The Apprentice

There’s a story told about Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of the most famous house in America, Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater, and his architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Worried that his home’s reinforced concrete cantilevers might not hold, Kaufmann hired an outside engineer to double-check Wright’s calculations before construction. When Wright found out, he quit. Kaufmann begged, Wright agreed to stay, and the engineer’s report was entombed in one of the construction’s stone walls. Moral: The client shall not architect.

Rob Haimes and his wife, real estate investor Joan Shafran, were unfamiliar with that story when, a decade ago, they bought 20 acres of a former Boy Scout camp overlooking the Westport River. In the middle of building a small guesthouse on the sprawling property, it occurred to Haimes, a former technology analyst, that he was interested—very interested—in the design and construction process. “I was struck by how much was decided on the fly; that got me involved and thinking deeply about design,” he recalls. So when the couple began to talk about building a separate, larger house on the property, Shafran urged him to pursue the idea of designing it. “I trusted he could do it,” she says.

By then, Haimes had supplemented his interest with actual schooling—he’d attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s intense six-week Career Discovery program and completed graduate studio work at Boston Architectural College. All along, he was imagining the house he wanted to build.

In early 2003, Haimes showed Shafran an article on a Martha’s Vineyard home designed by the Somerville-based architect Charles Rose. Low-slung, responsive to its wooded site, contemporary, and light-filled, it looked just like what Haimes had been dreaming up. Armed with plenty of chutzpah, he e-mailed Rose: Would the architect take on Haimes as both a client and an apprentice? Could the customer get a house and a desk in the office?

For his part, Rose, who had collaborated with artists and landscape architects, remembers hesitating. “I wondered, Would this be interesting for the office or not? Then I thought, Hey, we’ve never done something like this before—let’s try it.” In September, Haimes got a desk and a project architect, Heather Weiss, and so began what Rose calls “an architectural education like no other.”
Starting with sketched floor plans and small massing models, Haimes worked hard to master the task of imagining interior spaces while thinking of the exterior volumes of his future home. Weekly reviews with Weiss were punctuated by practical lessons. “Rob loves materials and quickly bore in on details,” she recalls. “We challenged him to allow the creative process to unfold at its own pace.”

Standing in a sunny oak grove in front of his completed house—a calm but attention-grabbing assembly of cedar, glass, and metal planes and angles—Haimes says, “Heather taught me to loosen up and play more, to be less compulsive. I needed to learn to be a beginner.” The result, however, is anything but amateur. Taut, graceful, and very much at ease on its site, the house, which took 11 months to build, is a deft composition of volumes and materials, with an L shape that frames water views and façades that reflect interior spaces. Flanked by screened-in porches, the first floor holds a living room, entry hall, kitchen, dining room, and guest suite. Above are the master suite on one side and an office on the other, both under a thrusting cantilevered roof. And it’s all heated and cooled by a sophisticated geothermal system.

Two prominent exterior features prompt Haimes to smile the smile of an initiate. The concrete block chimney was supposed to be cast in place—until the estimate came in. “We value-engineered that right out,” he laughs, remembering the cost-cutting process. Similarly, above the office is a lead-coated copper clerestory window Rose calls “the flip.” “When the flip was also put on the chopping block,” Haimes remembers, “Charles called Joan and pleaded with her to give it to me as a birthday present.”

“I’m glad I did,” says Joan, “because it really makes the house sing.”

Inside are clean, bright rooms, subtly composed and comfortable. “The great thing,” says Rose, “is that Rob got one of our houses, yet was instrumental in realizing it.” Walnut floors unite the entryway and living and dining rooms, while the kitchen floor is concrete, which works beautifully with Pietra del Cardosa countertops. Haimes also used the warm gray material in all the showers and baths of the house, as well as for the fireplace surround. Everywhere, horizontal and vertical planes meet with the rigorous exactitude of contemporary design. Plaster surfaces end in clean reveals, with squared-off door casings and baseboards free of the standard moldings designed to hide any construction imperfections.

The master bedroom door is perhaps the most impressive piece of visible engineering—a massive wing of walnut, its 350 pounds swing effortlessly on a hidden pivot—while in the basement, a geothermal system works silently to heat and cool the building. Every detail and every system was part of Haimes’s education. He opens a drawer full of dozens of tiny cardboard models. “I designed this house every day for a year,” says Haimes. “And it was the best year of my life.”

Dear Mr. Wright, how much times have changed.