Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Building the future on Plum Island

Newburyport architect Andrew Sidford's Sea View House, a unique, striking home on the dunes of Plum Island, is currently the front-runner in The House Vote, a daily thumbs-up/thumbs-down ballot on architecture and residential design created by Michael Cannell, former editor of the House & Home section of The New York Times. But the images on The House Vote, or even the extensive collection on Sidford's own web, do not begin to capture the experience of the P Street property, which combines modern, almost futuristic, design elements with the kind of traditional, windswept New England beach feel you would expect, incorporating economic and ecological efficiencies to create something that goes way beyond drab, de rigueur Green, with the architect working with a palette of philosophical and aesthetic colors that makes a statement about twenty-first century practicalities and our changing relationship with the land and the planet.

The somewhat misleadingly named Sea View House is located away from the oceanfront, on the surprisingly serene, and often overlooked, bayside section of Plum Island, close to the northern tip of the island, wrapped tight by the Merrimack River. There are no direct ocean views, but, with four strategically placed decks, there are stunning vistas in every direction. The building, which employs a number of Green strategies, from basic scaling-down to passive cooling and radiant heating strategies, seems to hover over the land, but conjures the mental image of a ship. It is dominated by a glass-enclosed central tower, which feeds light through the structure. The tower is flanked by steep-sloped aluminum roofs that reflect heat and light. It stands on pilings that have been conceived and incorporated as part of the design, not as the necessity that they are. The space unfurls, cascades upwards, reaching a crescendo with an upper deck with a brilliant view of the Merrimack as it snakes around the island. In a sense, the interior and exterior spaces of Sea View House mirror the river — flowing gracefully, but offering plenty of intriguing eddies.

The footprint is just 2,200 square feet, snug even by PI standards, which is significant only on paper: The building has a big feel because of the creative distribution of space within the open design. Living spaces (they do not correspond to traditional four-walls-and-a-couple-of-windows ideas of rooms) radiate from the tower. Rooms are small by traditional standards — some of them "ridiculouly small," Sidford says, especially in the case of the dining area, which is roughly eight-by-eight, but works within the context of the design and the geometry of the space. Rooms are interconnected and "share" space. For example, the kitchen — placed on the upper level of the house, allowing the owner, Dr. David Sorenson, to take advantage of the views — is on a separate level, but just a couple of steps above the dining area, connecting the two spaces and, essentially, enlarging both. The bedrooms and work areas are on the lower levels. The decks, too, are also small, but versatile, looking in different directions, allowing the occupant to enjoy the sun or shade, views of the river or the oceanside, the breeze, or shelter from it: different views, different light, different experiences.

"The house is a machine," says Sidford, whose past projects include restoration of the 1850 Carriage House of the Lord Timothy Dexter House. "It has to work. I hope to inspire more than that, but first it has to work."


  1. I saw this house a few weeks ago when campaigning in that section of Plum Island. The house sticks out as an architectural anomaly when walking around the curve and seeing it.

    Do you think this is the future of other houses there?

  2. Councilor Herzog, first--congratulations on your victory! I was very impressed with your campaign, and I look forward to the innovative ideas and fresh perspective you will bring to city government.

    Second, as a long-time resident of Newburyport/Newbury, I certainly hope that new homes on Plum Island will be designed as perfectly as Andrew Sidford's "Seaview House." In referring to it as "an anomaly," I think you miss the building's remarkable synthesis of maritime and modern elements. In short, I agree completely with J.C. Lockwood's informed and glowing assessment.

  3. I definitely agree with Beth on this one, I could only hope that future Plum Island residents would emulate the same sophisticated taste that Sidford has exemplified.

    I would also love to share my appreciation for Lockwood's accurate interpretation of this building. Having toured the house myself, it is difficult to express in words the kind of exiting and innovative design Sidford embodies in this piece. What I enjoy most about his work is the successful integration of building and natural surroundings. The almost deconstructivist exterior visually brings the house to life with radiating multi-level porches and openings. I love the distinct organic movement of the living space, which greatly reflects what I too hope to be a "changing relationship with the land and the planet."