Prefab Style

An architect almost erases the line between dwelling and nature with a sleek, modern kit house.

By Meadow Rue Merrill   Photographed by Jamie Salomon

When Boston architect Jim Higgins bought a wedge of waterfront turf on quiet Spinney Creek in South Eliot, he planned to design and build a traditional New England-style house and sell it. But he and his partner came to enjoy the quaint neighborhood of classic colonials and Capes so much that they decided to build the house for themselves.

Then, flipping through a modern design magazine, Higgins was captivated by a shiny rectangle of galvanized aluminum and glass by celebrated Chilean-American architectural designer Rocio Romero. “We instantly fell in love with her work,” says Higgins, who flew to Missouri with his partner to see the architect’s modestly priced, award-winning, modular kit house in person. “The thing that grabbed me is how clean the design is. It is simple but interesting without being in-your-face modern. Rocio was able to create a really wonderful space with the right amount of windows and open space while balancing the private and public areas of the house.”

Working with the architect, Higgins ordered a customized forty thousand dollar model from Romero’s prefabricated LV Series. The package, which contained only the exterior, arrived in a stack of unassembled parts on the back of a flatbed truck. Steve Guptill, owner of New Creation Custom Building in nearby Berwick, put it together. “Any time you get packages where you are supposed to put something together, you hope you don’t get done and have a pile of parts left over,” Guptill says. “As it turned out, I was amazed at how well it went together.”

The product more closely resembles the concrete pilings and steel girders of the nearby Piscataqua River Bridge than it does the shingled and clapboard houses around it. At first, the stark, metal walls and nearly flat roof appear oddly angular. Yet the plain shape and reflectivity of the windows causes the structure to blend into the snow and surrounding bare ash trees.

In fact, nature is so essential to the design that visitors approaching the recessed, glass front door can see straight through the house to the seagulls floating on the icy river on the other side. That’s because the opposite wall is mostly glass.

The 2,400-square-foot house sits on just one-third of an acre, but it is so airy, open, and full of windows that the walls seem to retreat, creating the illusion of being outside. The main living space features an open kitchen, dining room, and seating area facing three pairs of side-by-side sliding glass doors that open to a riverfront deck.

Clutter is contained by built-in cabinets. Higgins designed the interior of the house himself and ordered the glossy, white kitchen cupboards and brushed-stainless steel cabinets from IKEA, along with all the other enclosed shelves and closets. The white counters and island are manufactured stone.

“Her kit basically gives you plans for the whole house, including the inside,” Higgins says of Rocio’s design, which he manipulated so the windows would face the water. “But the inside is raw space.”

The expansive windows, nine-foot interior doors, and Italian ceramic floor tiles were purchased separately. To save money, Higgins and his partner did much of the finish work themselves, including installing the two-inch-square tiles in the kitchen and bathroom and painting the walls. They chose a muted gray and white color scheme with splashes of red and orange.

“We didn’t want a lot of color or different heavy textures to take away from how clean the design is,” Higgins explains. Instead, he wanted the view and natural light to be the primary focus. Recessed lights ordered online from Lightology dot the ceiling, but they are hardly ever needed during the day.

In keeping with the minimalist style, the dining area is furnished with an oval, white marble Florence Knoll table and white upholstered chairs. Contemporary white Crate & Barrel couches and a pair of red woven lounge chairs by Risom create a relaxed sitting area.

Just inside the front door, a custom-built, open staircase with dark-stained ash treads leads to a basement corner office and large entertainment room. A generous couch and lounge chairs face a nearly ten-by-six-foot viewing area with a ceiling-mounted, high-definition video projector. The mannequin doing a handstand in the corner is just for fun as the space is a favorite for parties. A small bar with built-in cabinets is tucked beneath the stairs, and the glass-encased stairwell allows ample light from above.

Back upstairs, a short hall extends to a guest bathroom and minimally furnished bedroom. A generous master suite fills the end of the house. Here, a white string curtain, purchased in Paris, cleverly separates the sleeping area from a built-in sink flanked by two mirrored closets. To the left is a glassed-in shower; to the right, an enclosed bathroom.

Like the rest of the main floor, each bedroom features sliding glass doors facing the water. The house — both inside and out — is nearly maintenance-free, thanks to the absence of trim. Window and door casings are anodized aluminum, which is resistant to corrosion. And the entire exterior, which is also completely customizable, is sheathed in metal with a rugged rubber membrane roof.

“The roof design is strong enough to carry a Mack truck,” Guptill says. “How they insulate the roof is incredible. It is all high rigid foam insulation. I think if more people knew about these types of houses, more people would have them.”

Romero has shipped her kits around the world. Higgins knows of at least two others in Maine — an artist’s house in Freeport and an oceanfront studio in Christmas Cove. While Romero’s mantra is, as Higgins puts it, “trying to make modern design affordable” and the kit is low cost, the final price of Higgins’ home — including the modular, insulated basement — was closer to $350,000.

Higgins admits the design isn’t for everyone and even planted a shaggy evergreen as a screen to please a neighbor, but he says most welcome it. One friend even asked to hold a wedding there. It’s not hard to see why.