Case Study: Cove House by Estes Twombly + Titrington

Estes Twombly + Titrington knows its way around modern New England houses in scenic coastal settings. Drawing on regional traditions and materials, their direct yet poetic houses are awash in light, with forms that are at once familiar and fresh as the salt air. Rhode Island’s many coves and inlets make outdoor living irresistible too, despite the rugged climate. A perpetual challenge is to balance energy efficiency and thermal comfort with indoor-outdoor views and the desire for natural light during the long, cold winters. 

That’s what makes a southern view so ideal in this environment, and why it took principal Peter Twombly, AIA, three years to find the right site on which to build a full-time house for himself and his partner, Jane. They were searching in Jamestown, on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay. The 9-mile-long island is narrow—just a mile wide—and oriented north-south, which made it difficult to find a south-facing property with water access. They got lucky when their agent sleuthed out this 2-acre property before it came on the market. More rural than suburban, the area is known for its preserved open space and old farms. This waterfront lot ticked all the boxes, and then some. Not only did it face south and west, it also sat far above the flood zone, unlike the couple’s previous house. “We went from an elevation of 6 feet above sea level to 40 feet above sea level,” Peter says—well above the 16-foot flood elevation.

Unlike many coastal houses, then, this one could be grounded rather than perched on stilts. Slightly irregular in shape, the lot slopes 70 feet from the road down to the shoreline, and “getting the house nestled into the site was a major point in the design,” Peter says. The house steps down the slope between a grove of western red cedars on the uphill side and the coastal setback just outside the living room. On the upper slope, a garage pushes into the hill against a retaining wall that creates the level entry court. A covered breezeway at the garage leads down three steps to the entry porch at the center of a two-story, bar-shaped volume. Oriented north-south, it contains a study to the left and a pantry and mechanical room to the right. On the second floor are two en suite bedrooms separated by a graciously proportioned stair hall that enjoys views to the water in one direction and the cedar grove in the other. 

In fact, all the primary rooms have water views. Down three steps from the entry/bedroom volume, the one-story kitchen/living/dining wing sits at mid-grade. Placing it perpendicular at the north end of the bedroom wing created the opportunity for a sunny southwest courtyard. Inside, its stepped-down floor plan allowed for 10-foot ceilings with full-height glazing that takes in water views to the west and south. “Setting the garage and house on three levels helps keep it lower to the site,” says Peter, “and you sense the slope inside the house. We’ve done a lot of houses with cathedral ceilings with lots of volume, but I find those places to be very scaleless and almost too large when it’s cold and wintry. Having high, flat ceilings is a pleasant experience.”

A lot was riding on the design. “It’s the first house I designed from scratch for myself,” he says. “I was probably the most difficult client I’ve ever worked with—knowing when to stop designing and move on.”

Earth First

Conceptually, the scheme expresses the relationship of structure to slope. Low retaining walls mark the three-part progression through the site. One holds back the hillside at the garage, another snugs the entry wing into the slope, and a third supports the slightly cantilevered living room box, extending out to form a seating wall on the courtyard. “While the garage is built into the site, the living wing is cantilevered over the site,” Peter says.

In the same vein, exterior materials knit the building to its geological context. The stonework was laid by a local mason who sourced materials to match the region’s existing stone, such as the color of stone along the shoreline and the color and proportions of old stone walls in the region. “He sourced at least four different types of stone and mixed them together, most of it locally quarried,” Peter says. “The capstones are antique bluestone slabs he’s taken from sites like the Big Dig up in Boston.” Stone was also used on the bumped-out stairwell wall at the entry, which evokes chimneys of the past. This vertical plane sets up a solid/void relationship with the transparent entryway, where the water vista is fully revealed. 

In selecting ipe cladding for the house and garage, the architect prioritized performance over provenance. “We had lots of discussions about using a tropical hardwood,” a renewable resource that nevertheless isn’t always ethically harvested, Peter says. “We probably won’t use it again, but the reason we chose it is because it’s extremely durable. It will outlast us and is a system that’s set up for rainscreens, so it sheds water away from the house.” All these materials help the building recede into the site. In addition, the walkway from the garage to the entry is reclaimed granite curbing, and the breezeway is made from galvanized steel with exposed small steel columns—a detail carried through to the interior, where the living room’s exposed steel framing resists wind loads. 

Simple Gifts

At 2,800 square feet, the house is neither large nor small. Deeming it just right, the owners experience it as essentially three rooms on the first floor and two on the second. Primary living spaces take full advantage of sun and views, and the back wall of the glassy box containing the kitchen, dining, and living room sits as close to the water as the setback would allow. Throughout, window placements pour in light, sometimes in unforeseen ways. The living room’s clerestory, for example, is “probably one of the coolest windows in the whole place,” Peter says. “It’s above the neighbor’s house to the north, and it gives you a sliver of fabulous views of incoming weather and a nice quality of light.”

Because the building is slab on grade, utilities and storage had to be deftly inserted. The spaces overlap, tuck away, and multitask. To the right in the entry hall is a pantry, a laundry room, and a mechanical room for the geothermal system. To the left, a study can double as a guest room, though it’s rarely needed given the second bedroom upstairs. The second-floor stair hall, lined with low, built-in cabinetry, can be called into service any number of ways. 

“In the main living area, we decided to have plenty of storage so we’re not running around for things,” Peter says. In addition to the Caesarstone-topped island, the kitchen’s base cabinets continue into the living room. “We wanted something super rugged that we didn’t have to worry about staining,” he says of the kitchen countertop. 

Another guiding light was their admiration for Scandinavian simplicity. The interior material palette consists of clear maple cabinets and woodwork, which is native to the Eastern U.S.; white-painted poplar wall and ceiling boards; plaster; and exposed steelwork. “We had a lot of discussion about how much wood to use,” Peter says. “We wanted white for brighter interiors in the winter, something simple so as not to upstage the scenery, and a place where our small collection of modern furniture would be at home. But we used natural wood on the floors, cabinets, and a few interior partitions to warm things up.” The slatted dividers—in the stair hall and study, for example—pick up on the horizontal-siding look of the kitchen island and first-floor walls. Throughout, indirect lighting underscores the sun-washed effect, such as cove lighting in the stair hall and primary bedroom, and uplighting above the kitchen cabinets.

The garage is earmarked for storage of bulkier items, with two bays for cars and an extra bay “for boating stuff. We are avid boaters and fisher people,” Peter says. After a day on the water, the outdoor shower near the courtyard is a convenient stop between the garage and the shoreline. It sits at the top of the path to the rocky beach of Mackerel Cove, where their boat is moored.

Shell Game

While Peter’s first schemes had explored a one-story house, stacking the floors minimized the footprint and better captured the views. “We try to convince our clients that going up to a second story isn’t always necessary, but the upstairs hallway has great views,” Peter says. “I moved my office there during the pandemic, so I had the best views in the house.” 

The timing was fortuitous in another important way: “We had a fabulous young builder who powered through and finished just before the supply chain problems and cost increases,” he says. In addition to installing the large, heavy triple-pane windows and doors within the steel framing in the living area, Ben Rocha of DBR Builders executed an airtight shell. The 2-by-6 framing was filled with both lambswool and low-VOC closed-cell foam. “The lambswool is awesome stuff,” Peter says. “It can moderate, absorb, and dissipate moisture without molding, and even though the house smelled a little like a barn when it went in, the odor went away.” Rocha’s crew also installed a green roof on top of the living room wing, which is visible from the second floor. “The company supplied the crane to drop it in, and we installed it on top of a membrane and a slip of fabric,” Ben says. “The 1-by-2-foot planted blocks lock into a grid system, and over time it all becomes one mass that helps retain heat in the winter and deflect it in summer.”

That thermal comfort is aided by deep roof overhangs that help shade the glass on the south and west. Radiant-heated floors, a 10kW solar array, and a 3,000-gallon rainwater cistern also help to lighten the home’s environmental footprint. “A Twombly-style house is pretty straightforward to build, though their unique tolerances are tight and there’s not a lot of room for errors,” Ben says. 

Peter has found that in winter, the sun heats the entire main living space and holds the heat through the night. While the house isn’t quite net-zero because the roof surface limited the number of solar panels, the temperature is so even that they used the wood stove only twice over the two winters they’ve been in the house. “That’s there in case of power or equipment failure,” he says.

Peter’s carefully considered moves give the house a light, low-key appearance that masks its high level of performance. The outcome is living spaces that are orderly, calm, and grounded to the earth’s natural contours. “I hope to live long enough to regret all the stairs,” he says. 

Cove House

Jamestown, Rhode Island

Architect: Peter Twombly, AIA, Estes Twombly + Titrington Architects, Newport, Rhode Island

Builder: Ben and Dan Rocha, DBR Builders, Bristol, Rhode Island

Interior designer: Peter Twombly, AIA

Landscape architect: Studio Cosmo, Somerville, Massachusetts; KP Design, Newport, Rhode Island

Structural engineer: Yoder + Tidwell, Providence, Rhode Island

Project size: 2,850 square feet

Site size: 2 acres

Photography: Warren Jagger Photography

Key Products

Acoustic: Acoustiblok

Cabinetry: Calderwood Custom Millwork

Cooking vent hood: XO Appliance

Cooktop: Wolf induction

Cladding: Mataverde rainscreen siding

Countertops: Caesarstone

Dishwasher: Cove

Drywall: USG

Engineered lumber: Trus Joist

Entry doors, hardware, locksets: Unilux

Exterior lighting: Hunza Lighting, WAC

Fasteners: Simpson Strong-Tie

Faucets: Dornbracht, Hansgrohe

Fireplace: RAIS wood stove

Garage doors: Overhead Door

Green roof: LiveRoof

Hot water: A.O. Smith Voltex hybrid electric heat pump

HVAC: WaterFurnace geothermal

Insulation: DuPont Thermax rigid foam; Havelock Wool batt; Pro Clima SOLITEX ADHERO house wrap

Interior lighting: Lucifer, Element recessed lights, Louis Poulsen

Lighting control systems: Lutron

Ovens: Wolf steam oven

Paints/stains/coatings: Benjamin Moore (interior), SEAL-ONCE (exterior)

Passage door hardware: Valli&Valli

Photovoltaics: Solaria

Radiant heating: Uponor

Refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Roofing: Carlisle SynTec Systems

Sinks: Kohler

Skylights: U.S. Sky

Toilets: TOTO

Tubs: Kohler

Underlayment/sheathing: Huber Engineered Woods

Ventilation: Broan ERV

Washer/dryer: Asko

Windows and window wall systems: Unilux

Window shading system: Savant

Wine refrigerator: U-Line