There is a magic to the earthy, site-hugging contemporary houses of the 1970s. They were honest, sensitive to their natural surroundings, and architecturally ambitious. So, too, were their designers, who felt emboldened by new ideas, technologies, and materials. Their owner clients were not the super-rich 1-percenters but regular working professionals. Closer scrutiny reveals these seemingly unremarkable professionals as the innovative, creative, and memorable people they really were. “Patron” is too detached a word to apply to them; these clients were fully engaged in the purposeful place-making of these inspiring, experimental buildings. These were passionate, deliberate undertakings and an adventure for all involved.
Such was the case with the Old Quarry House project in Guilford, Conn., designed by Carlton Granberry, an architect of some local renown. Occupying a precious and precipitous promontory overlooking Long Island Sound, the house is a stone’s throw from Yale University, which has supplied benefactors and guiding spirits for the dwelling from its inception through a recent revitalization.
The original house was commissioned by a Yale professor and his oceanographer wife, who established a laboratory in the little scenic harbor it overlooks. She proved instrumental in local ecological preservation groups, caring deeply for the environment that surrounded and sustained them and made their house such a special place.
They loved the house and lived for decades with its delights and its intrinsic flaws. Alas, those ’70s architects were often enamored of new, untested, and largely underperforming materials and methods of the day. Perhaps that was how working-wage people could afford striking, custom-designed houses back then, but the reality is that many buildings of the period were not durable, and certainly not up to today’s standards of energy performance and quotidian comfort. Fast forward to our current decade, Old Quarry House found new stewards, all with Yale pedigrees, to take on its challenges and its opportunities. The new owners both work at the university, and the firm that spearheaded the renovation, Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, Conn., has deep ties to the institution as well. Wife-and-husband team Lisa Gray, FAIA, and Alan Organschi went to architecture school at Yale, and Alan continues to teach there, in addition to his work with the practice.
The new owners were, of course, captivated by the site, which lies within a kayak paddle of the Thimble Islands. The “Old Quarry” that gives the project its name is a rich vein of pink and black granite that weaves its way up the New England coastline and has provided the stalwart bases for the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Grand Central Station, among other iconic structures. The land the house occupies was quarried at one point in its past, likely in the late 1800s. According to an article in the New Haven Register, many of the quarry workers of the period originally resided on the sound’s rocky islands, “rowing themselves to work each day.”
“The site is kind of near where we live, in an old quarry in Guilford,” says Alan. “Tony Smith built some houses out there, and Carlton Granberry built a lot. Unfortunately, his architecture was ahead of the technology of the times.” The firm’s clients, who are also friends, bought the house with the expectation of renovating it. “One of the reasons the former owners sold the house to our clients was they said they would not tear it down.”
As often happens, the deeper the clients and firm delved into the project, the more evident its flaws became. Still, there was no turning back. “There’s this weird threshold of tinkering versus reimagining,” says Alan. “It was a balancing act on that thin line of completely reskinning and celebrating what were very latent architectural ideas. We ended up doing a complete gut renovation of the building—down to the framing.”
That, of course, drove up the cost of the project significantly. But everyone involved felt that it was a mission of mercy to preserve and renew a building that had gotten so many things right, not least among them its modesty of size and profile along the coastline.
“A lot of these houses get torn down,” says Alan. “And tall shingle houses are put in their place with no relationship to the site. Our clients could have commissioned any design or scale of house. So, we appreciated the modesty of the scale of their goals. They were on board with an ethical approach of how to treat the property, as well as the neighbors and the view from the water.”
Others are not so scrupulous, Lisa and Alan point out. “This piece of land is a promontory. Just across from it had been a turn-of-the-century, Shingle-style country home with huge oak trees on the property. Whoever bought it tore down the genuine Shingle-style house, removed the oak trees, blasted the granite outcroppings, and put in three pumped up, pseudo Shingle-style buildings in its place. It was a total destruction of the landscape,” says Alan.
Down to the Studs
Gray Organschi’s practice thrives on research. In addition to their rigorous and inventive design aesthetic, the partners have an insatiable curiosity about materials and methods—so much so, that Alan created a complementary company, JIG DesignBuild, to plumb best practices in building construction. The company is licensed for residential construction and managed all phases of the deconstruction and rebuilding of the Old Quarry House.
Alan shares what he learns on the job site with his students at Yale, where he leads a building technology class. He is also on the steering committee of the Cities and Climate Change Network and is pursuing research into the use of “new wood technologies for midrise, high-density housing and infrastructure.” His theory is that the lower embodied energy and renewable nature of wood makes it a better alternative to steel for many applications.
Lisa’s special interest, in addition to the firm’s architectural work, is interior design and furnishing, which she pursues under the name Gray Design. Whether in new construction or remodeling, the architects are especially interested in improving building performance over the long term, while carefully weighing performance returns against costs to the environment and the overall budget of the project.
In this project, that balancing of metrics was all-consuming: “What’s poignant to us is the design sensitivity of the period was just not matched by the technical capabilities,” says Alan. “Today’s knowledge is so much better, as is the technology. It was like restoring a piece of artwork not designed for longevity. But they had big architectural ambitions.”
Although big on style, what Granberry’s original house didn’t have much of was insulation. “It was leaky and poorly insulated. It had a resin roof that was replaced but was still not nice. Tar paper was the only moisture barrier,” Alan explains. “Masonry was put on plywooded stud walls. All of the studs and plywood were rotten, and the masonry was pretty much freestanding. We reverse engineered the walls to create a thermal break and make them properly insulated. We used high-density spray foam insulation and pressure-treated studs.
“We hired an expert crew to dismantle the project. It was a really intensive primary deconstruction procedure that required intensive knowledge of steel and wood. When we first gutted it, we surveyed what steel we had and redeployed it. There were header beams that were dropped headers, and we pulled them up into the floor package. Now, ceiling and soffit plane are the same, instead of walls with punches through them. The whole process was surgical.”
Although Granberry made many good design decisions given the norms of his time, there were many ways his original could stand improvement. Once Gray Organschi was into the bones of the building, it made sense to perform some corrective surgery to the architecture itself.
The basic plan was sound. And coincidentally, both former and new owners shared similar requirements: a house that could accommodate return visits from adult children. “Our clients wanted a bedroom on the main level and a communal living, dining, kitchen area. They wanted two bedrooms for their adult children and a guest room. All these spaces were there in the original,” says Lisa. “The three extra bedrooms were essentially bermed into the hillside. So, there was a major effort to make them less basement-like. We worked hard to get two exposures for each.”
While all the desired elements were present in the original, they were rough around the edges. “There were technical issues,” says Alan. “The layout and massing were right, but the organization of the rooms was compromised by the cheap building at the time.” In addition to brightening lower bedrooms, the firm carved lower-level lounge areas inside and outside, so everyone could have private run-away space.
Securing more natural light was also a priority for the main level. As were tweaking the pacing of the entry and unveiling of the view. “During the period this house was built, people thought of the shoreline as a nice thing to see, but they didn’t regard it with the same reverence we do today,” Alan says. “The choreography of the entry, the unfolding of the view, and the relationships to the outdoor areas were all rather ad hoc.”
The first big move the firm made here was to lift the corners of the flat roof at the north end to create clerestories. “In the living area, you now get very even light from four directions. It relieves the horizontality of the space. Before, it felt heavy and dark; now, it feels luminous,” says Lisa.
Then they slowed down the view’s reveal with louvered screens and doors on the exterior and reworked the entry hall to block straightforward sight lines. The louvers “pull the delay into the landscape,” says Alan. “The way the entry worked before was too immediate.”
Another consideration in this new arrangement was that the best views come from the harshest compass points. “We spent a lot of time trying to balance the fact that you’re looking south and west to the water,” Alan explains. Louvers help where they can, as do deep roof overhangs, floor-to-ceiling curtains, and the bountiful trees carefully preserved on-site. The louver motif continues down to the lower level, where it appears as railing for the stairs, fostering connection and separation at the same time.
New window walls further lighten the formerly dark interiors, replacing the three-foot sill heights of the original house. The high-quality, German-made windows were a splurge, for sure, but they transform the space and offer an important upgrade to the original low-performing fenestration.
Interestingly for a house of this caliber, the new windows are double-pane not triple. Here’s where the firm’s penchant for research informed the decision-making: “We did an analysis of what benefits we’d get from triple glazing, and the R-value system of double- pane pays back more quickly,” says Lisa. “With the extra embodied energy needed to make triple panes and the extra structural support for the added weight, we determined the double-pane units would recover their cost more quickly, with minimal impact on performance.” After all, Alan adds, “we’re not living in Northern Canada.”
Complementing the new windows is a new bespoke interior of maple paneling. The panels harken to one client’s Japanese heritage and were sourced from another parcel of forested land he owns. The architects treated the maple with a water-based urethane that makes it reflective. The floors and ceiling are bamboo, with a bleach coat to prevent them from ambering. The overall effect is a kind of “Scandinavian feel,” the architects observe.
Elsewhere on the main level, they closed off one side of the original double-sided fireplace to create an office. The team sourced filler stone from the same quarry used for the existing house and recreated the yellowish-brown mortar of the period, which is similar to what architect Paul Rudolph used on his Brutalist Yale Art and Architecture Building, Alan notes.
Granberry clad the original house in brown-painted wood siding. In the spirit of that look, Lisa and Alan experimented with charring cypress boards using the Shou Sugi Ban method. “We charred it, then wire brushed it so it has a light undertone,” says Alan. “It captured the brown gestalt of the period. And these days, there’s so much acid in the air that real cedar turns black anyway instead of gray. We created it in our shop as an experiment, and then subbed it out to a shop in Austin, Texas.”
Triple-laminated cypress boards form the louvers. “They’re spaced so they’re the structural mullions of the windows at the joints,” Alan explains. “The laminations are so thick, they are very stable. They pull away from the glass so you can get a squeegee behind them. You can see straight in but not from an angle. They delay your ability to see everything from outside. As Granberry intended, you don’t understand what you’re going to see.”
Charred boards cover the bifold garage doors as well, forming a pleasingly solid backdrop to the rest of the house’s veiled transparency. To the north, a raised roof corner brings warm, indirect light into a private, stone-clad studio for one of the clients, who’s a musician and music professor.
After the extensive reworking, the main level “functions like a one-bedroom house,” says Lisa. “Our clients don’t feel like they’re in a big empty house when they’re by themselves,” which they are in between visits from their adult children.
Says Alan, “The whole team had an awareness that this was a rare and special site. Whatever we did needed to be right for that site.”
“We love doing the houses. We get deep into the details and the relationships with the people,” Lisa concludes. “This project was especially close to our hearts, and the result is quite a warm and welcoming place.”
Plans and Drawings
OLD QUARRY HOUSE, GUILFORD, CONN.
ARCHITECT: Lisa Gray, Gray Organschi Architecture, New Haven, Conn., principal in charge
BUILDER: JIG DesignBuild, New Haven
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Gray Design, New Haven
PROJECT SIZE: 5,200 square feet
SITE SIZE: 2.91 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: © David Sundberg/Esto
WINDOWS/WINDOW WALLS: Bayerwald Fenster + Haustüren GmbH & Co.
CLADDING: Delta Millworks
GARAGE DOORS: Wilson Industrial Doors
RANGE/RANGE HOOD: Wolf
KITCHEN FAUCETS: KWC
SECONDARY FAUCETS/SHOWERHEADS: Dornbracht
SINKS/LAVS: Kohler, Duravit
LIGHTING: WAC, BEGA
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
PAINTS/STAINS/COATINGS: Benjamin Moore, Vermont Natural Coatings