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The challenge of building a dramatic home on Maine’s rocky coast

The client wanted the new house to have more square footage than the original, but the architect had to stick with the same footprint. Here's how they resolved that challenge.

The existing concrete foundation wall was retained, while four new concrete posts replaced twice as many older ones at this home overlooking Maine’s Casco Bay. New stone walls and stairways lead from the street level to a patio off the master bedroom and down to the rocks.Irvin Serrano

Phil Kaplan’s clients wanted a home that felt contemporary on the inside, but looked traditional on the outside. The new house should have three stories and more square footage than the existing one. However, it had to fit within the same footprint and not exceed the original height. Code also required that the new lower level start one foot higher than the original to protect against flooding. “It was,” Kaplan says, “an unbelievable challenge.”

The owner commissioned Portland-based Kaplan Thompson Architects to design a new home on Maine’s Casco Bay after discarding a plan from another firm, which came across as too modern for the neighborhood. “He didn’t want a flat-roof box,” project manager Richard Lo says. “It was a big decision, and brave of him, to try again.”


Kaplan and Lo started by crunching numbers. First, they had to figure out the parameters. “We determine the highest and lowest points we can use,” Kaplan explains. “Then we ponder the tricks needed to make it all happen.”

To blend with the cottages in the historic summer community, the team settled on a gabled roof. From the street, the house presents as two stories with double-hung divided light windows, a shallow front porch, and one small dormer. Travel around back and it’s an impressive three-story perched on a rocky ledge with expanses of glass. A trio of cantilevered bays works its way up like an architectural layer cake. “We must have done 20 different versions of them,” Kaplan says. “It’s the most acrobatic structural move we made.”

The interior is cocooned in wood. Looking up from the bedrooms and the kitchen/dining area, one sees the undersides of the floors above. Kaplan says, “Normally it’s plywood covered with Sheetrock, but because we were chasing every half-inch of height, we used Douglas fir and left it exposed.” The approach granted them an extra 10 inches of headroom overall. It also required complex craftsmanship by David Eddy, the cabinetmaker and head of the on-site team from Warren Construction Group, who trimmed the structural beams so precisely that they look like solid pieces of wood.


At high tide, it looks as though the master bedroom is floating over the water. “We drew it, but still, it blew us away when we went there and saw it,” says project manager Richard Lo. Irvin Serrano

The bedrooms — albeit one that feels “nothing but spectacular,” Kaplan says — are in the basement. Beyond sliders with 8-foot openings, transparent glass rails impart unobstructed views of the bay, barrier islands, and Portland in the distance. Earlier iterations pushed the bedroom back to include a deck, but this design prevailed as more dramatic and easier to build. “The room is the deck,” Kaplan says.

Portland-based interior designer Joy Knight worked with the clients to choose fixtures, finishes, and furnishings, which are simple and spare. Textured tiles cover the back wall of the kitchen, where open walnut shelves display pottery made by the wife. Cabinetry painted pale blue provides a whisper of color that helps to bring the sky and water from the outside in.

The custom dining table, a hefty slab of walnut atop three planes of glass, stands perpendicular to the roomy window seat that juts over the water. The seat is reminiscent of a feature the husband remembers fondly from his childhood home in Bar Harbor, and where the home’s boat-like sensibility is most striking. “The house exudes the romance of a ship,” Kaplan says.

While the kitchen and dining area offer intimacy, the vaulted living room soars, fulfilling the owners’ wish for airiness. Stylized porcelain sea gulls, a reference to the husband’s love of Richard Bach’s book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, as well as seascapes painted by his mother, a local artist, float dreamily above. The third-floor loft, where built-in twin beds nestle under the eaves, overlooks it all. Knight kept furnishings to a minimum, acknowledging that the beauty of the house is in its simplicity and setting. “We can’t compete with Mother Nature,” the designer says. “She wins every time.”


The soaking tub in the master bath sits on a dais and is wrapped with glass on three sides. “This is not just a little peekaboo view,” says principal architect Phil Kaplan.Irvin Serrano


Architect: Kaplan Thompson Architects, kaplanthompson.com

Interior designer: Joy Knight

Contractor: Warren Construction Group, warrenconstructiongroup.com

Lighting designer: TRS Lighting, trslighting.com

Structural engineer: Becker Structural Engineers, beckerstructural.com


The wife painted the artwork over the sofa and California-based sculptor John Perry made the porcelain seagulls suspended from the ceiling. The architects positioned the wood stove so that the chimney pipe would not block the window.Irvin Serrano
Walnut and leather elements in the kitchen and dining area add contrast to the lighter tones and warmth to the space.Irvin Serrano
Bowie, one of the homeowners’ three dogs, lounges on the window seat in the second-story bay window, which the husband appreciates for providing unique views of the water. Irvin Serrano

Marni Elyse Katz is a contributing editor to the Globe Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @StyleCarrot. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.