On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User
As an architecture student at Yale, William Ruhl was instructed to spend a day in a wheelchair, navigating such campus landmarks as Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist Art and Architecture Building, which he remembers as an "inaccessible masterpiece." His understanding of how those with mobility challenges negotiate the built environment only deepened when he cofounded Boston-based Ruhl Walker Architects and began grappling with his clients’ aging-in-place concerns.
The professional became personal when Will’s younger daughter, Caroline, became the legal guardian of Raul, a young boy from Romania with severe epidermolysis bullosa, a skin-blistering condition that left him unable to walk. In the process of renovating a home for himself and his wife, Jennifer, in Rockport, Massachusetts, Will set about making it a place where the couple could live comfortably for years to come and where nothing would be off-limits to Raul.
The location, a rocky outcrop on picturesque Gap Cove, once held part of a 19th-century U.S. Coast Guard station. Though the home in question was an undistinguished prefabricated ranch that did little to maximize views, Will saw promise and resolved to work within its footprint and retain as much of the structure as possible. "It seemed so wasteful to fill a landfill with a house just to build a new one," he says.
But the journey from prefab ranch to the modern, light-filled house that stands today was fraught with twists, turns, and delays. After spending two years getting to know the area and the weather, Will initially developed a plan that placed the main living spaces and several bedrooms on the first floor above a crawl space, with additional bedrooms on a floor above.
For the seaward facades, he specified copper, which would stand up to the punishing sea air, while a mix of wood screens and copper would cover the inland sides. Will and associate Nerijus Petrokas modified the plan to ensure that the structure’s height and massing wouldn’t disrupt his neighbors’ views and to accommodate a fleet of solar panels, and they added an elevator to ferry Raul upstairs with ease. The renovation began in the fall of 2014.
"The ocean side of the house is twenty-five feet from the main high tide, which is exactly where the original was." William Ruhl, architect and resident
Within a matter of months, however, Will learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had redrawn its flood-zone boundaries, indicating that the home’s first floor was at risk of inundation. To bring the structure well above flood level, he and Petrokas decided to raise the height of the main floor by extending the concrete piers that supported it—a move that protects the house from even the most extreme storm surges and allows for a comfortable, open-air porch at grade.
But just as Will engaged a crew from Admiral Building Movers to hoist the house onto cribbing so that contractors Ron Skinner and Kevin Watkins could begin work on the piers, another obstacle surfaced. "The original prefab home had come out in two sections, but the sections were never bolted together," Skinner explains. "Before the house could be lifted, we had to bolt it together and release it from the existing piers."
Will remembers the process well. "The first day the house was lifted a few inches so they could insert steel beams and pneumatic jacks," he says. "The second day they lifted the house an additional eight feet." For several months, neighbors watched as the house sat 12 feet in the air while the piers were extended and the mechanicals and ductwork were attended to.
Finally, Will could focus on the interior spaces. Utilizing some of the existing framing, he expanded the footprint slightly to 40 by 40 feet but retained the original pitched roof, exposing it on the interior to the rafters. The living/dining room and kitchen occupy a luminous space along the eastern facade that opens to the water through a wall of glass that replaced three small windows.
Inside, there’s flooring of bleached white oak, white poplar walls, and a stair and railings in custom perforated steel. Translucent polycarbonate panels bring afternoon light through west-facing skylights and seem to glow from within when the lights are on at night.
"Some of my cohorts ridicule me for using plastic," says Will, "but I’ve been obsessed with it since I studied with Tadao Ando at Yale. You can use translucent glass, but it costs a fortune. This was the dirt-cheapest plastic you could buy. I was relieved that my wife wasn’t totally horrified when she saw it."
His neighbors weren’t quite so understanding when the gleaming flat-seam copper panels were installed. "I’d shown them renderings in the green patinaed copper," the architect says with a chuckle, noting that within weeks the copper had assumed a burnished reddish-brown. "The aesthetic goal is that it’ll soften to a green like the lichen on the rocks outside."
As pleasing as these details are, Will is proudest of the fact that the home can be navigated by someone with mobility challenges. It’s something he encounters regularly in his practice. "All of our clients are concerned with aging-in-place, so accessibility is always a factor in our work."
"The copper was a practical choice, though at a premium cost." William Ruhl
Raul passed away in 2016, when the renovation was nearly complete, but for Will the project stands as a testament to his brief life. "The house is so full of love for Raul, from the elevator sized to accommodate his motorized wheelchair and the low window sills deep enough for him to arrange his beloved fire trucks, to the smooth, wide-board wood floors that made it easy for him to scoot along on when not in a wheelchair, and the curbless shower to make showering easier as he grew older."
Will asserts that everyone benefits from a home designed with accessibility in mind. "The Americans with Disabilities Act forces some minimally decent human behavior, but it’s often treated as an annoyance or an evil to sneak around," he notes. "But isn’t it great when caring about others becomes art or architecture?
"We didn’t install the elevator because we’re spoiled fancy people, but out of necessity and to future-proof a house that we want to live in forever."