As newlyweds — and long before they could afford it — John Sabatino and his wife, Karen, dreamed of a vacation home that was both on the water and close to skiing. So they pulled out a map of New England, saw Lake Sunapee with its ski resort nearby, and knew they’d pinpointed the spot. Years later they started seriously looking, driving up one weekend a month to see what was on the market.
In 1997 they found the perfect piece of land on the Burke’s Point section of the lake, about two miles from Sunapee Harbor. It was a small plot — only about a half-acre — with a southeasterly view and a small three-bedroom cottage.
“We like to have friends and family out, so it could get a bit crowded in there,” says John. At first they contemplated putting an addition on.
But then a twist of fate steered them in a new direction.
Next door was an older couple with no children of their own, and John thought that maybe in 10 or 15 years the couple may want to sell their property. As it turns out, they decided to sell to the Sabatinos just a few years after John and Karen bought their place. “We went from having about a half-acre to one-and-a-quarter acres and two older cottages, so we decided to tear down both houses and build a new, larger home.”
With the added space afforded by the adjoining lots, the Sabatinos could now build their dream home from the ground up. “When we first started talking about building, we knew we wanted something different, not a standard plaster wall type of home. We looked at log cabins, and those were too rustic for our taste. A timber frame house seemed somewhere in between, and we figured it would best suit our needs.” He says they liked the unpretentious feel of a timber frame — even though the five-bedroom, two-story house is 4,500 square feet, it still feels comfortable. And it gives the impression of being “out and away from civilization, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
Initially the couple met with a few different builders and sketched out a rough design before settling on Davis Frame Co., Inc., in Claremont. “We saw a few of the homes they built and really liked the look, the feel and the quality,” says Sabatino. Davis Frame worked closely with the Sabatinos and came up with a completely custom home — something that is quite common and easy to accomplish with timber frame houses. “It was a collaborative effort,” says John Deming, general manager at Davis Frame. “The homeowners designed this for their living needs, and we put it into print.”
Timber frame is a centuries-old type of post-and-beam construction where solid wood interlocking beams are connected with traditional joinery and secured with hardwood pegs. The beams can be designed and assembled in specific configurations to span the length or width of the house, which eliminate the need for posts middle of the room. Timber framing’s popularity declined in the mid-19th century when stick-frame construction emerged as the cheaper option. Standardized lumber and nails could be manufactured quickly and efficiently. The 1970s saw a resurgence in the aesthetics and usefulness of timber framing, however, and its popularity has only increased since then.
People choose timber frame homes for various reasons. Some are drawn to the energy efficiency of timber frame homes and earth-friendly use of materials. Others like the aesthetic beauty and natural feel of visible wood. Still others just want the flexibility of an open floor plan. Although timber frame houses are a little bit more expensive than conventional buildings, according to Deming, they have a higher resale value and their durability gives them an edge. “Some timber frame structures have lasted for 400 years or more,” says Deming, “whereas a conventional home will only last 50 to 100 years before it needs major repairs.” They can also be quicker initially to build.
As part of the Sabatinos’ conditions, Davis Frame had eight months to complete the house. The family wanted to stay in the old cottage through Labor Day 2000, and be in the new home by Memorial Day 2001 — “and that’s exactly what we did,” says John. The morning after Labor Day the contractor was there. They leveled the two older houses and started construction on the new one, and the Sabatinos were in and enjoying their new home by the following summer.
Built to take maximum advantage of the views and the spacious side yard, the Sabatinos' home has a few unique things going for it, says Deming. Picture an H, with the middle of the house as one wing, and two wings off of each side of it. Two types of framing styles are showcased. The common rafter system is found in most of the house, where the exposed tongue-and-groove boards run horizontally across the ceiling. “Common rafters is what you would see more in a barn setting,” he says. “It’s not more rustic, but just more commonly used.” By contrast, the bent frame system in the great room and study have common purlins that run horizontally so the tongue-and-groove boards run vertically. So your eye moves up the cathedral ceiling rather than across the length of the room. This stunning ceiling is only made more beautiful by the fact that there are no knots or imperfections in the tongue-and-groove because the Sabatinos chose a high grade of Douglas fir — the same caramel-colored wood used throughout the home.
“Although some people choose other wood for doors and windows and the trim, we chose to have the same wood throughout and it gives a nice consistent look,” says John. It also unifies the openness of the floor plan. Having this open space was a top priority for the Sabatinos. Because “most of the time we seem to have another family or two in tow, which makes for lots of fun,” says Karen, the couple wanted a big open area where people would congregate and socialize. They made the kitchen, dining room and great room all one space, visually separating them with beams across the frame.
To accommodate the couple’s frequent houseguests (as well as the food and dishes that go along with entertaining large crowds), the kitchen has an oversized oven, large workspaces and plenty of cabinets. John and Karen designed it so that whoever is working in the kitchen is still part of the activities in the dining room or great room.
A massive stone fireplace dominates the great room, John’s favorite part of the house, with lake views just outside the windows. When the snow is falling outside and the fire is roaring in the wintertime, “it’s a great place to have a snack and a few drinks and enjoy some company,” says John. Natural light radiates through the windows year-round, adding to the brightness of the space. “I enjoy the intensity and brightness of the sun and have never thought of doing anything to block it out,” says Karen, dispensing with tinting or curtains altogether in the great room. Instead, she says if the floors and furniture become sun-bleached, they’ll just deal with it — and the upshot is that it will have meant that they’ve had lots of great weather over the years.
Though the house is made for entertaining guests, the couple deliberately designed the master bedroom space and the basic living areas so that they are all on the same floor, and the rest of the bedrooms and the den are on the lower level. Years down the road when they retire, and living on one level is important for mobility and energy efficiency, they can also take advantage of this feature. For now, John says, on the off chance that John and Karen are up by themselves, they don’t have to open up (or heat) the rest of the house.
The house is so airtight and energy efficient, John says, that when they make a fire they have to open up windows to get a draft going. This is common for timber frame homes — even those with high cathedral ceilings, says Deming, because once the frame is up, the entire house is covered in building panels typically made of foam insulation sandwiched between sheathing. This creates a type of continuous membrane around the house that is not interrupted by studs, where homes lose a lot of heat, especially through the roof. It also keeps the house cooler in the summer.
When the days are warm, you’ll most likely find Karen enjoying her favorite spot: the deck overlooking the lake and Mount Sunapee to the south. And their kids are most likely outside on the Jet-Ski watercrafts, the kayak — anything to take advantage of the lake. But it’s the feeling the family gets when they first enter the house each time they arrive for another getaway that makes it all worthwhile.
“As soon as you walk in the door, you know you’re on leisure time, away from the pressures of work or school,” says John. “Whatever you do in real life, you’re now there for one reason: to relax and enjoy.” NH
For more pictures and a list of local timber framing resources, pick up the June issue New Hampshire Magazine at a newsstand or store near you. Click http://www.nh.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=NHM15 for the list of newsstands by town. Or subscribe today by clicking here http://www.nh.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20031216/NHM05/31215006.
This article appears in the June 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine