When Duane Smith and his husband, Stefane Barbeau, bought a plot of land in Wellfleet after having fallen in love with the Cape during visits with friends, they were inspired to design a house in line with the Bauhaus style of architecture. “We love how serene and secluded Wellfleet is,” says Smith. “We love nature, the kettle ponds and the different environments.”
An industrial designer who heads his own design firm Hundred Mile House in Palm Springs, Calif., Smith had studied sustainable architecture through the Bauhaus tradition. When he and Barbeau found the land with marsh and water views, he says, “We thought we could do something amazing there and have fun.”
They learned more about the Modernist tradition on Cape Cod, including the efforts of the Cape Cod Modern Trust, founded in 2007, whose goal is to document and restore the iconic, mid-century houses found scattered in the hills and dunes of the Outer Cape. Smith and Barbeau, who divide their time between Palm Springs and Wellfleet, sought to uphold the Modernist directive of design connected to nature. Their design was inspired by the nearby historic modernist homes and other buildings designed in the 1940s and 1950s by Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius.
“We wanted a lot of glass to open up the house to the trees and sky,” says Smith. Configured as an upside-down house, with the living spaces on the second floor and the bedroom level below, the house has an extended and exposed exterior frame with the receded upper-level block defined by wooden walls and abundant sliding glass doors.
This block rests on a projecting cement foundation, which encases the lower level. Like many of its modernist predecessors, the roofs are flat. The recessed design allows an upper-level patio, one of several outdoor rooms, to extend off of the living room. Though the sea is in view, the house is surrounded by the Cape’s other predominant landscape feature—scrub pines—and it is to this that the exterior walls answer. “We wanted to warm up the outside,” Smith explains, “so the walls are clad in black-sealed mahogany stained with Creocote, a more eco-friendly form of creosote. The black wood picks up the color of the surrounding pine trees and disappears into the woods.”
Mahogany stairs lead from the outside to the entrance, and the hall is bounded by an interior concrete wall. Behind the wall’s sliding doors are a powder room and a large storage space. “The driving principle,” says Smith, “was to have outside walls but as few walls inside as possible.” The powder room/storage module, he says, helps to define the living spaces. On the other side are an open kitchen, dining room and living area. This level is designed for utility and circulation, as well as for play. The kitchen is meant to handle the cooking for groups, large and small, and was created on a budget. Cabinets are by Ikea, and the counter is oak butcher block. “We splurged on appliances,” says Smith, pointing to the Thermador range and refrigerator, Fisher & Paykel dishwasher and Kohler fixtures found throughout the home.
After a communal dinner, guests might play Pictionary on the large chalkboard wall in the dining room. “It’s also a great thing to occupy the kids,” says Smith. Inspired by the minds that brought the Modernist movement to Cape Cod, Smith, Barbeau and their friends create art and furnishings during their stay, which then become part of the décor. Smith and Barbeau once owned their own design and housewares center in Boston called Vessel, and some of their furnishings are on display, as is their sense of playfulness, seen in crutches that become a 3-D wall art, a coat rack that is a sculpture and a chair cushion made from rag dolls. A closet filled with art supplies stands ready to encourage everyone’s creativity.
The first-floor spaces are bright, drawing in natural light and breezes from the sliding glass doors. The lower-bedroom level draws its light from the stairwell as well as from a Zen-like courtyard alley defined by a cement wall with abundant bamboo growing alongside its border. Every space on this level has eight-foot-by-eight-foot sliders leading to this courtyard. “Even the shower has a glass door,” says Smith, “so you can open it and feel like you are showering outside.” Both levels enjoy the cooling benefits of polished concrete floors, chosen for their low maintenance and warmed by radiant heat in winter.
The exposed foundation that defines the lower level was designed to “look like a big sea wall,” Smith says. “We wanted it to feel beachy without being typical Cape Cod beachy.”
The house is still a work in progress, with the couple and their friends tackling additional home projects with each stay. This is evident in the plywood stairs, which will eventually be covered in black linoleum. These long, shallow steps serve one crucial function: to slow down both the ascent and descent. Smith points out that even the access to these stairs—located around the kitchen and through the entry in a circular pattern—is meant to thwart rushing.
“Everything is designed to slow you down so that you cannot rush through the house.” He demonstrates this as the guiding principle of the home’s design: “The main entrance is on the second level at the back of the house, which also makes you travel a bit from the driveway, through the lot, and around the house, so you are forced to appreciate the natural surroundings.”
And in the end, this is why people flock to the Cape—whether dwelling in a Cape cottage or a Modernist bungalow—to retreat and relax while experiencing the power of nature.
The Wellfleet house is available for weekly rentals year round. For more information, visit homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p274939.