On to the Next House

After architect Michael Ball built one house on the Vineyard to live in, he did it again. Now he’s planning another move off-Island, but he’ll leave his mark with these two decidedly different designs.

Architect Michael Ball and his wife, Penelope Dixon, a certified fine art photography consultant/appraiser, are already thinking about their next house. From that fact, you might conclude something is wrong with the brand new house designed by Michael that they moved into a year ago on Chappaquiddick. That’s hardly the case.

“I don’t think I could even count the number of houses I’ve done this with,” Michael says. “It’s like any other art. Each time you finish something, you’re ready to move on. That’s not to say what you’ve already done isn’t any good.” After thirty years in commercial and residential design and construction, Michael works as a consultant to people in the process of building houses. He has designed houses in Toronto, in Miami, on Martha’s Vineyard, and in Guatemala.

The Ball-Dixons found their way to Martha’s Vineyard in 1990, when Penelope suggested they vacation in Harwich Port, where she had summered growing up. Michael said, “I don’t think it’s going to be the same there this time. Let’s go to Martha’s Vineyard.” They rented a house on Skiff’s Lane in West Tisbury for a week. A week turned into two, then four, from one year to the next. One Thanksgiving when they were staying in a big, old East Chop house with ten friends, Michael saw a two-line ad for property in Chilmark. It was 1995, and they bought the land for $180,000. Michael designed his first Vineyard house – a Regency cottage–cape hybrid – up-Island in Quansoo (see sidebar, page 30). They began dividing their time between the Vineyard, Miami, and, until recently, a home near Toronto. Now they spend April to November on-Island and the rest of the time in Miami Beach.

The design process for the house on Chappaquiddick began five years ago when Michael and Penelope were spending their summers in the Quansoo home and he decided to buy the 3.1-acre lot. They’d had an indoor lap pool in their house in Canada and Penelope missed it, so a similar pool became the centerpiece for the new house.

Designed like a catamaran, the house has two pods – but the water between them is in the form of that long, lean, fifty-foot, indoor lap pool, where Penelope swims every day. One pod contains the living, dining, and kitchen area plus rooms that double as Penelope’s and Michael’s offices or as overflow guest rooms. At the other end of the pool is the pod that holds the master bedroom with bath, a guest room with bath, and a laundry area.

The living-dining area opens up into a vaulted ceiling and flows toward the kitchen as continuous space. A traditional house may have ceilings that are eight to eleven feet high, but these are sixteen feet. Light shafts from four eyebrow windows in the high ceiling provide light and volume, with recessed lighting behind a valance that makes the ceiling look as if it’s floating. The loft that Michael uses as an office spans the living room-kitchen area, and doesn’t feel claustrophobic because of the windows in the ceiling.

“I wanted the kitchen incorporated as a living space more than usual, recognizing that’s where people spend the most time. That’s why I put wood there,” Michael says. “We spend so much time in the kitchen, I wanted a softer surface for living.” When you entertain, guests can inadvertently get in the way, leaning against the counters to talk. So Michael designed a transitional counter, made from wana tropical hardwood with Angelique wood trim, where people can sit and talk while the hosts are preparing food. The counter and sitting area behind it echo the pool deck, looking like a sailboat deck on a smaller scale.

The first room in the sleeping pod is the master bath, placed in close proximity to the pool for water-loving Penelope. The bathtub echoes the shape of the pool, and the same kind of slate appears in both locations. Beyond the bathroom, the doors of the modest-sized master bedroom open directly onto the deck. Michael designed the king-sized bed with an Angelique wood headboard. A separate hallway from the pool runs past the master suite to a guest suite with its own entrance. A lover of outdoor showers, Michael thought, why not make them indoor-outdoor? In both bathrooms, bathers have the convenience of the indoor shower if it’s cold or rainy or, by opening a door, can turn the space into the equivalent of an outside shower. A Venetian blind on the double-faced glass door allows for privacy when necessary.

The idyllic tongue of water between the pods has terrace doors that open onto a deck running the length of the house in back, while the wall along the front of the house has oval medallion windows at either end and a triple set of conventional windows in the center. When the doors and windows are open, the indoor pool becomes part of the outdoors.

Architecturally speaking, it might seem an indoor pool is mostly a utilitarian and technical challenge, but aesthetics were very much on this architect’s mind. The four steps leading down to the pool from the front hallway are cut from a single, magnificent three-inch-thick piece of wana wood. Forty-eight by fifty-four inches long, it came from Surinam – like most of the wood in the house – and since it was all part of a single tree, it has no joints. Pocket doors – which disappear when not in use – separate the pool area from the other two sections of the house. When closed, they control noise, temperature, and humidity; although Michael and Penelope rarely use them, because the house’s dehumidification system and retracting pool cover prevent any build-up of humidity.

Except for two white Adirondack chairs bought from Vineyard Haven craftsman Allan Davey, the pool room is not furnished. The walls are finished simply in beadboard pine, painted white. The room’s major adornment is a corner waterfall that, at the flick of a switch, flows musically into the pool over a spectacular spill of slate slabs.

There is one potentially big liability to making an indoor pool a central part of your house. “You’ve got the issue of chemical odors,” Michael says. “You can always smell them, so I wanted that water to be natural.” While many people opt for salt instead of chlorine, Michael wanted to use the water out of his well, so he designed a four-part cleaning system to maintain its purity and clarity. Primary filtration occurs through a sphere-shaped filtering tank (located in the basement) that is filled with silica and sand, and takes out particulate matter. A secondary filter removes smaller particulates, down to almost microscopic size. Then an ionization system introduces ionized air into the water, and finally, the water is aerated, remaining fresh as it passes over the waterfall.

It took four days and 14,000 gallons of well water to fill the pool a year ago, and that same water has been in the pool ever since. It has no signs of algae or sediment. “It’s like swimming in Perrier – but even better,” says Michael. Most of his ideas build on experience, and pretty much everything he’s done in this house, he’s done before but differently. That principle holds true for the flooring around the pool.

Traditionally, a deck made of tile, concrete, or another hard surface surrounds a pool. When the pool is indoors, that hard surface creates a big echo. Michael wanted something quieter, more sound absorbent, and more resilient. “Having been a sailor for many years, the challenge was very similar to what is experienced in boat construction,” he says, “and I decided I was going to build it like a sailboat deck.” He watched the craftsmen at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven to see what the Island boatbuilders were doing, then designed the pool’s perimeter like a sailboat deck – a surface that can be wet or dry and has a nice feeling. Planks of wana skirt the pool on an angle, with rubber gaskets separating each board. The gaskets allow the wood to move back and forth as it is exposed to moisture. “It’s a lot like a giant Jacuzzi,” Michael says. The wood in the outside deck is set at the same angle to integrate the two areas.

In a conventional two-story house, sleeping and bathing happen upstairs, living goes on downstairs, and the separation between the spaces is vertical. Michael thought for a long time about how to separate the two in this house.

“I liked the idea of separate spaces and water between,” he says. “You get that sound separation between the two main functions of life – living and sleeping. You are always punctuating your movement from one to the other.”

Water takes over the role of a staircase. It creates the psychological separation necessary if one member of the family wants to watch TV and another to read. Michael says, “It’s hard to have a modern life in a traditional house with a traditional layout.” Instead he uses light and volume to shape spaces.

How spaces relate to one another also applies to where a house is located for Michael. “One of the hardest parts of building a house is figuring out where it fits best on the land,” he says. “I spent many, many days just walking the property before beginning the design of the house.” The couple even tramped through their oak woods in the rain several times. They discovered the property had two knolls seventy feet apart.

“Too many people find land, pick the prettiest part, and put their house there,” Michael says. “Then it’s covered up by the house. I like to listen to the land. Here the land said you’ve got to think about the two knolls.” He positioned the house’s footprint accordingly with the living and sleeping pods on the knolls. He also suggests you have to be sensitive to who’s living next door. Luckily, no neighbors are close enough to impact the Chappy property, although location had been a problem in other places where Michael has built.

The property is landscaped with rocks that came out of the excavation and ornamental grasses – some of which are native – in an effort to keep the property deer proof, drought resistant, and as low maintenance as possible. “It’s surprising how many plants you can find that do well in Chappaquiddick’s tough growing conditions,” Michael says. “I didn’t want to make the gardens of Versailles the way so many people do. I didn’t want to be watering constantly. Leave the local plants alone, and they do fine.” A woodsy, quarter-mile-long nature trail that Michael created follows the boundary lines.

Even though getting a building permit was no problem, putting up a house on Chappy proved to be a challenge. The tides control when concrete trucks can come across on the ferry, so indirectly even the phases of the moon affected the construction schedule. Deer season and bass season also slowed down the building process, since most of the crew disappeared then. From the land purchase in 2003 to completion in 2007, the Ball house took four years. “It is a complex house,” Michael acknowledges. “It is the most difficult place I’ve ever built, but in the end, it’s been really worth it.”

Over time, the plan for the house itself evolved. If Penelope’s contribution was the pool, Michael’s was to make the house as “green” as possible. “I would do it differently next time,” Michael says. “The world had changed quite a bit by the time I got to the end. When I designed this house, gas was under $2 a gallon. How can you not pay attention to issues like that?” It’s the last time, for instance, Michael will use the varieties of handsome hardwood that cover the interior surfaces, because forests in South America, where the wood came from, are being compromised by overharvesting. But the house has no plastic, and no chemical products have been used in its construction, not even on the floors. Instead of polyurethane, Michael used oil and wax. “It’s not certified, but I’ve tried to keep it as green as possible,” he says. Two large, buried propane gas tanks provide fuel, so they can stock up when the price is low. A propane-fueled electric generator allows the house to operate on its own outside the grid, if necessary. Instead of conventional gutters, roof water drips down onto a canal of beach pebbles in a trench surrounding the house.

As striking and unconventional as it may be, the Ball house is no mega-mansion. The floor area is a relatively modest 3,100 square feet. From the air, the complicated roof makes the house look like a caterpillar working its way across the landscape. Michael has expanded the living space by adding a mini guest house complex to the right of the main house. Chappaquiddick zoning allows for a 400-square-foot bunkhouse, but he wanted to duplicate the separate living pods of the main house. The idea for two one-room structures of 200 square feet each came to him while he and Penelope were traveling in India. “I saw similar spaces there,” he explains. One building is for sleeping, while the other serves as a small living room, and a deck connects the two.

Sound perfect? After creating and living in two houses on the Vineyard, it doesn’t look as if they’ll stay here much longer. The Ball-Dixons haven’t decided yet where they’ll land next. Though Michael has already bought a partnership in a 100-acre coffee and avocado plantation outside Antigua, Guatemala, Penelope is encouraging a move to Marin County, California.

“The next house will be a hybrid,” he says. “I want to build a house that can go on or off the grid quickly and easily.” He points out that both a mobile home and a sailboat or yacht can operate on a 12- or 24-volt system. “With just one or two people, you can live quite comfortably.” Maybe not with a color TV, but this hybrid system offers the freedom to go back on the grid at will – as long as the national or local network hasn’t crashed. “That’s my next challenge,” Michael says. “I’m itching to get started. Our life, as always, continues to be in transition.” Wherever Michael and Penelope end up in a few years, they will have made their mark on the Vineyard with two beautiful houses.

A Regency-style cottage in Quansoo

Michael Ball had a different vision when he designed and built in Chilmark in 1995. The house reflects the kind of architecture used in British colonial countries like Kenya, India, and South Africa, where it was important to be able to sit outdoors as well as indoors. The little cottage with cape overtones and a wrap-around veranda – it’s 1,800 square feet – sits on 3.4 acres and is almost completely surrounded by protected land.

“We’re on this diamond-shaped peninsula,” Michael says, “with sunset views that rival Menemsha because of the meadow beyond our grove of oak trees.” He kept the property’s woodsy feeling without letting it take over. As in Chappaquiddick, a quarter-mile walking trail follows the perimeter of the property. He calls it a little oasis, a place to be indoors and outdoors. “I wanted to spend a summer here on the land to get a good feel for it,” he explains. So the family, including their then-fifteen-year-old daughter, Emily, lived in a tent with a platform for four months, before the design process began the next winter. Admittedly, it was luxury camping with hot and cold water.

Michael says, “It was a lot of fun. It’s so peaceful here, evenings in particular. There’s no cell phone signal, no radio reception – not even in the car. Almost magically, nothing electronic works in this little pocket. There is little choice but to absorb the beauty and serenity of the land.”

Since the veranda of a Regency cottage is as wide as nine feet, Michael built his with skylights to keep the interior bright and airy. He used an open living plan similar to the one that shows up in his Chappaquiddick home. The kitchen and dining area are essentially one big room, with the living room across a traditional center hallway.

Michael’s architect friends don’t believe it when he tells them the house’s square footage. It feels much bigger because everything is circular and open to adjacent spaces, creating the illusion of more volume. An office–guest room completes the downstairs floor plan, and the upstairs has two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. Chilmark’s height restrictions necessitated lower ceilings upstairs, but the knee spaces in the upstairs bedrooms, designed for storage, fit around the form of the house.

“There is always something to look at. I let the shapes, light, and structure show through,” he says. A good example is the skylight that floods the stairway twisting like a snake from upstairs to downstairs. The stairs to the basement are open like those in the Chappy house, adding an architectural feature to the living area. Another Ball signature is reflected in the indoor-outdoor shower downstairs.

In the eighteenth century, before the Quansoo land of which the Ball-Dixon property is part was divided up, it was called Oak Grove. Michael followed tradition by restoring the name to his property. Since Chilmark allows an 800-square-foot guest house, two years after the main house was done, he built one. To make the guest house feel bigger, Michael designed a high ceiling for volume. A loft with a spiral staircase provides sleeping space, and the kitchen, living, and dining areas are open. The indoor-outdoor shower is particularly important because the guest house has only one bathroom. The guest house was very economical to build, and Michael thinks it would make a great plan for low- income housing; a family of three or four could live in it year-round.

The principle Michael used in designing the Quansoo house, which he still owns, was to maximize space visually without having to build it. He often did that by stealing space from adjacent areas. Just as the Chappy house fits into its landscape, so too does this one; every door and window turn into pictures of the surrounding woods and meadows. He says, “It’s trying to reflect the environment of this piece of land and Chilmark, which has a distinct personality.”