Stylish Steel

A contemporary angular home in Falmouth is the perfect — albeit unusual — meld of industrial and natural.

By Meadow Rue Merrill

When some people build a house, they micromanage the project, inadvertently obscuring the very vision they hope to achieve. Not Jeanne McDonald, who bought a neglected property in Falmouth and trusted some of the area’s top designers to create a contemporary home that roosts above the ocean like a bird about to take flight.

“We spent a lot of time there, just hanging and getting a sense of the site itself,” says Portland architect Phil Kaplan, of Kaplan Thompson Architects. “At the time, Jeanne was in architecture school and very interested in contemporary forms, so there was some ability to be even more creative.”

Seagulls soaring overhead inspired the house’s sharp angles, which ascend to a winged peak. Set among traditional Capes and Colonials, the unusual slant and metal-clad walls inspire curiosity, yet the house also blends with nearby shaggy river birches and bayberry bushes.

“I knew I wanted something unusual,” says McDonald, a semi-retired former orthodontist. “I liked the industrial look. It seemed hygienic.”

Foremost, she wanted something efficient, durable, and easy to maintain. In response, Kaplan designed the house with polished concrete floors and tough metal siding. The lower exterior is sheathed with Corten steel, which weathers to a rust-like patina, while the top features corrugated sheet metal.

Equally atypical, the house contains few right angles. The wedge-shaped concrete and steel kitchen island, for example, slants away from the birch and frosted glass cabinets.

“There are all these little surprises,” Kaplan says. “When you come up to a corner or lean against an edge, you realize, ‘There is something going on here.’ It makes you more attentive.”

The open kitchen, dining room, and living room face the ocean. Mulled double picture windows magnify the view of Little and Great Diamond islands, while punctured metal panels scatter and soften the light, casting dappled, feather-like patterns on the ceiling and walls.

A curved couch faces the propane fireplace, which has beach-like stones instead of logs, while a nearby concrete window seat anchors an end wall. The dining area features a glass-topped table and extra seating at the bar. A few steps away, the master bedroom and bath — with a seamless glass shower, pod-shaped soaking tub, and sea-glass blue, cast acrylic countertops — are tucked behind a flight of floating steel and concrete stairs. A nearby bathroom leads to the laundry room and an entryway.

Portland interior designer Monica Dominak, of MDesigns, used splashes of rust and blue throughout the house and sunflower-yellow paint in the eaves and alcoves.“We left the house on the white side but painted all the nooks so that it looks sort of like a modern painting,” Dominak says. “With all those colors and rectangles, it just pops.”

The designer selected mostly European furnishings, such as the ultra-comfortable, layered foam Rolf Benz sofa and the Bontempi Casa back-painted glass shelves and bedroom vanities, which look like lacquer but are easier to maintain. The architecturally themed George Lloyd paintings and metallic, fire-glazed vase, set in a nook above the kitchen, are from Greenhut Gallery in Portland and the Camden Falls Gallery. While McDonald and Dominak made several shopping trips together, the homeowner purchased most objects sight unseen.

“She practically fell over when she saw the price of the sofa,” Dominak says, “but she did it. Jeanne was a great client, because she let us do what we do best.”
Upstairs, a spacious bamboo-floor landing with a striking periwinkle-blue wall serves as McDonald’s office. A glass door opens to a rough-hewn porch with interchangeable windows and screens, a cushioned hanging bench from Penobscot Bay Porch Swings, and plastic bubble chairs from the Italian designer Kartell.

“When it’s warm in the winter, I open the porch, and it brings heat in the house,” says McDonald. “In the summer, I can watch the fireworks on Portland’s Eastern Prom.”

Two bedrooms, a shared bath, and a television room complete the upstairs. Should McDonald wish to expand, there’s room on the third floor, which currently holds the house’s hot-water tank and a small propane heater — the building’s only furnace. The house is LEED Gold-certified, the second highest energy-efficiency rating by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“Energy-wise, the only heat in the house is in the first floor,” Kaplan says, referring to the radiant hot-water pipes embedded in the concrete floor. “That is why it is so well insulated. The concrete acts as a thermal mass to store heat during the day and release it at night.”

The biggest challenge in putting the house together was hanging the weighty metal siding.

“It is the only time we’ve worked with that material,” says Dan Kolbert, owner of Portland’s Kolbert Building.

The thick steel sheets, which came from Megquier & Jones, a steel fabricator and supplier in South Portland, had to be trimmed with a plasma cutter to fit each piece to the house. Kolbert’s crew bolted each sheet in place, sealing the holes with waterproof gaskets.

“It was not easy to pull off,” says the builder. “It was a hard house to visualize. But the further along we got, the more we appreciated it.”

McDonald says she is thrilled with how the project turned out — from the uncluttered interior to the private, backyard bluestone patio, where she enjoys the passing boats and birds swooping overhead.

“I love it,” McDonald says. “I use all the space. It is really the perfect size for me.”