On the hot seat

Projects build on classic N.E. style

Peter Polhemus, president, Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects/Builders Peter Polhemus, president, Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects/Builders (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
July 10, 2011

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Peter Polhemus and his partners at Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects/Builders are known for building structures in some of the most picturesque spots in New England. They have worked around the salt marshes of Cape Cod, near the public spaces of town greens, and along hillsides and lakes that present unique challenges, as well as possibilities. Polhemus spoke with Globe reporter Casey Ross about the firm’s work, which recently earned it the title of Custom Home Builder of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders.

What intrigues you about working in New England?
There is something about New England architecture we find very alluring. It’s architecture that is not frilly. It’s architecture where there’s a certain simplicity and a set of organizational principles that are grounded in the region. We have strong regional architecture here, and there are certain parts of the country that really don’t have that. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, you’ll see subdivisions that will have a Spanish Colonial next to a Colonial next to Mediterranean. You don’t see much of that on the Cape and Islands or in other parts of New England.

How do you preserve that history while also building something unique for your clients?
Our architecture is very much contextual and draws on the past for references, but it’s not revival; it’s not looking to the past to mimic the past. Rather, it utilizes appropriate references that are reinterpreted today. When they see our project, people feel it’s a little different, but there are aspects that they can relate to that make them comfortable.

How do you work with people on price?
Let’s say it’s going to be a 3,200-square-foot house. We go through programming and put it into a graphic that gives us sizes of all the spaces - family room, kitchen, etc., and we add 20 percent for circulation. Then we’ll come back and say, I know you want a 3,200-square-foot house, but your program is for 4,000 square feet. What would you like to do? Instead of going ahead and designing it and having it end up being way over, we’ll sit down with the client and ask, “Do you want to up it? Or do you want to cut back?’’

Tell me one of the more vexing roadblocks you encountered in trying to build in an environmentally sensitive area?
We were building on an island [in Massachusetts] and we went to the conservation commission and said we wanted to do a couple of airdrops of our equipment, and they said, “No, you’ll destroy the bird life.’’ So there’s a 300-foot-long footbridge to get to the island, and we have to bring every piece of material across this footbridge. We had a power wagon going back and forth for days. You can imagine the vibration and the noise that created, instead of just having a helicopter hover for a few hours.

How is technology changing the way you work?
For us, the major effect of technology is the ability to communicate with our clients all over the world. We’ll look at sites on Google Earth. And then there are things like digital photographs and video that we’ll take on the site so we can send them to our clients.

How do you manage the relationship with clients during the design process?
We tell clients that it’s critical they be involved, because the house is for them. I’ll say to them, “This is a great spot. I could do a great house here for myself. You might like it; you might not.’’ It’s really irrelevant. The point is to understand what you want to do, what your goals are, and how we can help you realize those. Most clients get excited and they’re very much involved. But we had one client who came here for the first time last week and the house is done. It’s a fairly major house and guest house and pool, and construction started 16 months ago. She’d never seen it. Fortunately, she was extremely excited about it.