Outside the Box

Every summer, Phoenix-based architect Darren Petrucci, 42, his wife—art and architectural historian Renata Hejduk, 43—and their Labrador retriever, Angus, make the 2,300-mile exodus from the dry Arizona desert to lush Martha’s Vineyard. Their destination isn’t the usual cape or bungalow. Rather, it is the unconventional (and tiny) modern home Petrucci designed and began building in 2004.

Most people with a big lot (12,518 square feet) a few blocks from Vineyard Haven would have built their main house first. But Petrucci and Hejduk didn’t quite have the funds to finance a large manse. So they built the guesthouse instead and will live in it, until, well, someday.

To be categorized as a guesthouse (thereby allowing a larger house to be built sometime in the future), the dimensions of their home had to adhere to the island’s strict zoning regulations for that building type: under 600 square feet and under 24 feet high. Luckily, Petrucci thrives on limitations. He explains that the house is an exercise in “radical pragmatism,” an approach that transforms constraints into opportunities, addressing “the core of the problem at hand. It’s that sensibility that gives the house its radical quality,” he says.

If Petrucci sounds like a theorist, it’s no accident; he’s the director of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Arizona State University. Originally on a pre-med track at Tulane University, Petrucci stumbled across a group of architecture students in his dorm one day. “I stood there, watching them draw, and decided I wanted to do that, too.” He switched majors and never looked back.

Hejduk has the discipline in her blood: Her father is the famed theoretical architect John Hejduk, who “actually discouraged me from becoming an architect because it was such a difficult field for women,” she says. She pursued a master’s degree in art history at Tufts before getting her doctorate in architectural history at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where she and Petrucci met.

While at Harvard, the couple spent time on the Vineyard with friends, and returned frequently after relocating to Phoenix (only three days after their wedding, more than a decade ago). When they decided to buy, their only affordable options were to rehab one of the existing ubiquitous Capes or build from scratch. After one year of searching, they scored the large lot and hit the drawing board.

Petrucci doubled as the architect and general contractor, overseeing everything from Arizona and making frequent cross-country trips to check in with his carpenters. Because he couldn’t be on-site every day, he decided to use a premanufactured structural insulated panel system built in a factory in New Hampshire and shipped to the site to be erected. He designed the system using three-dimensional software and then sent drawings to the manufacturer and subcontractors. “Prefab panels are a single stroke solution for structure and insulation, and they go up fast,” says Petrucci. In fact, it took just three days to get the entire structure up.