In the home’s original condition, it was immediately apparent that this Wellfleet residence was a product of the 1970s. Windows were tiny, and there were few of them; the first floor walls were made of poured concrete and the exterior was clad with T 1-11 siding, an inexpensive and unattractive plywood paneling. Built on a slab, the house had structural issues, virtually no storage capacity and the HVAC system was hugely inefficient. “There was nothing architecturally compelling about the house,” says Cambridge-based architect, Frank Shirley. In fact, the homeowners who’d used the place as a summer residence for 20 years actually referred to it as “unprepossessing.”

Photography by Randy O'Rourke Builder: Frank Shirley

Photography by: Randy O’Rourke
Builder: Frank Shirley

While the house had suited them for two decades, the homeowners were ready for a change and they contracted Shirley to make the house more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing with updated mechanical systems. While an almost complete overhaul was in order, the homeowners wanted to conserve costs and save as much of the original structure as possible. The house was a modest 1,900-square-feet and while the expansive wooded lot could accommodate a much larger structure, the homeowners were content to keep the square footage the same. “The house was small, and it stayed small. It was a refreshing change to work in a tight footprint,” says Shirley.

Since the home was severely lacking in character, Shirley sought to give it an architectural presence. “We weren’t trying to create a ‘look at me, hear me roar’ type of house, we wanted the building to remain humble with a quiet sense of grace.” The homeowners had indicated that they found Cape Cod’s historic architecture appealing so Shirley incorporated elements from 19th century vernacular into the design of the new façade, which is now clad with white cedar shingles and abundant neatly trimmed windows.

Among the top priorities was to bring more natural light in to the home. The tranquility of the setting was lost because the windows were very small and oddly shaped—some were even located above eye level. “We weren’t shy with the use of new windows, we made them as large as we could,” says Shirley. Though installing the windows was not without its challenges, says Rich Bryant of North Eastham’s Cape Associates, the building firm that worked on the renovation. Since the base of the first floor walls was clad with concrete and covered with plywood on the interior, it was necessary to saw through the concrete to make way for the window openings. “It was a long process,” says Bryant. “And one of many instances throughout the project when we scratched our heads wondering why we were going to such great lengths to save the structure.”

To create a tight building envelope, updated HVAC equipment was installed along with uber-efficient spray foam insulation. Inside the house, new heart pine floors were installed throughout. “We brought color, moldings and wainscoting in to give more depth and a sense of richness,” says Shirley. The four small bedrooms on the first floor were reconfigured into three and since storage was lacking, a small room was created for the purpose. The dilapidated second story deck was reconstructed and full-height skirting was put underneath as another storage enclave, accessible by barn doors. Upstairs, the living room became a much more enjoyable area, thanks to all those new windows. Two bedrooms were combined to create a spacious master bedroom and bathroom, with a luxurious two-person soaking tub.

The kitchen was the one space in the house that was left untouched. “All of the items in the cabinets actually stayed in place throughout the project,” says Bryant. “The kitchen is dated, but still functional. The homeowners went into the project with the idea that if it’s not totally broken then why fix it, which is pretty impressive.”

Shirley agrees.  “Ninety-nine times out of a 100 this house would have been a teardown. But it was saved, which is wonderful. It shows that it’s possible to take a small house of no particular character and completely transform it.”