It started with schist, and lots of it. By geological definition, schist is “a strongly foliated crystalline rock, formed by dynamic metamorphism that can be readily split into thin flakes or slabs.” Schist is common in southern Rhode Island and along with various granites make the city of Newport a bedrock kind of place. But on this particular property, designer Michele Foster encountered a veritable moonscape of schist.
“I had never seen anything like it,” says Foster, whose design office, Foster Associates, is based a few miles north in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The mountains of schist were left from blasting in preparation for a house that was never built.
Moonscape notwithstanding, the 4-acre property had much to recommend it, chiefly a sweeping view of the ocean.
The homeowners-to-be, a couple with two grown children, were interested in building a house that would be a light-filled gathering place for family as well as a year-round home for themselves. “Given the water view, we wanted to play to that view, and we also like an open layout,” says the wife.
Foster’s first task, however, was to makes sense of the site. “We had to determine where real rock was, because there was so much blast material,” she says. “The first three months of the project, we turned the site into a quarry, processing all the schist into different grades of gravel, backfill, and subgrade suitable for a foundation.”
There were zoning challenges, too, and they led to a two-year permitting process, to address not only approvals needed by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the local zoning board, and the local historic district, but also covenants on adjoining lots to protect the view.
Undaunted, Foster and her associate, architect Chris Cote, worked with landscape architects Stephen Stimson and Joe Wahler of Stephen Stimson Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to determine how best to site the house and pool given that the southern edge of the property, the one with the ocean view, also had a steep ravine. “We all agreed to a dramatic pool facing south, reinforced by native stone walls, which connect to the house and help define a variety of outdoor spaces,” says Foster.
For the house itself, Foster envisioned a modern yet subtle structure. “We wanted to keep the roofline simple but also put a lot of program into the house,” she says. She designed the first floor with an enfilade arrangement of rooms that maximizes the view: The library, living room, kitchen, and screened porch align from west to east, all with windowed (or screened) walls facing south. The living room juts farther south than the other rooms, giving a panoramic view and advantage of the natural light on three sides. Also on the first floor is the north-facing dining area, which gains its drama not from the view but from a double-height ceiling that gives presence to the intimately scaled space. The entry, also on the north side of the house, has a double-height stairway as its focal point.
The second floor contains the master suite, directly over the living room, with a cantilevered porch offering an ocean view. Four guest bedrooms flank the master suite and also wrap around the east side of the house. This layout makes for a home that can be occupied at the core (kitchen, living room, master bedroom) when it is just the two homeowners and fill out as guests arrive. “Build it and they will come, we were told,” says the wife in this couple, who have hosted a steady stream of friends and family since moving in four years ago.
Throughout the interior, materials and details were chosen to add interest and texture, but with subtlety. First-floor ceilings are coffered in some rooms, while the flat ceiling of the center hallway is finished with pickled oak planking. Floors are stained oak. The touch of the craftsman is evident in such materials as the bull’s-eye glass in the stairway landing windows and the kitchen backsplash tile made by South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, ceramic artist Chris Gustin. “We wanted to reveal a sense of the handmade,” says Foster.
Outside, the roof and upper half of the 6,000-square-foot house are covered with cedar shingles, while the lower half is stucco, creating an exterior that blends with both the natural surroundings and the historic Newport character. All trim is painted a neutral deep tan hue, an intentional departure from the often-blinding white used for exterior accents. Dormers along the east side are set inward, keeping the roofline simple. Roof and porch overhangs are designed for passive solar advantage, allowing the low winter sun to warm the room, but blocking hot summer rays while creating shade. A geothermal system (thank you, bedrock) heats and cools the house, warms the pool, and provides domestic hot water.
As for the landscape, Joe Wahler, a senior associate at Stephen Stimson Associates, says the moonscape beginnings actually had a silver lining: “We were starting from scratch, from a blank canvas.” Inspired by the stands of native red maples and the wetlands in the area, he incorporated red maples and native meadows into the landscape.
A bluestone terrace interlaced with ribbons of grass surrounds the pool. Since that blasting nearby had removed all topsoil from the property, soil had to be imported, but Wahler turned that into an advantage and worked with a soil specialist to develop blends tailored for the exact plantings in each area of the property. Stimson Associates also designed the long, narrow infinity-style pool, contained only by its native stone side walls and made all the more dramatic as it seems to disappear over the ravine.
For the homeowners, the result is both breathtaking and embracing. “One of the most beautiful things about this house is the light,” says the wife. “From pretty much every room, you see light and water. Best of all, it’s a big house for gatherings when the wings get filled with visitors, but we have a nice cozy center with the living room and library” when it is just a house for two.