A Solid Start

Two-sided fireplace in cape living room
The two-sided fireplace separates living and play spaces; coffered ceilings add formality.

On the banks of the Piscataqua, a well-built 1951 Cape grows with handcrafted care

Michael Couch was warned he wouldn’t like the bridge. But when he pulled up to the solid little Cape Cod–style house in the shadow of the I-95 span across the Piscataqua River, he thought it made a resplendent backdrop to the property. The august engineering landmark lets him know exactly where he is—just across the street from the riverbank in Kittery, Maine, where the view is of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, skyline and the water can churn with the power of legendary currents and tides.

The bridge looms high above this peninsula, making the land seem all the flatter, the houses modest additions to the landscape. In addition to the location, Couch was impressed with the solid construction of the house, which had been built in 1951 by a father and his three sons as the family home. “It sounds like a cliché, but it really does have good bones,” says Chris Martin of Martin Building Solutions in Portsmouth, who recently completed a two-story addition and renovation to the house.

Krissy and Michael Couch in front of their renovated cape code style house's custom island
Krissy and Michael Couch with 1-year-old Norah in the kitchen, where Kent Scovil added a custom island; the floral arrangement is from Flower Kiosk in Portsmouth.

Before he decided to expand the place, Couch, who bought it in 2009, updated the kitchen, put a new stone face on the living room fireplace, and got married. Between them, Couch and his wife “Krissy” had a long list of must-haves for the new space that included a living room with lots of windows, a coffered ceiling, a two-sided fireplace, an adjacent playroom for their 1-year-old daughter, access to the yard and new covered terrace, and a master suite with ample closet space.

The concept and design of the addition largely was done by the Couches, who worked in collaboration with architect Paul Fowler of Smart Home Designs in Amesbury, Massachusetts. To build their dream, they hired Martin, who brought in Kent Scovil of PKS Woodworks in Rollinsford, New Hampshire.

Exterior view of a renovated cape-cod style house in Portsmouth, NH
The addition complements the original Cape Cod–style architecture.

“We started with a design concept to create a completely handcrafted product,” says Martin.

Once the slab for the addition was poured, complete with radiant heat, owners and builders used masking tape on the floor to map out every element, from fireplace to furniture, to ensure that scale and placement would be right. Because there are no internal load-bearing walls, the plan could be flexible. The fireplace, which serves as a handsome room divider with a see-through firebox, is the decided focal point of the space, so “it was important it be the right size for the room, and this process let us do that,” says Couch.

Rustic barn-style door in updated Cape
A rustic barn-style door can close off the living room.

The coffered ceiling, built off-site by Scovil, gives the room a sense of sophistication and history. “A lock-miter system allowed it to be put up in sections but look like one piece,” he says. While the ceiling was a must-have design element, it also created a chase where Martin and his team could run mechanicals for the addition. “We wanted a certain look, but with function,” says Couch.

The adjacent existing living room became the formal dining room. Barn-style sliding doors made from reclaimed wood can close off the new living space and add a rustic foil to the formality of the coffered ceiling, architectural moldings, and six-over-six windows with transom tops in the addition.

Sitting room with custom built-in shiplap storage in renovated cape-cod style house
Built-in storage was added to the former master bedroom-turned-sitting room.

Upstairs, the old master bedroom became a sitting room with custom built-in shiplap storage. The laundry was moved to an adjacent space, where Martin used rubber horse-stall mats to diffuse any vibration from washing and drying machines before Scovil built the cupboards around them. The new master bedroom is light and bright, with a vaulted, shiplap-lined ceiling that gives the space a casual ambience. The en suite master bath has a double vanity designed and built by Scovil with pilaster columns that camouflage storage for toiletries. A freestanding soaking tub sits across from a huge double-size walk-in shower. Here, as elsewhere throughout the house, the floor is a lightly stained ash. “We realized that the main part of the house had to match the addition,” says Couch, “so we ripped up all the floors. It was a massive undertaking, but worth it.”

For finishing touches, the Couches worked with Patty Kennedy of Patty Kennedy Interiors in Portsmouth, who was especially insightful when it came to finishing the bedroom ceiling with shiplap.

Updated kitchen with coffered ceiling and stainless-stee wire on staircase in renovated cape-cod style house
Stainless-steel wire on the staircase gives the space a modern, open appeal.

“There is an energy about this place,” says Martin. “The team cared; the owners cared and showed their appreciation. There is an element to renovation that is problem solving, and you get emotionally and physically involved.” Adds Scovil, “A consistent thread of communication among us drove the design.”

Two of the three sons on that original family building team have come by to see the changes and gave their stamp of approval. That was satisfying for Martin and Scovil. “We have an appreciation for what was here,” says Martin, “and wanted to pay homage to the family that built it.

Project Credits:

Produced by: Marsha Jusczak

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