Blog : adaptDESIGN Finds the Creative in the Specific

By Magill | May 20, 2014 | in

By Jim Cavan

A cursory glance through adaptDESIGN’s scrolling online portfolio paints a picture of a company for which size and scale mark the makings of a masterpiece—gorgeously grand New England homes gently guided towards their platonic ideal.

But as a recent Portsmouth project proves, Bob Cook and Paul Fowler are just as prone to parlay even small renovations into something bigger, better and bountifully more beautiful.

It began as many architectural undertakings begin: by way of a referral from an earlier adaptDESIGN client. That project, also located in Portsmouth, yielded an exemplar of Cook and Fowler’s grander gambits—from 1920s Dutch colonial to a beacon of modern design and practicality.

Lynne S., by contrast, was less concerned with an all-out overhaul as she was a particularly pressing problem: how to turn a three-bedroom, 1940s Cape into a space capable of accommodating four children and her own mother.  

According to Bob Cook, the main obstacle wasn’t so much the home’s inherent, but rather the weekend-warrior trials—and, as it turns out, tribulations—of its previous owner.  

“On the section connecting the house to the two-car garage, some sheathing was exposed, the pine boards weren’t all level—kind of haphazardly put together,” Cook explains, before adding with a laugh: “He wanted to do something funky, and he sure did it.”

Cook and Fowler’s solution was to rip down the entire garage and connector, erecting in its stead a sturdier mudroom (through which one can access the main quarters) and garage with a second-floor master suite and home office for Lynne.  

While the master suite proved a straightforward endeavor, the office—originally conceived to include outdoor access—had to be reconfigured partway through the construction process.  

“The design allowed for some flexibility when it came to converting that aspect of it,” Fowler explains. “Because there was going to be a second person living there, we had to augment it to make the bedroom accessible from the inside.”

Maximizing and beautifying the space may have been adaptDESIGN’s principal purpose, but the home’s location—squarely within the jurisdiction of the Portsmouth Historic District Commission—demanded the ancillary goal of reconfiguring it to better fit the street’s distinctly antique fell.

“All the neighboring houses are late 19th then there was this 1950s split-level,” notes Cook. “New Englanders are a very bold form – a simple form, but a bold form. And part of what we tried to do with this house was bold, making it almost look like two different houses. But the scale made it work within the context of the neighborhood, made it fit better.”

Beyond the more paramount pieces, the project also afforded Cook and Fowler some opportunities to improve the minutia: helping Lynne conceptualize a more streamlined interior décor, augmenting the windows to harken, in Fowler’s words, to “an earlier Cape vernacular.”

Taken as a whole, the process—as collaborative as it was spatially creative—was one whose on-the-fly flexibility Lynne found particularly praiseworthy.

“They really took the time to listen to what my family needed from the space, but they also challenged me in a way that was really productive,” Lynne said. “I really appreciated having someone be able to look at the space and really visualize how to utilize it. And that’s before we even get to the great, creative designs. They really turned it into a tremendous space for a family with four children.”

With its straightforward endgame, recalibrating a garage and entryway might not sound like the kind of pursuit conducive to architectural masterstrokes. But as both Cook and Fowler expressed, sometimes having clearer constraints can help cull a more fanciful creativity.

“It might seem restrictive when you’re working with a smaller building,” says Fowler. “But within the exact footprint of the existing structure, the creativity—because of that forced envelope—lets you find nooks and crannies you might not have otherwise.”

Cook, for his part, fervently echoed those sentiments.

“A lot of times, when we’re working on renovations, things just kind of fall together,” he exclainms. “With a bigger project, where the budget constraints are a little more variable, it can sometime be more difficult to come to a concrete decision. With a space like this, you have X amount of space, so you can put this here and that here. It’s not formulaic, but if you’re open to a discussion with the existing form of the space, the limitations make it, in some ways, easier and more conducive to creativity.”

For Cook and Fowler, forging a successful, coherent process is as much about collaborating amongst the project principals as it is having a conversation with the home itself—to better understand its ticks and temperaments, its nuances and century—a lot of New Englanders—and nascent beauty.

And while adaptDESIGN’s latest renovation may seem slight when seen from the street, the small scale only made the conversation that much easier to hear.

“It was a very good dialogue, giving the house something to better fit into its setting,” he says. “That’s what the successful projects are all about, having that dialogue and seeing where it takes you.”