Standing on the street looking at the house built by Ernst Brothers in Ocean City, N.J., one would never know the inside is actually upside down. No, the tables and chairs are not hanging from the ceiling. It’s upside down because familiar floor plan concepts are reversed, so the bedrooms are on the second floor, below the great room, kitchen and dining area above them on the third floor.
Tinkering with floor plan familiarity provides a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean from the great room — the main entertaining space — and its deck on the front of the house. Placing this space on the top floor is necessary to gain a view over the houses across the street, and of the ocean behind them.
“What we do in sites like this is create on the upper level what we call the world’s fanciest one-bedroom apartment,” says Terry Thomas, owner and principal, George Wray Thomas in Summers Point, N.J. Thomas designed the house on the 120- ft. by 50-ft. lot. “The kitchen, living and dining area and the master bedroom are all on that floor,” typical of beach-house style homes, he adds.
The great room, which includes the kitchen, dining area and living room, is an open design. “This draws the eyes of those in the living room into the kitchen without limiting the view of the people working in the kitchen,” Thomas says.
Kitchen appliances are on the working side of the island, including the range and the microwave, so they’re not seen in the wall cabinetry, explains Joe Ernst, vice president, Ernst & Ernst Building Contractors, Hatfield, Pa.
“The island looks like a table and it works like one, too,” Ernst says, but creating the island was not easy. “We wanted a one-piece surface with no seam, and the difficulty of getting the granite (up to the third floor) is one thing we didn’t anticipate. We had to crane in the granite countertop to the third floor. We had to crane in the refrigerator, too. The elevator wasn’t large enough for it, so we had to crane it up onto the front deck and move it into the kitchen from there.”
With the kitchen on the third floor, it could become tiring to carry groceries up three levels. So, the elevator makes the home more user-friendly.
Another nice feature is the turret-style tower on the front corner of the house. The rounded shape is continued inside the house, defining the dining area on the third floor. The ceiling in that space vaults up on eight sides, Thomas says. “It warranted a certain skill set for the framer, who had to be of high quality to create that. But it was not really a challenge from a design standpoint.”
Curb Appeal Matters
The turret shape is one of many interesting elements on the front of the house. Ernst & Ernst invested in the heavy cornice work and spent money where it matters; curb appeal. “The lattice work on the gable end, and the bell-shaped roof on top of the turret, are labor-intensive and costly, but we still try to put a lot of those details in the front of the house,” Ernst says. “But you don’t want to put all your efforts into one place, so we designed details to flow from the front to the back of the house. You don’t want to get to the back of the house and be left with no detail work.”
Also of note is the site work and landscaping, Ernst explains. The brick walk curves around the side of the house, with landscape lighting along its edge as it curves toward the front door. “And to make the front walk and driveway look more authentic, we used an exposed aggregate concrete. It’s a nice look, like it has been there awhile.”
The brick walk leads to the main entry on the side of the house. “Pride of place typically is connected to a home’s front door. So, messing with traditional ideas of entryways by putting it on the side of the house becomes difficult and ill-advised, because at this kind of price range it’s tricky to deal with,” Thomas says. “In this situation we take all the elements that highlight a door, and placed them on the side. We included elements like gates and garden features that lead you down the path to the front door. There should be no question where to go as you approach the house.”
What most people might overlook about the front of the house is how it’s narrower than the back of the house. The home’s footprint is an L shape, and for good reason. “We held down the width of the front of the house to allow the back of the house to be wider, so the rear balcony on the side of the house has a view of the ocean looking toward the front of the house,” Thomas says.
The term beach house is a loose description of homes built on or near a beach. The true style of this house is Georgian Victorian, and very traditional-looking with its cedar shake siding. Balconies and decks are important for beach houses, to provide those inside with views of the water, which is why there are so many on this house and other houses like it, Ernst says.
The neighborhood is called the gold coast, where owners don’t sell property very often, so typically there’s not much development taking place, Ernst says. Neighbors didn’t complain about this project, which was kept to a reasonable scale. “We were a little under our buildable area that zoning would allow, and we actually had a bigger building designed for the space. But it was too big in terms of what you really need there, so we went smaller. And if we were to do it again, we would design an even smaller house than we built,” Ernst says.
Form and Function
The three-story layout of this house creates opportunities for stunning design. Upon entering the home, visitors see the main staircase that stretches three stories tall. “It’s open and grand with a lot of light coming in. And at the top, it’s open where people can see everything below,” Ernst says. “We eliminated the walls below the stairs, which really came out nice. It’s a space-saving design, and does not take up a lot of horizontal square footage. So it’s a good way to create as much saleable space as possible.”
The stairway is visually connected to the ground level, so one is drawn upstairs by the plentiful natural daylight that comes through the numerous windows. “The theory behind welcoming people into a structure is to make it simple to understand where they’re headed,” Thomas explains. “So with this staircase, it’s not only grand but also steers people upward. You gravitate toward the light coming through the windows above. It’s important to not let visitors feel like they’re walking up a servant staircase. This open staircase provides a feeling of walking up a public place yet not violating the privacy of the owners.”
Thomas is most proud of the entrance, having made the design work in three dimensions, he says. “Architectural drawings are made in two dimensions, but thinking and theory is done in three dimensions. This principle was exercised in developing this entrance, like how the foyer and stairs connect to the ground both physically and visually. We hadn’t done a staircase like this that worked as well. We have done some where we just didn’t feel the connection with what was above, like we feel in this house.”
Elements such as the staircase and the many decks and balconies in this house are important parts of the house, put there based on the connection Ernst feels his company has with what people want in this market. The builder included elements people look for, such as a large master bed and bath suite and placing it in close proximity on the third floor to the living and kitchen area, Ernst explains.
“We built a large pantry off the kitchen with a secondary refrigerator. We know people like to buy bulk foods and this gives them a place to store it all. We also know owners around here like to have the front of their house as the main entertaining area with large great rooms and entertaining areas looking toward the beach,” Ernst says.
Know Thy Homeowner
The first floor contains the game room, garage spaces and a utility room. The game room spreads across the street face with a walk-out patio. It’s a large room that is the full width of the home, and goes back a third of the house, Thomas says.
Ernst & Ernst does not use a written checklist of specs for homes like this. Instead, the builder relies on experience, and simply knowing not to overbuild and price the house out of the market. “There are some areas of a home where we know if you invest a dollar you can get two or three out, such as large islands, and large windows with a lot of light coming in.”
Ernst and Thomas’ knowledge and experience combine with the design/build process to ensure this project’s success, bringing the intellectual capabilities of the building and designing disciplines together to create the best possible structure.
“The architect thinks about how a building is going to look, and the builder typically thinks of how he can achieve that look,” Ernst says. “The design/build process brings a lot of positive energy into the building process and you end up with a better structure.”