Ask an Architect
How to plan your dream home for a Maine retirement.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Rusty Ward
Photograph by Scott Dorrance
Doing a retirement home is a true pleasure for an architect,” says Bar Harbor architect Roc Caivano. “The people are older, more sophisticated, they know what they want, and they don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
Caivano has designed homes for some of the wealthiest people on Mount Desert Island as well as for his own mother, who retired to a little cottage Caivano designed and built for her on his own property. He says his clients approaching retirement usually have one of two commendable motivations for building a new home.
“They are either cutting back in order to pass their resources on to their children, or they are people with substantial means who want to build a compound so their family can continue to get together there even after they are gone,” he says.
Maine, which has the oldest population of any state in the nation (median age: 40.7) and the sixth highest percentage (13.9 percent) of people sixty-five or older, has become a retirement mecca. The vast majority of retirees move into existing homes, but the six architects Down East consulted for advice on building a retirement home in Maine report a steady interest by retirees in new custom-designed homes and in renovating and winterizing seasonal homes for year-round use.
With Americans living longer and enjoying more active retirements, Maine architects say they find it useful to have conversations with clients about the special design needs of old age before they need them. So let’s deal with the vicissitudes of advanced age right up front.
“You’ve got to make a home accessible without being obvious,” says Roc Caivano about designing a home for older clients.
The most obvious way a home can be made accessible without being obvious is to concentrate primary living spaces and bedrooms on one floor. Visually, physically, and acoustically open living space is a high priority.
Since clients in their sixties may well live in a home into their nineties, Caivano recommends low-maintenance materials such as natural shingles that never require painting, large bathrooms, and three-foot wide doorways that can accommodate walkers or wheelchairs if and when necessary.
“Men tend to lose their balance more than women do,” says Caivano. “So you do a lot of things to allow them to retain their dignity.”
At-grade entrances and doorways without thresholds make access easier for everyone, not just older homeowners. Among other dignity- and labor-saving design considerations are dumbwaiters, handrails, and thermostats that do not have to be programmed.
Caivano also favors attached garages in retirement homes.
“I’m not crazy about attached garages, but it really helps older people to have a garage that is connected to the house,” he says.
And since Maine winters are long, dark, and cold, he suggests maximizing sunlight and solar gain. “Make a lot of sunny spaces in places where people spend their days,” says Caivano.
“Seventy to 80 percent of a retirement home involves the same concerns as any other home,” says architect John Silverio, of Lincolnville. “One of the differences is special activities rooms. People in retirement want to be able to have fun, to make their lives fulfilling at home.”
Silverio says that many of the homes he has designed for retirees feature workshops and studios, places to build furniture and boats, paint, do crafts, garden, and cook.
In the case of the renovation Silverio designed for Richard and Louise Cadwgan (pronounced kaDOOgan) in West Rockport, the clients are avid gardeners and wanted to do their own landscaping. Silverio’s redesign transformed what Richard Cadwgan describes as “a beat-up board and batten in a field” into a charming and very colorful cottage with double the living space, a re-designed interior, and a glassed-in sun porch. The overhanging rooflines are characteristic of Silverio homes, but the Cadwgans’ daughter, Michelle, selected the distinctive exterior color scheme.
Richard Cadwgan, a retired environmental engineer, and Louise Cadwgan, a retired CPA, came to Maine from Massachusetts in 2007. They looked at fifty-six properties from Bath to Camden before settling on the West Rockport house. The rolling meadows in which it is set appealed to their love of landscaping and gardening. They have applied that love to rebuilding stone walls, planting wild blueberries as ground cover, building raised beds for vegetables, and starting a fruit tree orchard and grape arbor.
Though the Cadwgans’ cottage is less than two thousand square feet in size, they find it is all the space they need, even when grandchildren come to visit.
“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” says Richard Cadwgan. “We’re very happy with it.”
Many retirees experience a tension between a wish to simplify and downsize and a desire to be able to accommodate married children and grandchildren. Portland architect Sam Van Dam says this tension often leads people to overbuild.
“You should be able to build a very nice three-bedroom house in 1,500 square feet,” says Van Dam. “The question is, ‘Have you been bamboozled into thinking that you have to have an enormous amount of space?’ ”
Van Dam says he encourages his clients to think in terms of activities rather than rooms. Do they really, for instance, need a dining room that will accommodate their entire extended family at Thanksgiving if there are just two of them living in the house the rest of the year? Planned space is often better than more space.
Offices that can double as guestrooms, open concept great rooms that can accommodate a dining-room table as needed, and day beds are among the design solutions that allow for greater flexibility in smaller spaces.
Van Dam cites a cottage he designed on Cushing Island in Casco Bay as an example of a snug summer home where the owners eventually plan to retire.
“It’s like the hold of a ship,” says the architect of the 1,425-square-foot interior. “It’s efficient in terms of volume, but it feels really spacious.”
Return of the Natives
Architect Carol Wilson, of Falmouth, has found that many of her recent clients have been returning Maine natives.
“A lot of my clients are people from Maine and New England who moved away and lived away from Maine most of their lives but always wanted to come back,” says Wilson. “Retirement is their opportunity to come back to Maine.”
A perfect example is the Kilmon-Carter house. Mary Louise Kilmon and her brother, John Carter, grew up in Newport, Maine, but when Mary Louise retired from a career as a software engineer in Boston, they decided to build a retirement home together on Winnegance Bay in West Bath. (Their cousin lives right next door in another Carol Wilson-designed home.)
In order to maximize solar gain, the Kilmon-Carter house, like several of Carol Wilson’s minimalist designs, is one-room deep. To solve the problem of personal space versus common family space, Kilmon and Carter each have small bedroom-bathroom-office suites on the first floor where the common living space is. The second floor features two bedrooms for guests and a loft over the garage that has hookups installed for plumbing and heating. The plan is to turn it into a bunkhouse as grandchildren get older.
Moving from a dark, old cape in Wayland, Massachusetts, to a new, sunny modernist home in West Bath, Kilmon found that she had to divest herself of some of her possessions, a frequent exercise among retirees and one that she did not mind a bit.
“As I get older,” says Kilmon, “I find I want less stuff around, so Carol’s minimalism suited my age.”
An unusual feature of the house is a dog bath Wilson designed so that Kilmon’s Chesapeake Bay retriever, Chloe, can romp in the nearby mudflats without soiling the house.
“I expect to have dogs as long as I live,” says Mary Louise Kilmon, “so Carol designed a dog bath that gets a tremendous amount of use. It’s also very useful for washing muddy grandchildren.”
Beware the Beach
Architect Cynthia Howard, whose home office overlooks Etherington Pond and Fortunes Rocks Beach in Biddeford, has a lot of clients who plan to retire to winterized summer cottages along the beaches, dunes, and wetlands that define the York County coast. And therein lies a recurring problem.
“So many clients come to me after they have purchased a property,” says Howard. “They had no idea what restrictions were on them. This beautiful coast is a minefield of regulations.”
Howard reports that it is “almost impossible to get building permits on beachfront property without raising the first floor above flood level.” She also warns “You can’t add volume or change the nature of seawalls or barriers.”
Planning ahead, however, can make it possible to renovate for retirement in increments. Howard has been working with a client on one turn-of-the-century cottage in Cape Porpoise for eight years. Since total improvements cannot exceed 40 percent of a beachfront home’s assessed value at any one time, Howard has her client doing the renovations fifty thousand dollars at a time over a period of years.
“Get an architect who has been through the wars over and over. It’s complex and not for the faint of heart,” says Howard. “I’ve seen people heartbroken because they were under the impression they could make building changes and discovered that they were not allowed to do that.”
Teardowns, of course, are an option for people of means. Another of Howard’s clients, for example, purchased a rare two-family home on Hills Beach, tore it down, and built a three-story home on the same footprint — high enough, of course, to get the ground floor a foot above flood level. The owner, a retiree, lives on the middle floor and her children live on the first and third.
The Bottom Line
Architect Robert Knight, of Blue Hill, says even some of his wealthiest clients experience sticker shock when he presents them with schematic drawings and tells them what the house they want will cost.
“The biggest problem clients bring to us is the classic, of their reach exceeding their grasp,” says Knight. “They want a seven-hundred-thousand-dollar house and only want to spend four hundred thousand dollars. I try to get those numbers in-sync in the beginning, but clients often don’t really believe me when I tell them what houses cost, and there are plenty of people and otherwise reputable magazines who will tell them silly optimistic figures. Costs are coming down, but not as much as you would think.”
According to Knight, a typical custom-designed home on the Maine coast costs about $250 per square foot. So a modest 2,000 square-foot home will cost about $500,000 to build, a 3,000 square-foot house $750,000 — and that doesn’t include land acquisition and site work. A new five-hundred-thousand-dollar home on the coast can easily cost $1 million once you add in the cost of land, septic system, well, driveway, and getting power to the site.
It is always possible to cut some big-ticket items, but Knight counsels his clients to be careful about what they delete.
“When you go through a budget-cutting process on a five-hundred-thousand-dollar home, you can easily get 10 percent of the cost out,” says Knight. “Then I ask my clients to step back. ‘You’re still spending $450,000. Do you still love the house?’ If not, it’s a bad investment.”
Knight attributes the frequent sticker shock both to the fact that his clients’ appreciations of real estate values tend to be out of date and that most people have lived primarily in homes built on speculation. Spec houses can sometimes be built for as little as a hundred dollars per square foot because they aren’t as well built and don’t have all the bells and whistles of a custom home.
“Focus on what you really need, but don’t think you need a six-bedroom house,” Robert Knight advises. “Your goal should be the smallest house that works for you.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Rusty Ward