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Homes - Pentagonal House

A pentagonal house in Southwest Harbor.

By Laurie Schreiber
Photograph by Peter Travers
It turns out that the geometric structure best suited to provide the most living space on a tiny lot is a pentagon. Penny and Dr. Otis Wolfe found this out when they were adventurous enough to agree not only to a five-sided house but one with a lookout tower rising from the center, when the design concept was proposed to them by Bar Harbor architect Quentin Armstrong. The couple had bought the lot several years ago when they lived next door. The property overlooks the scenic waterfront in Southwest Harbor - a view they cherished despite the small town-owned parking lot behind it.
Photograph by Peter Travers

They viewed the lot as a buffer. One of the couple’s original ideas was to get rid of the trailer home that had been sitting on it and create a wildflower garden there. Then they decided to sell the first house to their daughter and build anew. Zoning regulations allowed for some expansion, but they wanted to achieve the maximum living space yet also retain more than a hint of lawn on all sides. Armstrong gave them a pentagonal shape that opened up space by creating broader angles and opposing corners to walls. Armstrong is originally from New Jersey, where he designed many public buildings - schools, colleges, government facilities and the like. He now focuses on residential work. "It's fun and it's what I like to do," Armostrong said. "When you do residential work, you have to do what people want. You make it look good but still satisfy their particular needs." In addition to space and yard considerations, Armstrong was inspired by Mrs. Wolfe's interest in nautical themes. That's where the tower comes in, reminiscent of the widow's walks often built on the coast in the days of yore. Those windowed structures high atop a home were where a wife could watch and wait for the return of her husband from the sea. But let’s start at the bottom of this house. It has a basement finished to living standards. The basement, which hardly merits the name, incorporates an office, a guest room closed off with an accordion wall, a bathroom, a pantry and an additional walk-in storage closet paneled in cedar. There's lots of blank wall surface to hang the artwork produced by Dr. Wolfe, who paints and takes photograph. A separate furnace room provides plenty of workspace for the circuit board, heating, electrical, and plumbing systems. The up-to-date control systems with centralized labeled switches regulate such niceties as in-floor radiant heating and a built-in vacuum cleaner. "It's a work of art," Armstrong says of the control room. "Everybody knows where everything is." In the office, another perk comes in the form of a strip base plug that follows the length of two walls and allows electrical outlets to be moved at will, minimizing the amount of wiring needed for computer equipment and lamps. Although most of it is below ground level, windows at head height let in some daylight, but it wasn't really enough. So a Bilco window-well was installed. The special construction, designed to let in more light to subterranean levels, began with a square well along the outside wall to open up a section below ground level, large enough to accommodate a sliding window. Preformed fiberglass panels that snap together were inserted to form the sides and floor of the well. The panels incorporated a terraced step design that can be used for plantings. Granite slabs cap the edge of the well at surface level and white gravel attractively covers the bottom. At ground level, about a quarter of the pentagon's first floor is sectioned off to create two bedrooms and separate baths. Eight feet up one wall, accessible by stepladder, is a large storage cupboard tucked into the dead space created by the dividing wall. The first-floor plan leads around a central stairwell, with most of the space given over to a living room and an open kitchen defined by a granite-topped island counter. Windows on the water side provide a priceless view of the comings and goings of fishermen and sailboats in the harbor. At night, a series of lights tucked into coves along the edge of the ceiling, which slopes up to a 23-foot peak and is defined by protruding beams, lend an attractive ambience to the living room. Track lights are installed over the kitchen. The circular stairs are a central feature of the pentagon. Their construction is far more complex than the typical and relatively simple spiral staircase, which consists of a main post around which steps wind and, which, although space-conservative, can be difficult to negotiate. Here, a double-helix staircase consists of two progressive, compound curves, which meant bending frames of heat-molded laminated oak on an 8-foot 6-inch diameter along interior and exterior curves of different radii. "It was quite interesting to get the stairs so they'd work," Armstrong said. As the core of the house, the stairway rises to the second-story tower, which has windows that offer a 360-degree view of the harbor and neighborhood. Coming off the top of the stairs, the structure holds little more than two small telephone tables and an easy chair, with a brass light fixture hanging from the peak to evoke the lighthouse look. Even though it's tiny, it's a perfect place to read a book, have a quiet phone chat, or contemplate the view. The adjoining one-car garage echoes the structure of the house with a semi-pentagonal shape - two of the sides were made into one longer wall - also capped by a strip-glazed tower which is more aesthetic than functional. A long workbench is tucked beneath four hexagonal windows. Above, exposed roof trusses crisscrossing through the air from each point of the building attractively lead the eye up to the tower. All of the five-sided carpentry, said Armstrong, was "very interesting." Structural engineer Scott Homer figured the angles of the joints and the changing lengths required by the roof-framing members. The builders, led by general contractor Ken Hutchins, "worked the angles," Armstrong said. Mrs. Wolfe is delighted with the results. "The process has been terrific," she said. Armstrong calls the house "a happy sort of a place." "It's different working with homeowners," he said. "The design criteria are personal. You get an idea of what's needed. And then it's artistic as well. It takes a while to get the right answer... I try to make sure the structure works for people." Although the site is small, the house is "open, nautical, easy," he added. Perfect for a tiny lot on the Maine coast.
House Design by: Quentin E. Armstrong, Architect, P.O. Box 126, Mount Desert, Maine, 04660. 207-244-9816.