Four architects share their processes and passions for building structures on Martha’s Vineyard.
Joseph W. Dick, AIA
Joseph W. Dick Architecture, Inc.
Tell us about your work on this West Chop house on the water.
I have been working over the years on this elegant 1893 shingle-style house in West Chop.
It was decrepit when I started the project, and thankfully, I was able to pull it back from the brink. I focused on saving as many of the original parts as I could, storing for reuse cabinets, doors, mantelpieces, hardware, etc. I then dealt with the extensive water damage inside the house, and removed some unfortunate additions that had been tacked onto the house over decades, which allowed me to open-top the west wall of the house to the sunset view and the westernmost Elizabeth Islands. When I put the house back together, I used all the old parts, plus some new pieces handmade to match the old, to achieve a seamless fit.
What are some challenges with historic homes?
The biggest challenge in restoring historic homes is you want to hold onto the building’s soul. In this particular case, I was working with the original parts that I could save, and these parts informed a design language that I could work within. This is a project where the designer’s ego gets set aside; the goal becomes not to create a monument but to honor the original building.
Being an architect, you are privy to special places all the time. What is your favorite spot on the Vineyard?
Tough one to answer, as the Island is full of special places! My favorite spot is an old excursion boat landing in Aquinnah. It is off North Road on a tiny lane that reaches the bluff. Tourists would get off the boat and take mule carts into Aquinnah. It is hilly there, and the hills create a bowl that looks out to the Elizabeths, the Cape, and beyond. My clients commissioned me to nestle a house into that little bowl. A serene and private place with expansive views.
I also just love Edgartown, the old, original houses and churches in the village center.
What got you started working on the Vineyard?
As a young man, I was practicing architecture in Manhattan. Just out of graduate school in 1985, I was commissioned to do a project in Cow Bay in Edgartown, on the coastal road headed toward Oak Bluffs. It is an old neighborhood that used to be a cow farm. Tucked in there are shingle-style houses. I worked on that compound for many years since, adding to the main house, designing a pool and pool house, terraces, pergolas, a fountain, etc. The builder I worked with on that first Vineyard project, Colin Whyte, I continue to work with today.
What’s it like working with Vineyard craftsmen?
That’s one of the things that I really love about the Island — its wealth of skilled artisans and craftspeople who are so talented. They are a joy to work with. They make the projects come out so very well.
Talk about your process.
My method is to sketch initial concepts by hand, on any medium — tracing paper, sketchbooks, a napkin, an iPad. I then develop these sketch concepts into working drawings that the craftspeople can execute. I believe a drawing has to be lucid, elegant, informative, and also beautiful. This is why I enjoy drawing by hand. I find, too, that this hand process focuses one to clearly think through the implications of the drawing. It allows for no shortcuts that can create hidden pitfalls.
Tell us about your clients on the Vineyard.
They really love this place. For instance, I’m working on the restoration of one of the oldest houses in Chilmark, on a farm. A case could have been made that it was unsalvageable … but the client is keeping it intact, doing a faithful historic restoration instead of building a new structure. So many of my clients are like that. I find it so gratifying.
Does size matter?
House projects can be grand, petite, or in-between, so long as they are challenging. New houses that I design range in style from classical to shingle-style to cool, crisp, and modern — large and small. In all cases, the issues of paying attention to craft are constant. These days, I am designing a little storefront office in downtown Edgartown, working in a Cartesian, modern style. The smallest project I ever did was an 8 x 10 garden shed in Vineyard Haven. What’s challenging are the issues raised by the particular client, the site, and its context.
What is your ideal job?
This West Chop restoration is one, and the houses I designed on and around Quitsa Pond are others. My ideal job is one where I am designing with my wife, Michele. We share our work space. She’s an artist, she works in the decorative arts and does interior work. We collaborate very well together. She’s not an architect, yet she can insightfully critique my work. She brings a lot to the table.
Debra Cedeno, AIA
Architecture + Indigo, LLC
When did you start Architecture + Indigo?
This year will be 10 years since I started my own firm on the Vineyard. I grew up on the East Coast, graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in architecture, where the design component was very strong. Shortly after graduating with a B.A., I earned my architect’s license, which are both rigorous experiences to have gone through. It makes a difference.
Tell us about your work experience.
After college, I was living and working in Washington, D.C., and attended a lecture given by a very prominent architect, James Cutler, from the West Coast. I had been following his career and was in awe of his work and his talent. I waited after the lecture to speak to him. After a brief, but meaningful, discussion about details and natural materials, he suggested that I interview at his office. I flew to the West Coast, interviewed, and was offered a position. I returned home, sold my house, and moved to Bainbridge Island in Washington State to work for Cutler-Anderson. When a firm like this offers you a job, you move 3,000 miles away. You leave your friends, your family, the house you just bought … you go.
What was so special about Cutler for you?
The poetic success of Cutler’s work is that his detailing is exquisite and unique. He studies the solar patterns, the contours of the natural landscape, the view vistas, taking into consideration how the building meets the landscape … One side of my family is from the island of Mallorca, and when Cutler learned this, he said, “You’ll be the project manager for a new custom residence on Mallorca.” It changed everything about how I view the architecture design process, and the way I see design and details.
Talk about your passion for architecture.
I love what I do. That is the underlying force of everything I do — my passion for architecture.
My dad is an architect, my mom a teacher, and both are retired now. My dad wasn’t a residential architect, though he designed our house when I was in middle school, and I watched it being constructed. I got to see the inner workings of finding design solutions and drawing details, which I would trace after they were completed. I was curious to learn how things worked — how something so fragile as glass could be a skyscraper in New York City. How could such a big brick building exist, with the top part not crushing the lower? You have a house, you have a building, you have an office, a theater — I found it fascinating how each building type came together, and how someone’s imagination can be translated into three-dimensional spaces.
When natural indigo dye is created, it is made from a combination of elements: water, air, and the indigo leaves. When agitated during the curing process, the solution changes from green to indigo … My concept about the architectural design process is similar: When a combination of things come together to create something special, that is the beauty of indigo.
Essentially, the most important concept of the name of my firm is that my work is not about me — it’s about the work and my clients.
What’s your favorite kind of work?
I enjoy working directly with people and families to create the place they will gather, dine, and relax. Residential architecture has become my bailiwick. Right now, I am fortunate to have several small addition renovations, and two new custom homes, to design. I am happy to work in all the towns on the Vineyard; I did a little retail addition for Orange Peel Bakery in Aquinnah that hasn’t been built yet. I’ve designed a custom home in Chilmark, two homes in West Tisbury, small additions and renovations in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and my office interior and other projects in Vineyard Haven.
Give us a key to success.
I think one of the keys to success in a project is to listen carefully and to establish a personal connection with the client, all while documenting key components of the program. You are crafting the spaces where they are going to live with their family, hopefully for generations. When you are designing a custom home, you are tuning in to different lifestyles — how people live. Do they have a big family? Are they high-tech? Will they age in place? Do they like ultramodern style, or cottage shingle style? There are a number of aspects you are looking for that will influence the design direction. The process begins with the initial consultation, after which you create a couple of schematic options. The client chooses a scheme, you develop it further. It’s a process that allows the architect and the client to communicate thoughtfully and develop the project.
Any interest in tiny houses?
I have been interested in sustainable design and modest living since I graduated from school. I’m currently working on a cottage that is under 500 square feet that will eventually be used for workforce housing. I have been in a number of client meetings where we discussed building “only what they need, nothing more.” In a search to do more for the Island, I discovered Island Housing Trust and their team, committed to sustainable construction, efficient house systems, and modest living. Currently, I’m on their board, and chair the project development committee.
Plans for the future?
There are three things I want to keep doing. First, to be fortunate to design beautiful homes. Second, to have happy clients who love their home. And last, do the first two forever.
Ryan Bushey, AIA, director of architecture and co-owner
South Mountain Co.
Working with you as director of architecture at South Mountain, how does a project get started?
I’m one of a team of five registered architects. CEO John Abrams and I co-manage the department. Together, we start the process by fielding the requests and meeting the client to understand the scope of the project. If it feels like a good fit for us in terms of schedule and values, then we determine which project architect should take the lead. We start with one architect, and try hard to allow that architect to guide the process all the way through construction, so there is one point of contact from start to finish. Part of architecture is developing trust with the client. We spend so much time getting to know each other, we feel that keeping that relationship consistent is very important. Even five years after a project is complete, I’ll still meet with past clients if they want to do an addition, or add an outdoor shower. It’s a lifelong relationship.
Even though projects go to one architect, we work closely as a team of five, plus John and our engineers. We do frequent pinups from conceptual design, and are constantly critiquing one another’s work. It is really an egoless office. It’s not about seniority or amount of time spent here, but about the best idea and making sure we get the best product for our client. We are all better for it.
I hear you’re working on a project at Camp Jabberwocky.
Matt Coffey is the project architect there. The staff is moving in as we speak! We are thrilled to see how excited they are to introduce the campers and staff to their amazing new space. It is an intense renovation of their old mess hall; we also added a screen porch with an outdoor fireplace, added a new cabin, and renovated another cabin for an infirmary. We had to look carefully with our engineers at how to bring a camp building into the 21st century, and make it a comfortable and even more joyful place, without losing the camp feel.
South Mountain does both brand-new buildings as well as renovations, right?
Yes. What makes us unique is that we integrate architecture, building, engineering, and energy services. That offers our clients big-picture thinking, but also a sole point of responsibility, not three-way finger pointing from architect to client to contractor.
Residential work, from high-end to affordable housing, is the heart of our practice. But big-picture thinking situates us to provide master planning services, too. We work with clients to assess needs and optimize their property. In addition to Camp Jabberwocky, we’ve worked with organizations like the M.V. Museum, Island Grown Initiative, and M.V. Community Services. We are in the process of designing a new daycare center for M.V. Community Services. The chance to think about a building through a child’s eyes is pretty fun. These are some of the most important nonprofits to our Island community. Helping them further their missions, making our Island a better place to be, is one of the most fulfilling jobs you could ask for.
What is your main responsibility as architects?
Our primary responsibility is to the client. Really listening to what’s important to them — that’s the first step. We work together to identify the goals and the challenges before we create a design that ideally is an elegant, evocative solution. Seeing the vision through the filters of aesthetics, function, buildability, and performance is another responsibility. With great engineers and builders in-house, that process makes the design a better expression of that original idea.
We also have the responsibility to the Island, to the community, to their neighbors, and to our planet to make sure we are doing the best we can. People often come to us because they know those kinds of environmental and community-based values are important to us.
What about energy efficiency?
South Mountain Co. has been dedicated to energy efficiency since the ’70s. Architecture is so imagery-dominated in the media, but after working here, I have a much deeper appreciation for buildings that work well and feel great to be in. Our in-house engineers help us make healthier, more durable, and more comfortable buildings without sacrificing the aesthetic. Another intentional result of that effort is that buildings are very energy-efficient. By transitioning from fossil fuel systems to electric, we can then use PVs to make all of a house’s energy onsite. Carbon and the role that buildings’ embodied and operational carbon impact have on our environment are also our concern.
Why Martha’s Vineyard for you?
Since 1999, with the exception of a new office for the Woods Hole Research Center, I’ve worked exclusively on-Island. I’m committed to the Island community for many of the same reasons South Mountain is — thinking globally but acting locally. I also feel that the best architecture is rooted to its place. As an architect, there is so much to learn to have an intimate knowledge of the local climate, the people, and the place — it’s hard for me to imagine working anywhere else. We’ve also developed strong relationships with the people we rely on to build great buildings.
Talk about South Mountain’s carpenters’ collaboration.
When I started at South Mountain, I worked with our carpenters for about two months. I learned more in that short time than I did in architecture school. The more you can collaborate with someone who knows how to build buildings, the better the product and the process for the client. I learned from our carpenters and the guys in our woodshop the importance of expressing craft and quality in our buildings. That ingrained wisdom about how to put buildings together and how buildings age is something else that sets South Mountain apart.
What about affordable housing?
The community that I’ve talked so much about isn’t sustainable without it. The need is desperate, and one of our core guiding principles has always been to help with solutions to our affordable housing problems. For 30 years, we’ve done affordable housing work, and there’s more to come.
What is your architectural specialty?
I’m a preservation architect. I specialize in old houses. What preservationists really do is work in historic districts, and historic districts have processes and rules and nomenclature. I’ve sat on review committees, and learned a lot over the years about those kinds of issues. I’m fairly efficient and fairly thorough. Every historic district has its own approach — even in a big city like Washington, D.C., which has 30 historic districts. Architects have a complicated world to live in — I try to always do everything by the book. You want your building officials to know that you are trying to meet the codes — doing it right.
Why historic houses, and why architecture?
I love old houses. I love modern houses, too, and I really want to live in one someday. I grew up on a cotton farm in Mississippi, a very rural, but also very historic, rich area. My grandparents and parents all grew up in town, where all the romantic, interesting houses were historic houses. I loved being at my grandparents’ homes, where there were sidewalks out in front. I’m really a city person. I fell in love with all that — I love to read, I love history. It all sort of goes together.
Some people just have to be architects. It was early; in kindergarten I was passionate about building blocks.
What brought you to work on the Vineyard?
I came to visit friends 20 years ago, and fell in love with the Vineyard weather. So we bought an old 1700s house on Norton Street, and completely rebuilt it. We then sold that and built another house, with a pool, next door to the yacht club tennis courts. From there, we moved to North Water Street, to the old Shiretown property, and restored both of those houses, each with five to six bedrooms and a pool — it was really a cool little property. Then, we decided to do more gardening, and we came here to Pease’s Point Way. I designed and built this house from scratch, and I have my office on the third floor. The land had been woodlands, with a house right on the property line. We have 20 trees on the property, with a beautiful bigleaf linden tree.
Talk about the historic houses of Edgartown.
I think Edgartown is a microcosm museum of some of the finest old houses in the country. From the late 1600s to the 1920s even — they were built by builders in those days. I believe there was one architect in Edgartown named Bayley, who designed all three churches. He was the son of one of the Congregational ministers. I suspect he was a master builder who designed the Federated Church, the Baptist Church (now a residence on School Street), and the Old Whaling Church. Most of the historic houses are really the indigenous architecture that came from the Colonial, then the Federal period, and the Greek Revival period. Center halls are important in most of America, but not so in economical New England, where it is rare to see a center hall.
You are working on the Yellow House project in Edgartown, right?
It’s a restoration of the exterior, with a one-story addition wrapping around the back wing that will make the building more economically feasible. It appears to me to be early 18th century — I think it’s definitely Colonial. It’s in really bad shape, and has needed a real renovation with a lot of structural improvements. All the exterior skin has to be replicated and replaced, while keeping the basic post and beam structure. I’m working for private developers who have leased the building for 25 years from the town. My clients want to work with affordable housing. The first floor will be retail with a basement. That’s the plan.
Do you have a staff?
Maybe 12 years ago, I transitioned down to just me. I never learned CAD [computer-aided design] and when I had staff, I never drew, but I like to draw. So now I draw on vellum with pencils. I’m pretty fast. I have complete control, and I like that. I do specifications and such on the computer. As a result of becoming a single-man office, I can do that.
I’ve done eight or 10 projects in the historic district since they enlarged the district, and I’ve done a number of new houses on the Island, primarily in Edgartown. Right now my work is all here on the Island. I have four projects under construction in Edgartown.
How do you like the new museum site?
I was actually on the committee that considered the purchase of the new building — whether to buy the building in VIneyard Haven and leave Edgartown. The choice to be in a historic building in Vineyard Haven is a good thing. Edgartown never was a satisfactory space for the museum.
What’s the draw with architecture?
I love to build things. That’s the fun part. I’ve had a good record, because I’ve taken a realistic approach from the very beginning, both with clients and their level of reality, and having to ride everybody where we are going moneywise — because it’s always about money. And to know how to hire contractors, and to help the owners find their contractors. I like to fix old houses. We have a house in Washington, too. I was the general contractor and the architect 20 years ago. We love building things, and owning real estate is still one of the most stable ways to accrue and protect value.