This House On Stilts Is Stronger Than It Looks
When a New York couple—she’s an arts entrepreneur; he’s a high school counselor—bought 15 waterfront acres on the North Fork of Long Island, they envisioned a single-story house with outdoor access from every room. But their architect, Bill Ryall of Ryall Sheridan Architects, wanted to protect the house from the next Sandy-like storm and to give the couple expansive views of nearby waterways and islands. “So I ordered a 12-foot ladder from the hardware store and had it delivered to the site,” says Ryall. When his clients climbed up and saw the newly revealed vistas, they were, as the husband puts it, “blown away.” They gave him the go-ahead to raise much of the house on stilts.
Longtime North Forkers, the couple chose Ryall after seeing the house he designed for himself and his husband, Barry Bergdoll, the architectural historian and MoMA curator. Ryall’s projects aren’t pristine forms; they seem to be organized informally. “If a house is going to relate to the site, it can’t be a formulaic box that you plop down,” says Ryall. What he built for the couple is far from symmetrical. Its form follows interior functions—and captures the best views.
But if there’s a casual quality to Ryall’s design, there is nothing nonchalant about the detailing of the house. Ryall dropped the sills of the sliding glass doors below the floor level, so from inside “you’re just seeing glass, not a window frame. It feels like you’re just floating in the landscape.” A spectacular skylight turns a shower into an otherworldly aerie, all the more so with its walls painted a yellow used by Le Corbusier. “I like bright colors but in confined spaces,” says Ryall, who otherwise worked with white oak and gray concrete. And even though he elevated the house, he didn’t shortchange its connection to its setting, regrading the property just enough to let each of the guest bedrooms open directly into the garden. The screened porch—Ryall always includes one if he can—measures about 275 square feet and contains a fireplace that makes it usable much of the year.
A student of passive-house standards, the European ways of keeping energy use to a bare minimum, Ryall applied their lessons to the house: He specified triple-glazed windows and installed a high-tech building wrap beneath the wooden sheathing. (He compares the insulation to athletic clothes that breathe while keeping moisture out.) And he installed a system that in winter exhausts air from the house, uses it to heat up fresh air, then pumps that outside air into the house—doing the same with cool air in summer. Thanks to constant circulation, “it’s never stuffy, even with the windows closed,” says Ryall, noting that the system uses far less energy than conventional climate control. But he wasn’t trying to prove a point with the green features. “It’s just the way every house should be.”