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The exterior of the ranch house is cedar and Galvalume, a metal product used on farm buildings. (Photo / Eric Roth)
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Eastern Influence

A ranch-style house sprouts wings that envelop a new courtyard and an Asian-inspired vision.

Of all the house types found in the suburbs of New England, perhaps the most nondescript is the 1950s ranch style. What a difference a thoughtful renovation can make.

From the moment the owners, both artists, bought the house in a town west of Boston, they knew they wanted to make dramatic changes. However, they took their time -- almost seven years -- figuring out how they, and their two children, like to live. They concluded that they wanted a more open floor plan with lots of light flowing into every room, a place that would make them feel calm the minute they walked through the door, a home that had the sleek, streamlined style of the Japanese and International designs they favored.

They hired architect David Pill to help them achieve their East-meets-West vision of turning their one-story ranch into an Asian-inspired showplace. As for Pill, he liked the idea of designing a modern home nestled on a grassy hill in the middle of an old New England town. "It's not about doing something just to be unconventional," says Pill, a principal of Pill-Maharam Architects in Winchester, along with his landscape-designer wife, Hillary Maharam. "It's about doing something for your life that suits your tastes, that suits the way you live. A lot of people who live in New England stick with what they see in New England. I loved the challenge of doing something unexpected."

The homeowners were involved in every step of the planning, says Pill, recalling how the couple and the design team, including project architect Neil Higgins and contractor John Saleme of Detail Construction in Marlborough, would sit around the blueprints eating homemade scones and going over every detail. It was decided to add a wing to the original footprint. The more than 1,400 square feet of new space forms a kind of modernist ell that houses the children's bedrooms and a master suite.

Materials were chosen for their usefulness and durability as much as for their aesthetic value. Bamboo flooring, for example, lends an exotic appeal but is also stronger than most hardwoods; cabinetry was made from blond maple, stainless steel was used for appliances and accessories, translucent glass on doors allows for both privacy and light.

The original structure measured 1,510 square feet on the first floor, with 908 square feet of living space in the basement. Making the dark little house brighter was a priority, says Pill. Walls were removed, and a staircase leading to the basement family room was moved to allow for more open living and French doors to draw the sunshine into the living/dining area. New walls are set at angles, and the play with geometry makes for space that is anything but static.

In the modest-sized kitchen, the focal point is a custom-designed center island that is set on wheels, so it can be rolled over to a counter and hooked into place like a piece of a giant puzzle. In addition, there is a pantry space, a dedicated wall for the kids to doodle on a whiteboard, and a "toasting station" that houses a toaster oven and microwave.

The fireplace in the living room was refaced in slate, giving the room an air of sophistication. A short hall leads to a former bedroom and bath, which Pill transformed into an art studio and a laundry room.

The hall leading to the new bedroom wing is where the home makes its most dramatic transition. A wall of glass faces the front of the home, where a square courtyard filled with smooth stones creates a Zen-style garden. Pill designed the master bedroom to face the courtyard, a serene setting that inspires the owners' day or calms them for sleep. The bedroom is set off by giant shoji-screen pocket doors.

The children's rooms are large, with high ceilings. Each has a view of the courtyard through oversize windows that start at the floor. In the simply designed garden, branches brush up against the glass and make the ground-level rooms seem as though they are floating among the treetops. "The couple wanted the house to not only feel calm but to feel open to the outside," says Pill. "The site for me is the most important thing. A house has to fit into its surroundings, and we really wanted to make the trees and grass outside as much a part of what was going on inside."

The basement-level family room, which leads to the two-car garage and backyard, was updated with a mudroom that has lots of cubby storage and a new linoleum floor. The basement is at grade level on the back side, where Pill added a one-story wing that houses a home office with a buffed concrete floor, built-in maple cabinets and shelving, and a long, skinny skylight that brings indirect light into the room. The house now totals 3,860 square feet.

When it came to exterior materials and design, the idea was to "keep it simple," says Pill, who added industrial touches without letting them overpower the warm and inviting sensibility of the facade. For siding, Pill chose fat cedar shingles and accented the outer walls with Galvalume, a galvanized-steel product typically found on the roofs of farm buildings. The cantilevered deck off the kitchen has stainless-steel rods passing through cedar rails. A corrugated plastic canopy shelters the side door to the family room, and a giant steel beam slices through a flank of the home, supporting the deck and expanded dining area.

The ample grounds are sublime. A few perennials greet guests at the entrance, while the yard is a rolling sea of grass that leads to woods where a rope swing hangs from the massive branch of a tall tree. An Adirondack chair awaits visitors, who, upon sitting down and gazing back at the house, could easily forget they are in New England.

Eight months after the project's completion, Pill says with certainty, "I think we've accomplished everything we set out to do here. It's not about the pediment on the house next door, or the fact that everyone else has a Colonial, or that this is the Northeast. It's about the sun and the trees and the grass and the way you want to live your life inside and outside the walls."

The Ranch House

The notion of a New England ranch house may seem contradictory. After all, there are not many cowboys punching steers between Cape Cod and the Green Mountains. Maybe the ranch house is a long way from its seemingly Western roots, yet this particularly American domestic type has flourished here because its casual, informal demeanor speaks to us of both leisure and modernity.

The grandfather of the ranch house was Frank Lloyd Wright, considered to be America's greatest and most influential architect. Developed not in the Rockies or on the Great Plains but in Chicago, Wright's Prairie Style started a revolution by overthrowing the hierarchical American house plan of a box divided by a central hall and flanked by rooms. Abandoning attics and basements, Wright's houses stressed fl owing and open spaces beneath low-pitched, horizontal, sheltering roofs, all anchored by a massive central chimney.

Wright's nontraditional house spread to Europe. Modernist immigrants brought their various Dutch, German, and French treatments of the master's house back to America in the 1930s. Meanwhile, West Coast architects were discovering the simple 19th-century ranch houses of California. All of these sources were melded together in the Eisenhower years with the comfortable yet oh-so-modern ranch house.

The emphasis was less on historical sources than flexibility and economy: The ranch house was often built of redwood or cedar, a carport replaced the barnlike garage, and the kitchen was filled with the latest space-age appliances. Best of all, a spacious living room, which flowed seamlessly from the kitchen and dining areas, was centered on a large stone fireplace. As for external aesthetics, in the hands of a sensitive designer, the ranch fit naturally and comfortably into the landscape.

—Will Morgan

Doreen Iudica Vigue is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

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