Solid as a Rock

Built on the foundation of an old boat house, this guest house boasts both style and substance.

Mark Reinhold stands on a stone-and-concrete breakwall on a spring-like winter’s day and points to a sandbar halfway between Lake Erie’s shore and the horizon. He explains that the long, pale streak, visible beneath the gray-blue waters just west of Cleveland, was once the first destination of pleasure craft housed in a private boathouse that stood just feet from where we speak.

“This structure had a railroad-car-type trolley that would deliver boats to the lake,” the suburban-Cleveland-based architect says. “So it was kind of a boat garage. But you wouldn’t drive it in — you would use the trolley car.” The system, he adds, isn’t unusual. Similar examples of it survive in neighboring suburbs.
The only exterior remnant of the boathouse is its foundation. Mark estimates the 22- to 24-inch stone walls, along with the foot-thick concrete slab they support, were built almost a century ago. “It’s pretty amazing, with the weather that Lake Erie gets,” he says. The structure atop it, however, didn’t fare as well. By the time the current property owners bought the place, it was no longer fit for its repurposed use as a single-story home. Mark remembers finding holes in the rotting walls and a bathroom he describes as downright scary.

In 2013 the owners hired him to design a replacement incorporating the existing foundation. The result is a 1,100-square-foot guesthouse, an accommodation boasting amenities and lake views so enticing that the owners have considered abandoning their property’s well-appointed main house for it.

“They use it for a guesthouse, for parties and, really, just to relax,” Mark says.

The guesthouse is even more impressive considering the challenges encountered by the architect and building contractors Jess and Alexis Oster of Oster Services. The limiting size of the foundation footprint was compounded by a local zoning law requiring existing homes be replaced with the same number of bedrooms and baths — in this case, one of each. Its location directly on the water, at the bottom of a steep ravine, complicated construction.

Jess recalls waterproofing the foundation’s cement slab, laying a rubber membrane along with the floor joists, adding closed-cell spray foam and filling the remaining cavity with open-cell foam. “It’s essentially like the wall of a cooler,” he says of the combination. “It allows the wood to live in this wet environment.” The floors were then finished in moisture-resistant eucalyptus. A humidistat-run ventilator installed behind one of the well-insulated walls draws air from the rooms when the humidity in them reaches a certain level, while a quartet of baseboard-mounted electric heaters supplement two wall-mounted, Mitsubishi heating-and-cooling units when the temperature dips below zero. Mark finished the exterior with heavy metal roofing and waterproof cement siding painted a custom-blended taupe.

The open floor plan expanded the square footage by tucking the bathroom under the staircase and raising the gable- and reverse-gable roof over white board-and-batten walls to accommodate a U-shaped bedroom loft under a vaulted knotty pine ceiling. It also incorporated a number of features inspired by boats. The loft, for example, was outfitted with a built-in seating platform that doubles as a second bed and a railing of stainless-steel cable strung between custom, chrome-plated stanchions capped in walnut. The same steel cable was used in the railing of a semicircular balcony extending over the lake, a feature that reminds visitors of a prow. The look was repeated in a semicircular bank of living-area windows located directly beneath the balcony. And, as any clotheshorse will notice, there are no closets, only shelves and built-in cabinetry unobtrusively flush with the walls.

“Everywhere there is an inch, there’s storage,” Mark declares.

The most innovative element, however, is in a bar area that functions like a full kitchen. Mark slipped an under-counter refrigerator, microwave, drawer-style dishwasher, icemaker and storage drawers on the wall-facing side of an island designed to look like the curving back of a pleasure boat. Jess took it to an auto shop for applications of white automotive paint and Clear Cote to give it that glossy showroom shine. The walnut countertop was finished just as carefully before being fitted with an under-mounted, stainless steel sink.

“It’s encapsulated in epoxy to try and stabilize the wood in this humid environment,” Mark says.

The wood, reclaimed from a barn on a farm in the owners’ family, is just one example of their dictate to reuse and repurpose as much as possible. The same source provided walnut for a window seat in the living-area “prow” and shelves in the bar/kitchen, as well as a barn door that slides between the bar/kitchen and a sunken sitting alcove, providing the privacy necessary when the futon is pressed into service as an extra bed. Mark points to a stretch of limestone in the bar/kitchen area, part of a 3-foot-thick retaining wall discovered during demolition. “That wall is holding up the hill above it,” he explains. “It’s original to the house.”

The effort continued in the bathroom, a space modeled after a boat “head.” A tiny, wall-mounted sink and urinal purchased at an architectural-salvage shop share space with a wall-mounted commode and completely open corner shower. The walls were covered in 12-inch-by-24-inch through-porcelain tile in a medium blue-gray — “It’s extremely dense,” Jess says — with a bottom border of blue ceramic counterparts, a combination the owners chose to represent Lake Erie waters and gray Cleveland-area sky. The floor was finished in grouted river stone.

“You could soak this whole area if you had to,” Mark declares.
A rectangular covered porch just outside the cobalt-blue front door — another element purchased at an architectural-salvage shop — features a stainless-steel outdoor kitchen with smoker, barbecue, sink and under-counter refrigerator on one side, a limestone bar overlooking the lake on the other. Steps lead to a large, low composite deck that stretches to a waterside bocce court. Mark notes that he returned the foundation to a semblance of the boathouse’s original use: It now houses a little kayak garage.

It was his intent, he says, to make the new structure as solid as the walls on which it was built. “I don’t think anybody thinks that any house built over the water in Lake Erie is a forever house,” he says. “But it’s going to do awfully darn well.”