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New York Living

“A Unique Site in Montauk, New York.” March 2002.
see project page here

Robert H. Young and Shea Murdock, partners since 1998, view design as an organic, evolutionary process, the creative product of the relationship between the land, or site, the architect and the client. They attempt to come to a project, according to Young, "without a preconceived image or idea of what we're going to impose on it'' Their first meeting with the client is a kind of vision quest. "We tell them, 'say anything, spit it out-what are your dreams!'”

That first long discussion covers the spectrum of big picture issues, touching lightly on details, with the understanding that these will get fleshed out over time. The partners type up the key points. "It becomes a working document," says Young, which is used as a springboard, in the second meeting, for an "open, no-holds- barred brainstorming session about ideas. While we have to take into account restrictions and limitations in the early stages, it doesn't hurt anybody to come up with a pie-in-the-sky idea and put it on paper. Many times it's the crazy schemes that wind up influencing the design a lot, even if certain aspects of them were impossible."

The architects generate a few schemes and present two or three to the client- more than that can be confusing- as a way to reveal the clients' needs. "It's the next stage of understanding. It becomes a sort of Chinese menu of taking part of this scheme and that. Usually, one is the winner but aspects of the others are integrated into it."

Then they talk budget, "and we have to get real pretty quick. Also, every site for a new house has complex regulations for what you can do on the land. We try to get real about those as soon as possible without stifling the creative process."

The land for the Montauk project is truly spectacular, a subdivision of one of the last pieces of undeveloped Long Island waterfront property "It was very controversial," says Young. "It was all over the papers. It took years and years." The town of Montauk was closely involved in determining the use of the land. "It ended up being a really good compromise." Two hundred out of three hundred acres were set aside as a nature preserve and the lots zoned for development were threaded throughout the preserve.

The property is a "flag lot," the last lot in a cul-de-sac, resembling a triangle with one side offering sunset views of Block Island Sound and the other two sides adjoining the nature preserve. The fundamental concept was to design a house that captured every visual aspect of the magnificent terrain.

"We didn't want to create a one dimensional thing that becomes a postcard that you almost stop seeing from your big picture window. It's more about providing a variety of views from different windows, each of which is amazing, because you're looking at the scene from different angles."

A gigantic "great room" was made the heart of the house, containing a living room, dining area and fireplace, with fourteen-foot ceilings and glass walls facing directly west to the Sound, with its dramatic sunsets. The entire structure was built up on slender columns, which elevate the house to optimum sight level and bring it into a delicate connection with the land. Underneath the great room is an outdoor space with a fireplace which flows out towards the pool. A concrete chimney runs up through the house, connecting to the fireplaces in the outdoor space and the great room.

The design is a unique spin on the "upside-down house" common in the Hamptons and other places with great views where the living room is on the upper floor and the bedrooms downstairs. The downstairs bedrooms are often covered by a deck and have an enclosed feeling. Departing from the usual upside-down scheme, according to Young, "we designed the house as a T and put the bedroom in one leg and the living room in the other. The whole place is open on three sides. Breezes come through and it is very open and comfortable."

Most challenging on the Montauk house was working within the tight building envelope. The town imposes a set-back from each property line, draws lines that account for slopes and other lines that mark the legal distance from wetlands Says Young, "by the time you slop off all these sections where you can't build, you end up with a little jigsaw piece in the middle. The restrictions on the land made it very difficult to get a pool, house and a driveway that you can turn a car around in."

Some improvisation ion was in order. "The house has a skewed geometry to it," comments Young, "which inflected to accommodate the irregularity of the site and to squeeze those things in without squeezing any of the spaces, so the rooms are all generous and comfortable. The house has an irregular shape to it that is integrated into the design. It's more interesting and better in the end. It didn't seem like a compromise."