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On Martha’s Vineyard, it takes a village to build economically

Jun 17, 2023

When architectural designer Nick Waldman and his wife, Sarah, a writer and health coach, decided to build a home on Martha’s Vineyard, they knew they would rely on friends and family to make it happen. “The subs were friends I had helped with drawings of their own homes,” Nick said. “That’s how you get stuff done out here.”

The couple moved to the island from Providence — Sarah was a Vineyard summer kid whose parents now live on the island full time — and after renovating a cottage in Vineyard Haven, purchased 3 wooded acres in West Tisbury where they could raise their sons, Dylan, 13, and Gray, 9.


Nick, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and founder of Nick Waldman Studio, felt confident they could build economically, assuming he invested sweat equity. The methodology? “We used humble materials in an elevated way to achieve the aesthetic we wanted,” Nick said. “They also provided ease of construction and cost less.”

Nick described the aesthetic as a modernized version of New England vernacular architecture. It’s unfussy, but not in a minimalistic statement-making manner. Rather, the home feels, well, very much at home. “It’s two plain cedar boxes with gable roofs and large window openings for views,” Nick said. “Straight lines, fewer corners, and a single roof form make construction easier.”

The single-story boxes — a 68-foot-long-by-20-foot-wide wing for living and a 48-foot-long-by-18-foot-wide wing for sleeping — are set at 90 degrees to each other with a small flat-roofed connector between them. The L-shaped configuration hugs a sunny, south-facing grassy courtyard for the couple’s two very active kids, and Fisher, the family’s Australian shepherd.

Once the excavator dug the hole, Nick assembled the foundation using insulated concrete forms, a system he compares to LEGO blocks. The benefits of this over a traditional poured concrete foundation is that he could do it himself. (A friend who is a high school shop teacher and two of his students helped.) That the forms double as insulation is a plus.


A crew framed the house and installed the windows, and Nick applied the trim. When it came time to shingle, Nick turned to his friend who owns Hatchet & Hammer Shingle Co. and whom he considers the best on the island. Nick shingled half the roof himself, which made it affordable to use red cedar roofing shingles instead of, say, asphalt. “A simple, orderly material palette — cedar for the exterior, plywood for the floor and ceiling, and plaster for the walls — minimized the project’s complexity and cost,” Nick explained.

As the project progressed, Nick decided to hire a team to take care of the interior finishes so that he could focus on his architecture clients. It was perfect timing; the foreman of the framing crew had recently launched his own contracting company, Woodpecker Brothers. Nick tapped the captain of his pickup hockey team to plaster the walls and Sarah’s father to do the electrical.

Entry is on the far end of the living wing, where a dark-green mudroom is a quiet moment to move from outdoors before the home opens up with light and airy splendor. The 20-by-36-foot great room has a cathedral ceiling that reaches more than 17 feet at its peak, and exposed trusses and AC plywood with robust graining on the ceilings and upper walls add character at the top of the space.


“We used two-by-four gang-nail trusses to support the roof because they’re inexpensive and more efficient than rafters, which have to be cut on site,” Nick said. “The crew could just bang these up.” Normally such trusses are covered up. “I tweaked the geometry and left them exposed as a nod to a typical construction method,” he added.

Nine-foot-5-inch-tall walls finished in a textural, light-gray plaster wrap the entire living space, bringing the voluminous space down to a more human scale. “A datum line down the whole house marks the transition from the plaster to the plywood,” Nick said. “Creating a uniform line means that it’s all straight cuts of sheetrock, which is easier labor-wise.” The team installed it in less than two days.

A swath of black soapstone — the kitchen backsplash — draws the eye to the end of the room, starkly contrasting the light walls. A fir shelf tops the slab, accentuating the horizontal lines and rendering the bump-out for the range vent barely perceptible. The eye glides past the Baltic birch plywood-paneled island, too. Spare cabinetry and a utilitarian eating nook maintain a serene atmosphere. “The stone and cabinetry are the focus,” Nick said.

A corridor that runs the full length of the living wing terminates at the connector, and a doorway opens into the bedroom wing. For a more subdued feel, Nick covered the ceilings on this side in Baltic birch plywood and painted the trim white to disappear against the plaster walls.


Built-in wardrobes in the hall keep the boys’ 10-by-10-foot bedrooms clutter-free, and a walk-in closet slotted behind the bed does the same in the primary bedroom. Roughhousing happens in the basement.

The family moved in three years after clearing the site and continue to make adjustments. “I’m not sure exactly how much it cost — plus or minus $650,000 to build, and the land was $425,000,“ Nick said. “Definitely isn’t a ‘look how cheap they built it for’ angle, because it ended up being more than we thought. Still, for MV, that price-per-square-foot cost is pretty ridiculously low.”

“It was overly ambitious for me to do quite as much as I thought I could,” Nick admitted. “But we’re in and we love it.”

Architectural design Nick Waldman Studio,

General contractor Woodpecker Brothers, 650-797-7827

Landscaping MV Landscaping Solutions,

Marni Elyse Katz is a contributing editor to the Globe Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @StyleCarrot. Send comments to [email protected].