What Lies Beneath
An unusual underground home becomes a contemporary coastal retreat
The concept for the stucco and wood home situated off the beaten path on Duxbury’s Bay Road started with a tree.
Not a massive, towering oak, or even a lone birch, but a slender, skewed pine that helped frame the marshlands beyond. It was in that spot, with that view, that architect William (Bill) Lee started building the home’s expansion from the ground-up—literally. The existing house was all built underground.
The concept was to do a renovation on the one-floor home, which had been constructed in the late 70s to early 80s. According to homeowners Brian Sullivan and Paul Bucci, the house had originally been built in an energy crisis, when oil was scarce and concerns were high. As the story goes, Brig Pemberton, an affluent Norwell resident who owned other properties in Maine and France, told his wife one day that he was going out to buy some land. He came back with a 12 2/3-acre peninsula of space, connected to Bay Road only by a long, winding road through the marshlands.
Unlike the colonials that dotted the coastline nearby, Pemberton had a different idea. With the unknown state of energy knocking down the future’s door, he decided to construct an underground home, invisible from the road and hidden amongst the trees from the sea. Using the ground above and behind, the rectangular home was constructed with earth on five sides, with large, glass panels on the bay side where light leaped into the living space. Inside the house, the view gave the feeling of standing on the ocean’s doorstep. Though energy efficient, remote and set apart, Pemberton eventually put the house on the market. Despite the otherwise prime economy of the 90s, no one dared play house in what looked to be a cave. As a result, the massive, glass walls were boarded up and piles of sand were placed on the land leading down to the water to discourage trespassers.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that Sullivan and Bucci, exploring Duxbury Bay on their boat, came upon the mystery. Making their way through the marsh, and eventually onto the land, the duo explored what looked to be a World War II bunker. They were instantly intrigued. Although a tour with a real estate agent put them off the place, they kept coming back, unable to quite leave the view, the land, and the home behind.
“We thought, boy, what a place. We didn’t care about the house, it was just the area,” said Sullivan. The love of the land is understandable. Plush marshlands reach out to the inlet of the bay, the saturation of color echoed in the blue skies beyond. The land is hidden amongst the trees, yet open out to the sea, intimate yet infinite all at the same time.
A week later, the pair had put in an offer, which was promptly rejected for being too low. It didn’t take long for the pair to decide to put in an offer at asking price. Approximately $595,000 later, the house was theirs. For four years the house remained unchanged, a comfortable, quiet, and very habitable place. It was so hidden that strangers would come upon the property as if it were a park.
“Someone drove up onto the roof one time,” Bucci said with a laugh. “They thought it was a cemetery out here.” By 2004 the pair decided something needed to be done. “The house needed work. It was 20 years old by then. It was either go with it the way it is, or add on to it,” said Bucci. A search of architects eventually led them to Lee, who had a vision and energy unparalleled by the others.
“When I came out here, I saw something slightly different than a colonial interpretation. I talked about maybe doing some Zen feelings about the site, maybe expanding with Asian influences—very contemporary and crisp, to contrast with the site,” Lee said. Once hired, the ideas came quickly, and with such a picturesque view, the surrounding marshlands couldn’t be ignored.
Lee saw the pine tree and wanted to frame it with a window. Soon he was designing the whole property with vignettes. Today, the view from each window looks like a painting. The tower room (a media space in a loft on the third floor of the house) provides a 360-degree view of the marsh and the bay. The master bedroom, screened-in porch and master bathroom—all part of the second story addition—lend views that peek off to the ocean.
The cabana, a small porch and attached room on equal level with the tower room, the porch next to the sun room, and a small balcony connected off the master bathroom all have their own perspectives of the property. Although the vignettes came easy, the outside construction—bringing the stucco cave up into a re-imagined expansion—was the challenging part, Lee said.
“I thought this was a great adventure,” Lee said. “We do projects in different architectural languages, but this is the palette I like to do the best. Contemporary, chiseled, the latest materials.”
The contemporary style feeds off the surrounding land. The stucco of the bottom floor slowly incorporates into the wooden high-rise, reminiscent of rock leading way into trees. Hard fixtures, like the thin, silver metal railings, black windowpanes with black horizontal muntins, and a standing seam metal roof lend a contemporary edge that gives the structure style and energy.
“A lot of it came during the initial thrust of the design to pull the whole schematic together. The details came later,” Lee said. Even the angles of the house, partially mandated by the floor plan of the existing building as the site was too environmentally sensitive to expand the footprint, make the site feel organic.
Rooflines rise up like trees from mountainous forefronts, angled toward the sky as if catching the sun. Throughout the house, the outside elements are also continually brought inside. Interior railings echo the ones outdoors and the open floor plan lacks interior swinging doors. A natural feel is also emphasized by the wooden accent walls and wooden floors, and in the putty colors of the paint on the walls.
Like the seamless transition from the exterior to interior, both Sullivan and Bucci wanted a house that blended in with its surroundings. “Going from an underground house, we felt funny about popping up. There’s this beautiful nature area and now there’s [a house],” Sullivan said. In keeping with the idea of being discreet, Bucci said they also didn’t want something typical for the area.
“Bill felt that we were a bit separated here, and could take some liberties,” Bucci said. Those liberties showed in the materials used on the outside of the house, the distinctive design of the house, and the special constraints of the land, which translated into a unique layout inside the home.
Although the entryway looks common, with a limestone fireplace greeting new guests, the master bedroom is just on the other side, separated only by a walk-in closet. A den and a gallery room, fit for the piano it houses, sit off on either side of the foyer, and serve as unexpected pockets to the ever-unfolding house.
“I think I broke some rules of adjacencies and hierarchies. We have the main circulation going right by the master suite and you have to come down to the kitchen,” Lee said. “In a colonial house or a Cape, if you tried to do that, the house would break down. It wouldn’t be a cape or colonial it would be something else. We’re starting with a clean slate.”
The result is an exciting adventure for guests. “People come in the front door and they are intrigued. It’s unpredictable, they don’t know what to expect,” Bucci said.
By placing newer spaces in upper levels, Lee could keep the base floor relatively the way it had been.
The house maintains the large, glass walls that look out into a rolling garden, one that seemingly spills into the ocean feet beyond. Interior walls were taken down the bottom floor to make the space feel more open, however the kitchen is still just a nook and the now secondary bedroom has maintained the smaller, raised windows it had when the building was mostly underground.
The renovation ended up lasting two years, and came in with a final price tag that was one fifth of what the pair had budgeted.
Despite the time and cost of the endeavor, neither Sullivan nor Bucci could be happier with the outcome. “It’s a very comfortable house. It’s a joy to come home all the time,” Bucci said. “It gets to be a problem because we don’t want to go out again.”