard beyond it.
The two-acre property was meticulously landscaped by Robin Key, the landscape architect who designed the rear patio and roof deck at Wexler and Zimmerman’s three-story city townhouse. The house—which, at 4,500 square feet, is more than three times the size of its predecessor—was carefully designed around the property’s existing trees. In a clever move, a direct result of a program that implored the designers not to cut down a single tree, one of the two rear decks was built around three tree trunks.
"What Joe and Rob did, particularly with the windows, and what Robin did with the landscape kind of came together in a perfect way," Zimmerman says. "We haven’t even hung any art in the house, because every room has this giant window—that’s the art, basically. All you want to do is look outside."
"What it’s constantly doing is pouring you outside," Wexler says of their new home. "It isn’t trying to keep you inside and say, ‘Wow, look how cool the design is.’ It’s really trying to say, ‘Go outside. Go to the beach. Go enjoy the yard.’ The architecture isn’t imposing in that way. I think it’s great. It makes for this thing where our family is really relaxed and ends up spending a lot of time in those places together."
Res: 4’s Modern Modular system ended up working for Wexler and Zimmerman because of its limitations rather than in spite of them. In a modern world of endless choices, they responded to a system that gave them flexibility within a framework of relatively strict design parameters and a limited palette of materials. With Res: 4, they created a house that suits their lifestyle—one that a family of six can retreat to whenever the burdens of their overscheduled city lives get the better of them.
Will Lamb is a writer and editor based in Jersey City, New Jersey. He served as a senior editor at Dwell from 2013 to 2015.