Case Study: Bahamas Cottage by Max Levy Architect

Harbour Island in the Bahamas is an enviable place to design a getaway house, and Max Levy, FAIA, is uniquely qualified to do the setting justice. Just a half mile wide and about 3 miles long, the golf cart-only island is known for its clear light, purple-and-turquoise waters, and pink sand beaches. In that sense alone it was a plum commission for Max, who is known for juxtaposing architecture and nature in memorable ways. “When you first visit, the profusion of color and the clarity of the light is so striking, I just thought, you have to bring those qualities into the life of the house,” he says.

His client’s family has owned property on Harbour Island since the 1950s but had never built on it. For years, she and her husband, repeat clients living in the architect’s Dallas home base, rented a house for island stays. They finally decided to build on this bluff, some 60 feet above the harbor. For architectural precedents, Max looked to Dunmore Town, an 18th-century British village on the island whose buildings have horizontal wood siding painted in vivid colors. 

Over time, however, reinforced concrete block has become the best way to build in response to seasonal hurricanes. Simple and sturdy, the house’s 22-by-88-foot floor plan is divided into four 22-foot-square living spaces, each lit by a square roof monitor. Those strong geometries register immediately on arrival, suggesting a sense of order within the tangle of wilderness. A long sand driveway passes through a dense jungle, or coppice, and ends at a circle of lawn where golf carts are parked and turned around. From there, a pathway leads to a cart storage building on the right. To the left is the house, whose breezeway is a portal to the spectacular setting. 

“Coming through that jungle, that’s your first view of the harbor,” Max says. “The breezeway frames and intensifies the view.” The land slopes down toward the water, so that “if you continue straight at the breezeway you wind up on a sun deck—the roof of the guest house,” he says, which is reached over a narrow wooden walkway. The main house’s interior organization is understood at a glance: to the left of the breezeway is a living/dining/kitchen zone that flows out to a deck and monolithic fireplace for grilling; on the right is the primary suite.

Max often recalls the impression Louis Kahn’s Kimball Art Museum made on him as an architecture student. Not quite complete when he toured it, the building didn’t yet have artificial light fixtures or art, imparting the pureness of a “magnificent ruin,” he says. It was a windy, partly sunny day, and the underside of the sunlit barrel-vault ceilings were alternately lighting up and going dim as clouds blew across the sky. The phenomenon was surprising, he says, because he hadn’t noticed the weather when he was outside. “It was a dawning moment about architecture reframing awareness with nature, in this case with light.”

The Bahamas Cottage’s four colored light chimneys are a play along those lines—and a hat tip to the town’s vibrant historical architecture. Arrayed along the roof ridge and glazed on one side, each chimney faces a different compass direction. Inside they fan out into painted, sherbet-colored light wells that track the slope of the roof. The east-facing light well in the breezeway is painted in Benjamin Moore Bana-Appeal, and the living room’s west-facing light well is Coral Buff. The chimney in the dining/kitchen/living area faces south and is painted Tasty Apple, and the north-facing chimney in the primary suite is Mystical Blue.

The hues appear simultaneously soft and saturated. “Choosing the colors went on and on. The blue was the hardest—first it was too aqua—but we finally got it right,” Max says, adding that it matches the color of the water—or at least one of its changing hues. “The client made many, many trips with many paint samples. The pink was chosen to match the sunsets, a pageantry of light. It had to be something operatic, which is tricky because you don’t want a blaring pink thing over your head. We had to really play around with that one to get it to relate to the sunset but be gentle to the interior. If you were to hold the swatches in your hand, they look too pale, barely tinted with color. But when they reflect off each other, the color intensifies. We kept making the colors lighter and lighter.”

Measuring 1,880 square feet, the interior is intended to have an improvisational quality; in the main living space, the furniture could go anywhere. To that end the material palette is limited and continuous throughout the house. Floors are local coral stone, and the walls and ceilings are lined with horizontal 1×6 tongue-in-groove painted pine. A cavity between the pine siding and concrete block shell allows all the glass to retract into the walls. “Then the place feels like a habitable ruin,” the architect says. He decided against curtain walls, opting instead for large punched openings that provide a sense of shelter and curate the views. “If you want a panorama, you step outside,” he says.

This project benefited from the island’s long tradition of fine carpentry—in the 18th century it was a center for shipbuilding. A local contractor and crew built the gray-plastered concrete block exterior. Affixed to it are Accoya wood sunscreens that roll across the openings on brass tracks; they moderate the late afternoon sun and latch to protect the glass in stormy weather. “The trickiest thing was procuring materials on an island and the pandemic quarantines,” Max says. “The Bahamas had one of the strictest quarantines in the world, probably, which slowed down construction maddingly. Every screw and board was barged in and we had to wait months to get a missing item.”

Nevertheless, the finish work came together flawlessly. Rift-sawn white oak casework is expressed as inserts into this simple container. In the primary bath, for example, a white oak partition is treated like a piece of cabinetry to preserve the sense of a square in the primary suite. Above it, a glass transom makes the blue light well visible from the bedroom. “You’re always aware of the ordering geometry of the house,” Max says. “The breezeway is a square; the living/dining/kitchen area is two squares; the guest house is a square. So is the cart storage building and most of the windows.”

Sandwiched between the concrete block outer wall and Accoya-lined inner wall, an open stairway winds up through the ziggurat-like cart storage building and lands at a “moon deck” with eastern views of the Atlantic. On the other side of the house is its counterpart: a guest house containing a study with built-in bookshelves and a pair of twin beds laid end-to-end to double as a sofa. Its private deck faces the bay, and a trail leads to a staircase that descends to the beach.

This getaway converges with nature not just poetically, but practically. Its copper roof will soon turn green and disappear into the surroundings. In addition, gutters and downspouts channel water to a 12,000-gallon cistern buried under the breezeway, which supplies water for the house and landscape. 

Seascape, landscape, and skyscape are all manifested within the house, an achievement Max shares with the owner. “One thing I love about this client is that she is so consistent about interior material,” he says. “Once she decided on a floor material and a wall material, she wanted it used throughout the house. I love that because it makes a house very serene and allows views out of the house to become like artwork.”

 Indeed, the spartan palette sharpens the focus, and the simple chimneys register an architectural regard for the light and color of the natural world.  

[Editors’ Note: Bahamas Cottage has also won this year’s RDAA Project of the Year. More coverage of the project will follow in conjunction with the awards features in Volume 3, 2024, of RD and online at residentialdesignmagazine.com.]


Bahamas Cottage

Harbour Island, Bahamas

Architect: Max Levy, FAIA, principal in charge; Tom Manganiello, project architect, Max Levy Architect, Dallas

Builder: Higgs Construction, Harbour Island, Bahamas

Interior design: Robyn Menter Design Associates, Dallas

Landscape design: Terrain Design, Nassau, Bahamas

Project size: 1,880 square feet; outbuildings 625 square feet

Site size: 1.125 acres

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Charles Davis Smith, FAIA


Cabinetry: Case Kitchen & Design

Cooktop: Wolf

Cooktop ventilation: Wolf

Countertops: Krion

Custom sunscreens:
Drophouse Austen, welded aluminum frames

Dishwasher: Asko

Door hardware: FSB

Exterior cladding: Parex USA (plaster), Accoya (siding and sunscreens)

Exterior doors: Fleetwood

Faucets: Dornbracht

Flooring: Stenke coral stone

Icemaker: KitchenAid

Lighting: Hunza, Leviton, Electric Mirror

Lighting controls: Lutron

Outdoor fireplace: Isokern

Paints: Benjamin Moore

Refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Roofing: Copper Works Nassau

Sinks: The Galley (kitchen), Kohler

Toilets: TOTO

Wall ovens: Wolf

Windows: Fleetwood

Wine refrigerator: KitchenAid