On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Photos by Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriott
A home on Cape Ann’s rocky shore becomes a refuge that offers resilience in the face of an unpredictable future.

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.

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 1 of 11 - Architect William Ruhl tackled a host of programmatic and logistical challenges to renovate a house in Rockport, Massachusetts, for himself and his family. Located in a coastal floodplain, the original structure was raised so that storm surges can flow through the bottom level.

Architect William Ruhl tackled a host of programmatic and logistical challenges to renovate a house in Rockport, Massachusetts, for himself and his family. Located in a coastal floodplain, the original structure was raised so that storm surges can flow through the bottom level.

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.

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 2 of 11 - Boulders and native plantings by Ruhl Walker Architects and Annisquam Landcare complement the copper and red cedar cladding. 

Boulders and native plantings by Ruhl Walker Architects and Annisquam Landcare complement the copper and red cedar cladding. 

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.

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 3 of 11 - Once a musty crawl space, the new porch features a custom built-in table and Cane-line Breeze chairs.

Once a musty crawl space, the new porch features a custom built-in table and Cane-line Breeze chairs.

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.

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 4 of 11 - A Penobscot Bay swing hangs beside the dining table in the porch.

A Penobscot Bay swing hangs beside the dining table in the porch.

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."

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 5 of 11 - A courtyard off the master bath acts as a solar chimney, drawing in cool air and bringing light and ventilation into the shower. The fixture is from Hansgrohe.

A courtyard off the master bath acts as a solar chimney, drawing in cool air and bringing light and ventilation into the shower. The fixture is from Hansgrohe.

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.

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 6 of 11 - Expanded windows open the first floor to sweeping views of Gap Cove. An assortment of molded acrylic chairs joins a Parsons table from Room & Board.

Expanded windows open the first floor to sweeping views of Gap Cove. An assortment of molded acrylic chairs joins a Parsons table from Room & Board.

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.

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 7 of 11 - Living in the house before starting construction enabled Will and his wife, Jennifer, to acclimate themselves to the area and allowed Will to consider how to make the home accessible to Raul, his daughter’s wheelchair-using foster child. 

Living in the house before starting construction enabled Will and his wife, Jennifer, to acclimate themselves to the area and allowed Will to consider how to make the home accessible to Raul, his daughter’s wheelchair-using foster child. 

"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."

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 8 of 11 - Reached by stairs as well as an elevator, the first floor holds the main living spaces, bathrooms, and bedrooms. The Havana wing chair is by Busk + Hertzog for Softline and the Comback rocking chairs by Patricia Urquiola for Kartell are from YLiving. 

Reached by stairs as well as an elevator, the first floor holds the main living spaces, bathrooms, and bedrooms. The Havana wing chair is by Busk + Hertzog for Softline and the Comback rocking chairs by Patricia Urquiola for Kartell are from YLiving. 

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."

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 9 of 11 - The counter stools are by Highline and the cooktop is by Bosch. 

The counter stools are by Highline and the cooktop is by Bosch. 

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."

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 10 of 11 - Teddy, an Australian Labradoodle, sits at the landing of the sleeping loft, which is located above the master suite.

Teddy, an Australian Labradoodle, sits at the landing of the sleeping loft, which is located above the master suite.

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."   

On the Coast of Massachusetts, a Prefab Ranch Is Totally Overhauled for a Wheelchair-User - Photo 11 of 11 -

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