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The Soot House: Conjuring the Ghosts of Old New England on Spruce Head in Maine

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Sculptor turned builder Anthony Esteves’ work is haunted by the dark side of old New England. “The homes of the 1600s have a ghostly quality,” he says. “They are defined by simplicity of shape and adornment, and stand to be noticed in the landscape. I bring those guiding principles to my work.” This tradition is evident in the Soot House, a charred black structure that Esteves built by hand with a sculptor’s eye, and where he now lives with his wife, Julie O’Rourke, and their small son in a small clearing on Spruce Head in Maine.

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In building the Soot House, he took cues from the island’s craggy, wild landscape, with its black spruce and lichens; from rambling, old New England buildings; from efficient Japanese techniques, and from his training, at Rhode Island School of Design, as a sculptor. “I treat the work as a sculpture and balance traditional aesthetics with high-performance building techniques and materials,” he says. “My style is informed in part by the first generation of homes built in America, known as post-medieval English.” Here’s a look at this small, efficient house that channels New England gothic.

Photography courtesy of Greta Rybus.

The Soot House, surrounded by wild Maine brush.
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Above: The Soot House, surrounded by wild Maine brush.

Esteves built the Soot House from scratch, despite having been trained formally in sculpture, not architecture. It has influences from both old New England and Japan: The shape and scale of the structure and roof is decidedly New England, and the main part of the building is fitted with traditional colonial clapboards (visible nails included). But the cladding is painted with a Japanese-style, fermented paint that Esteves makes out of soot, water, and persimmon. “It absorbs into the wood like a stain.  The color is extremely matte because of its high pigment content,” he says; it’s rot resistant and will never chip. The small addition is fitted with wide-plank boards that have been burned using the Japanese shou sugi ban technique. The house is small (“it’s just shy of 600 square feet,” Esteves says) and designed to be super-efficient during Maine winters, heated only by a wood stove.

A detail of the charred-wood siding.
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Above: A detail of the charred-wood siding.

Inside, the front portion of the house has high ceilings. &#8
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Above: Inside, the front portion of the house has high ceilings. “I mixed a combination of natural pigment and plaster of Paris for the walls,” Esteves says. (For more, see Remodeling 101: Modern Plaster Walls Six Ways.) “All of the wood visible is Eastern white cedar. The only exception is the door and window jambs, which are Douglas fir. Against the wall is an antique orchard ladder, once used for picking apples.

The small dining area is adjacent to the living room, with a dining table sourced from The Red Barn Marketplace in Lincolnville, Maine.
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Above: The small dining area is adjacent to the living room, with a dining table sourced from The Red Barn Marketplace in Lincolnville, Maine.

Diogo&#8
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Above: Diogo’s high chair at the table.

 Open cedar shelves create a divider between the dining room and kitchen and display earth-toned ceramics.
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Above: Open cedar shelves create a divider between the dining room and kitchen and display earth-toned ceramics.

 The snug kitchen is one step down, and has the feel of a modern root cellar. The wood stove sits on a poured-in-place concrete floor; the sink and counters are also concrete.Esteves made molds and poured the concrete sinks himself.

Even through the island’s long, cold winters, the wood stove is the house’s only source of heat. The secret is Esteves’s smart, efficient design: The heat from the wood stove, centered in the low-level kitchen, rises into the loft directly above. A floor grate that runs the length of the loft then pulls the hot air back down, in a convection cycle. “This airflow maintains a consistency in temperature throughout the house, and the loft stays within one to two degrees of the main floor,” Esteves says. It’s economically and ecologically efficient as well: “We use about half a cord of wood a year, roughly $150,” he says.

On a ledge: an animal jaw.
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Above: On a ledge: an animal jaw.

Herbs, ready for cooking, in an antique basin.

Above: At left, built-in wood storage. At right, Esteves made use of empty space beneath the floor to create niches for jars of spices and dry goods. The family also stashes out-of-season clothes and bedding there.

At the other end of the kitchen, a small cooktop sits atop a vintage cabinet.
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Above: At the other end of the kitchen, a small cooktop sits atop a vintage cabinet.

Appliances are kept out of the kitchen; the Smeg refrigerator lives in a small nook with a poured-in-place concrete floor. It&#8
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Above: Appliances are kept out of the kitchen; the Smeg refrigerator lives in a small nook with a poured-in-place concrete floor. It’s clad in cedar boards that Esteves milled himself.
Above: Work shirts hang on hooks from Sugar Tools in Camden, Maine. The pared-down lighting fixtures throughout the house are the U/1 Sconce and U/2 Sconce (pictured here) from Schoolhouse Electric.

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Above: O’Rourke and son Diogo in the bathroom, with an exposed-pipe faucet and concrete sink.

Esteves&#8
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Above: Esteves’s design, with influences from sculpture.

Esteves made the hand rail from a branch of a fallen poplar tree.
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Above: Esteves made the hand rail from a branch of a fallen poplar tree.

Upstairs, O&#8
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Above: Upstairs, O’Rourke (who has a line of children’s clothing) made simple floor mats to serve as a bed for Diogo.

A witchy antique broom hangs over the bed in Esteves and O&#8
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Above: A witchy antique broom hangs over the bed in Esteves and O’Rourke’s room. The night tables are made of cinderblocks.

Tones of peach. Note the slats in the floor that allow heat from the wood stove to cycle through.
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Above: Tones of peach. Note the slats in the floor that allow heat from the wood stove to cycle through.

The couple&#8
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Above: The couple’s deconstructed, DIY closet under the eaves, with copper pipes threaded with rope and suspended from the ceiling.

The family in front of the Soot House.
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Above: The family in front of the Soot House.

The small family compound in a clearing. Esteves is hoping that &#8
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Above: The small family compound in a clearing. Esteves is hoping that “bayberry, wildflowers, and saplings will creep in, and over time moss and lichen will grow on the granite. The process will be slow but the progression will be beautiful.”Via remodelista
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