Two up-Island projects — one a complete renovation of a historic homestead, and the other, a green modular — show that there are many ways to create a sustainable home.
Editors’ note: The sisters preferred not to be named in this story.
The story begins in a familiar way. Martha’s Vineyard is the site of a family member’s honeymoon. Then the Island becomes an annual vacation location for this branch of the family. Soon, the whole extended family — brothers, sisters, cousins, all of whom had heard about the wonderful Island — come and the inevitable happens: They fall in love with the land, the sea, and the magic mess of being together. “It was the one time in the year when all the cousins were together,” one of the four adult siblings tells me. Then the next inevitable thing happens: two of the siblings buy property on the Island. One sister buys land in Katama and, a few years later, a second sister buys an old home in Chilmark. And then the Katama sister decides Katama is too busy and she wants to be closer to the Chilmark sister and so sells in Katama and buys in West Tisbury. And this is when the story gets even more interesting — because both sisters have green building goals in mind.
When I call the West Tisbury sister and her husband at their Easton, Connecticut home, she tells me about working as a nursery school teacher, raising kids with her husband in Rye, NY, and her passion for woodworking. “I am a totally self-taught amateur,” she laughs. Once the children were out of the house, she and her husband decided to move from Rye to more rural Easton and worked with Unity Homes to build their first green home. As we chat about the building process, I learn that Unity Homes offers five energy-efficient home designs. The family has the “Xyla” on the Island and the “Varm” in Connecticut. Unity delivers a home to a site in several large components and then assembles it. Then the client hires a local team to finish the work. Inside finish materials are more often than not supplied by the company. “With this house, I really learned that you don’t need to spend a wad of money to make something beautiful,” she says. “I bought rugs from Etsy. I made the lamps, the kitchen island, and many tables.” She tells me that once they had the building permit, septic and well installed, and the slab laid, the weather-tight shell was finished in two weeks. I nearly fall out of my chair and say, “Fastest house ever built on the Island.” Her sister’s house, on the other hand, took considerably longer. Of course, the project was more complex: retrofitting a house built around 1850 with 21st-century technology.
A month or so later, I meet the two sisters in the garden of the historic Chilmark home. They are chatting and laughing as they pull some late-season vegetables from the garden. “We saw this place and I was completely smitten,” the Chilmark sister says. I can see why: The old home has great bones and a spectacular view of Quitsa and Menemsha ponds. “My husband and I renovated an 1840’s brownstone in Brooklyn 16 years ago. I loved the process and, even then, tried to do everything as green as possible.” So a gut and a totally green renovation came naturally to her. She walks me through the house and I can see she is clearly well-versed in the latest sustainable material lingo — from rock wool to mini-splits and permeable membranes. And the amazing thing is that while the house is fossil fuel-free and energy efficient, it feels like a wonderful old Island home with rooms that unfurl organically, one after the other. We walk deeper into the house. “My sister made that table,” she says. “And that side table.” She laughs, “Oh and that table over there.”
We sit down on the home’s glorious new back porch overlooking Quitsa and the two sisters reflect on why green building is so important to them. “I am not saying that having a green home will solve the world’s problems,” the Chilmark sister says, “but not using fossil fuels at least doesn’t add to them.” The West Tisbury sister agrees and adds, “It is also healthier. I am currently being treated for cancer and, as a result, have become so aware of chemicals — particularly in furniture and home construction.” We talk about the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in some building materials that can have adverse health effects, and about the importance of ventilation and air flow in a house.
In a later phone call, builder Mark Hurwitz echoed this. Insulating and ventilating the old house with modern green technology was one of the greatest challenges. “The great thing about the old house was that it had so much air in it that there was not much rot,” he said. “We could use so much of what was there.” To build the tightest house possible, Hurwitz and architect Patrick Lindsay enlisted the help of Marc Rosenbaum as an “an envelope consultant.” “We had to go through all kinds of gymnastics ventilation-wise,” Hurwitz said. “They didn’t want to blow foam insulation in, so we used rock wool in the walls and Gutex wood insulation on the roof.”
The West Tisbury sister tells me that with Unity, “We didn’t have to do any of the complex calculations that my sister did. It was all already figured out. And,” she laughs, “my husband and I had a different budget, timeline, and goals.”
The more I talk to the West Tisbury sister, the more I see the appeal of letting go of the details and having a net-zero home delivered as efficiently as she and her husband did: When we built our house, my husband and I struggled with so many variables — sourcing green materials, figuring out heating solutions. But my conversation with Mark Hurwitz reminds me of the great value of renovating an old home. “Saving an old home is one of the greenest ways to build,” he said. “And you get to do things like have an old, beautiful curving stairway with lower handrails that wouldn’t meet today’s current code. The front staircase in that house is stunning. But doing something like this is certainly more of an effort and takes time and resources.”
Renovating an old home is also an extraordinarily collaborative process. The Chilmark sister was up for the challenge every step of the way. She drafted her vision of the home on yellow tracing paper. “She had an amazing vision for the project and was so informed about the available materials and technology,” Hurwitz said. Beyond working with engineers, the Chilmark sister, Mark Hurwitz, and Patrick Lindsey worked with mason Mike Cassiani to move the chimney, which, according to Hurwitz, was a “magical act.” Brothers Gary and Greg Harcourt built cabinets and day beds. Plasterer James San Fillipo worked with the old lathe and plaster under the stairs and replastered the whole house. Outside, Indigo Farm helped to figure out how to restructure the landscape, rethinking and imagining the stone wall surround and parking. “The best thing about the house is that if you are driving by and look at it from the road, you don’t know anything was done. From the road, it’s an iconic landmark. And I think it will be good for another 150 years.”
Nine months later, I visit the Chilmark sister and her house again. The garden has grown in and is bursting with local native flora and fauna, but the visit is bittersweet. On June 10 of this year, the West Tisbury sister died of cancer. I say to the Chilmark sister that it feels cruel: The sisters and their families have finally achieved their shared goal — having green dream homes on the Island, but cannot now share them.
Editors’ note: The West Tisbury sister was a wife, a mother, a nursery school teacher, and a builder of furniture. She cared about her family and the planet. She had a great smile and bright eyes, and she will be missed.
This is a great article, Molly is a great writer as well
All those involved with this project deserve high praise
Beautiful story of two wonderful sisters and their love of family, nature, and having a positive influence on their shared worlds.
I enjoyed this article about devoted sisters who inspire us.