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January 17, 2019

Site-Specific Design in Practice


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We talk a lot about site-specific design here at Whitten Architects. That’s because it is at the core of what we do and at the core of a well-designed house. When we say “site-specific,” we mean a home that is customized for the piece of land it sits on, individually tailored and tied to your particular property. If the construction of a home is a blank sheet of paper, we think of the site as the lines and margins on that paper—each unique property offers us a unique framework on which to begin.

Every house we design starts by taking a walk around the site. Even before we set out on foot to explore with our clients, we pull up an aerial view of the property on Google Earth to see what we’re working with. You can learn a lot about a site this way—what the solar orientation is, what the neighboring homes are like, and so on. What we can learn ahead of time is a helpful tool but is no match for walking the site with the client and learning what features have meaning to them and how they intend to live there.

At the initial stages of our Englishman Bay project, we walked the densely wooded oceanfront land with our clients, a family of four, noting site characteristics such as the moss-covered rocks, the pockets of views through the trees, a well-worn path from the homeowner’s childhood. When we came upon a tall rock outcropping from which the shady forest opened up to the sun-filled waterfront, we knew this was the spot the house should sit next to—up off the ground, elevated to take advantage of the improved view. Thus, the site guided our first major design decision. We perched the house on steel columns one story in the air, allowing for views of an intimate cove on one side and open ocean with a distant lighthouse on the other, all while maintaining that special footpath through the woods.

Like with most of our projects, we designed the floorplan to follow the path of the sun throughout the day. For this particular home, days begin with the sunrise in the eastern-facing kitchen and end with the sunset on the western-facing bedroom wing. Views were carefully curated so that pockets of ocean, distant headlands, and sky are visible—a favorite lighthouse from the master bedroom, for example. Use of local materials is another way we like to incorporate site-specific design into our work. On this project, this meant using eastern hemlock from a local Maine wood mill and locally sourced eastern white pine. Using materials that are of the place further roots a house to its site.

On our first walk on the wooded site of our Bunganuc Woods project, we saw an opportunity for a gradual unfolding of the house to heighten the anticipation of arrival and create a warm welcome. Rather than give away all of the house at first sight, we situated it so that it slowly reveals itself as you approach via a long driveway that winds in and out of the trees and terminates at the northern side of the house. The result is that visitors get a glimpse as to where they’re headed, but the house isn’t revealed in full until they get there.

On that first site visit, we also noticed a monumental pine tree that became somewhat of a wayfinder for us as we meandered through the woods. Since the homeowners are avid gardeners, we cleared a few trees to maximize sun exposure for gardening but kept a swath of conifers, including that pine. We situated the house around this sun pocket, with a detached screened porch in one corner near the garden, like a little jewel box from which the homeowners can watch birds and butterflies mingle with the flowers. On the opposite side of the house, in the northwest corner—the darkest side, where prevailing winds blow—we designed the TV room, master bedroom, and bath to be a cozy, peaceful respite from the day.

As architects, we are immersed in the details of design—the floor plan, the finishes, making sure our clients’ programmatic needs are met. Sometimes, when we’re faced with a design dilemma, we find that stepping back to look at the big picture helps. Turns out, the saying “when in doubt, pan out” is as true in architecture as it is in life. By looking at the macro-level site (the path of the sun, tree cover, views), we can often find a solution to a micro-level problem. This is why no two houses we design are the same—they can’t be because no two sites are the same.


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