Minimalism in Connecticut

Text by Meaghan O’Neill Photography by Michael Biondo

 

As transition zones between rivers and the open sea, estuaries are, by nature, ever-changing. This 1978 house perches on a lot overlooking Long Island Sound and has views that shift constantly and dramatically through daily tidal changes, sunrises, and sunsets, and from season to season. From inside the house, however, those mesmerizing vistas lay hidden, a casualty of dim rooms with low ceilings and under-sized windows with too many mullions. To remedy those faults, architect Tom Murdough took what he describes as the “contemporary coastal” dwelling down to its studs and started over.

Inside, updated mechanicals and insulation created a more energy-efficient envelope. Outside, a new standing-seam, coated aluminum roof streamlines the structure’s silhouette. Exterior walls reclad with tongue-and-groove Western red cedar planks—without corner trim—hide drainage cavities and, says Murdough, “create a very taut, clean, and quiet” appearance. At the entry, he installed a new glass door and side panels that appear to cut into the building, and transformed the adjoining stoop into a bluestone patio with a modern steel handrail.

The mass of the building remains the same, but Murdough’s changes make the interior feel much more spacious. He reorganized and enlarged windows and took away walls to open the floor plan at the ground level. “Since we couldn’t add, we subtracted,” he says. “This was very much a process of editing what was already there.”

The kitchen, for example, enlarged and outfitted with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors along its south face, now boasts sight lines that continue out over the adjoining deck to the water beyond. Likewise, removing storage space in the entry elongated views through the kitchen. “Everything is meant to draw your eye either outside or to the interior’s sculptural details,” Murdough says.

Such details include a massive Corten steel fireplace at one end of the kitchen, which also defines the formal living and dining areas (though the wife is a self-described “reluctant entertainer” who prefers low-key gatherings). The original stone fireplace still stands at the other end of the kitchen, separating the breakfast area from an informal sitting room.

The new fireplace is a large-scale, structural element that enhances the minimalist, open-plan construct. Its raw materials also characterize the homeowners’ aesthetics—clean, midcentury modern, a touch industrial. Walnut casework and accents add warmth throughout, while bright-white plaster delivers a crisp backdrop. “It’s a very quiet palette,” says Murdough, “with the intention of highlighting the landscape.”

While the kitchen sees its fair share of activity with after-school homework and casual meals, the family’s favorite space—and the one that underwent the most dramatic transformation—is the informal sitting room. Previously capped with a dark wood ceiling and outfitted with small windows that all but eliminated the scenery, the reborn space now feels open and spacious, thanks to a floor-to-ceiling door and windows that wrap around three sides. “We call it the snow globe,” says the wife. “You see every raindrop and every snowflake from there.”

The emphasis on sight lines and natural light carries deep into interior spaces, too. A frosted panel between kitchen and entry, for example, lets the homeowners control for privacy and filter daylight. Nearby, the stairwell features its original skylights but was updated with a glass baluster.

In the words of the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  In this case, perfection lies as much in what Murdough removed as in what he introduced. While the property has always featured stunning views, they’ve finally been unveiled from inside the house, demolishing all barriers to land, sea, and sky.

Project Team
Architecture: Tom Murdough, Robert Potish, and Jenny Tjia, Murdough Design
Builder: Kais Custom Builders

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