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What It Takes to Design Some of the Most Breathtaking Homes on Cape Cod

Doreve Nicholaeff designs homes that interact with the coastline instead of overpowering it, each paying respect to the property it’s built on. 

Having been intrigued by the variation and challenge that comes from Cape Cod’s geology since her arrival in Massachusetts in 1977 (when she began studying at MIT), Nicholaeff observes and listens, with eye and ear always to the earth. “No matter where you are, there’s going to be clues from the landscape,” she says.

Since she began her Osterville-based firm in 1986, Nicholaeff has built an extensive portfolio of work featuring a variety of Cape Cod projects. We sat down with her to learn all about her architectural inspirations and process.

Listening to the Landscape

In her early life, a foreshadowing to her career, Nicholaeff remembers being affected by the places and rooms she entered. “Certain spaces felt good to me, while others did not,” she says. “It was just an innate thing with me.” 

Having grown up in South Africa, where indoor-outdoor architecture was the norm, Nicholaeff found that she was most comfortable in spaces where the inside and outside connected. Her family spent time at a coastal town where she felt inspired. There, it seems, her coastal fixation was born. “There was something about the ocean, and the landscape surrounding the ocean,” she says. 

When she started spending summers on the Cape, she noticed the quiet serenity of some beaches versus the high drama of others, like the forty-mile National Seashore in Wellfleet. That contrast was what drew her practice specifically to Cape Cod. “That’s why it’s so intriguing, because it’s never the same,” she says. 

Now, at the start of every project, she observes the land and listens to that instinct she’s had since she was a child. She works with Chatham’s quaint towns and Atlantic views, Osterville’s oasis on the Nantucket Sound, even north on Maine’s rocky shores. “It evokes a different feeling,” she says.

Embracing Ecological Challenge

Throughout the years, Nicholaeff has learned how to navigate the ins and outs of coastal architecture, which requires knowing the specific geology of every plot of land. The most challenging projects, she says, are ones where the properties are low-lying—they’re within the floodplain or the velocity zone, which means they have a greater chance of flooding and eroding due to the height of the waves. 

Designing a home in the velocity zone, she explains, is especially challenging. The building must accommodate floodgates and all mechanical equipment must be located above flood elevations. “Making the structure blend in with the land is challenging,” says Nicholaeff. 

She says it helps to know the ramifications and complications of the property before diving into the design, and 32 years of experience with these natural phenomena have helped her come up with architectural solutions that are safe, secure, and still beautiful.

Nicholaeff recently finished a project on Cape Cod that consists of a pool house and a treehouse. The team built an outdoor oasis with a pool, including what she describes as a structure that floats in the trees above the water (shown above), as well as a related pool house building. For the treehouse itself, she had to consider the low-lying wetlands—which can come as a surprise on the coast—as well as the risk of flooding. 

“There was one section of that property that was in the velocity zone,” she says. That meant the team needed to design for the worst-case scenario, where much of the structure washes away—but the piers, the steel posts holding up the structure, are strong enough to remain. “It is a complex puzzle, and there are so many factors that you have to consider,” she says. 

Clients often present special challenges to Nicholaeff, ones she is pleased to take on. For example, a client may request that they’re able to see the sunset from the house when they’re vacationing on the Cape in the summer. “If you’re facing west or northwest, that’s easy to capture because your view is that way,” she says.

On other properties, especially when the home is facing north, or if the clients live there year-round, it requires a different approach.So how do you deal with that, but also catch the sun,  she says. It requires reorienting the parts of the property in certain ways during the design stage to make sure the design solution is “functional, scientific, technically sound, and artistic,” she says.

The Nicholaeff Touch 

Nicholaeff always wants the landscape to become involved with the rest of the design. This becomes clear if you notice the unique geometry of her houses, the way the pools crawl right up to covered patios, the way floor-to-ceiling windows face out towards the water when you’re inside (and beckon natural light), and how backyards reach both in towards the home and out towards the rest of the landscape. 

That trademark effect is largely due to Nicholaeff’s insistence on working as closely as possible with the people who design the outside of the house. “The landscape architect needs to work with the architect,” she says. With the treehouse and pool house project, Nicholaeff wanted the house to disappear into the land. “It worked very successfully because we worked so closely together, and the client understood, and we were all in agreement.” 

The treehouse and pool house project is the pinnacle of Nicholaeff’s work, one of her proudest achievements to date in her career. And even now, it all goes back to her instinctive feeling. “I really loved the project because it just feels right,” she says.  


Nicholaeff Architecture + Design is a highly sought-after architecture firm based in Osterville, MA, servicing clients throughout New England and beyond. Visit nicholaeff.com to see more of her work and contact the firm.