Arelt Brings ‘Consistent Vision’ to Nautilus Architects’ Contemporary Designs

WATERFORD & DEEP RIVER — Architect Chris Arelt stood barefoot on the polished concrete floors of his client’s house and pointed to the tiny square lights that were set flush with the living room ceiling. 

“These tiny LED fixtures with no trim are hugely important,” he said. “They add up to a big expense, like $160,000. It’s always more than people bargained for, but it’s so important. If you start putting big six-inch diameter pot lights into these things, it just blows the whole design.” 

Arelt, the principal and owner of Nautilus Architects in Lyme and Southport, stressed the importance of vigilance in all aspects of home design — including the interior window trim, all of the light fixtures, the plumbing fixtures and countertop materials, to name a few. 

“You could kill the whole thing with one move,” he reiterated. “And I’m giving you an important reason why that is, it’s not just because I want to get more work, it’s that I think there’s a huge benefit to the professional design to have that consistent vision. It’s easy to lose sight of that objective.” 

“I just love designing things, so it doesn’t matter if it’s the kitchen. The benefit of that is that vision carries through to all those details and the kitchen looks like that’s the right kitchen for that house.” 

He said he prefers to design almost everything in his clients’ houses to maintain that consistency. 

“If I’m hiring an interior designer or a kitchen designer — now there’s a person designing the kitchen who doesn’t necessarily have the same vision as that of the person who built the house around it,” he said. “I just love designing things, so it doesn’t matter if it’s the kitchen. The benefit of that is that vision carries through to all those details and the kitchen looks like that’s the right kitchen for that house.” 

Arelt had shed his shoes in deference to his clients, Drew Allison Lyons and her husband Myke Lyons, whose Waterford home bears a framed sign inside the front foyer, “Remove your shoes or scrub the floors.” 

The house, a two-story contemporary that mixes textures and materials, morphs from an almost industrial street facade with small windows to floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors in the back that open onto a private courtyard-like exterior space on a bluff overlooking the Niantic River. The house is two stories on the street side and drops to one story as the building stretches toward the river. The one-story wing is broken up with a variety of surface treatments, including stucco, copper, wood and Boral, a composite construction material. 

“One of the things that we really stuck with [was] … we knew we were only doing this once. And we were going to do it right. And we didn’t want to make compromises and then say later down the line, ‘we should have,’” said Lyons.

“I was conscious of the scale of the house. It’s not a big house, but it’s bigger than that house,” Arelt said, referring to a neighboring one-story structure. “So you can see how I created distinct languages of form. So this is one thing, this a whole other thing and that’s a whole other thing. They’re broken up into pieces. If this was all coated with the mahogany, this would look much more significant in scale than it does now,” he said. 

He said design grows out of the site, the clients and the context. 

“To me a successful project looks like it couldn’t go anywhere else,” he said. 

Where to begin

Drew Allison Lyons said she and her husband bought a three-bedroom cape on the site in 2016 knowing that they loved the property and the river views but weren’t sure about the house.                              

“We never set out and said, ‘we want to build a modern home.’ We said we need a home that accommodates our family, we need a home that celebrates this piece of land, we want the indoors and the outdoors to mesh,” she said. 

The process of designing the house happened organically in collaboration with Arelt during many four-hour-long Sunday afternoon meetings. 

“One of the things that we really stuck with [was] … we knew we were only doing this once. And we were going to do it right. And we didn’t want to make compromises and then say later down the line, ‘we should have,’” said Lyons. 

“An important thing I got out of architecture school is you need to be able to articulate what it is you did and why you did it. I do that, I intellectualize it a lot. When people ask about other options, then I tell them the five reasons that doesn’t work as well as this. They can see I’m not just drifting in some direction without knowing why. There’s a logic to it, it’s not just, I like vanilla and you like chocolate.”

Arelt said the conversation with prospective clients begins with a questionnaire that ranges from the macro level down to the very specific.

“We try to avoid large-scale surprises by getting everything out in the open early on,” he said. 

Arelt also asks potential clients to visit some of his completed projects and talk with the homeowners. 

“They need to see the stuff up close and personal. You can’t really substitute that with photographs and I think that’s really impactful,” he said.

He encourages clients to gather images of design that appeals to them, from sites like Houzz.

“I’m not looking for them to find something like, ‘this is what we want.’ I just want them to say, ‘here’s 20 pictures of things that we like, but we don’t even know why we like them.’ But when I look at them I can see they like tall ceilings or they like skylights or bold colors or whatever the case might be and that helps me,” he said. “I impress upon them that I’m not going to take it literally what you show me.”

Lyons house in Waterford, CT

Unlike some architects and designers, Arelt does not present a range of options. Instead, he creates one design that he believes is the best solution for the clients and the site. 

“I pretty much come up with my own opinion. I’ve thought of all these different possibilities and this is the best possibility and this is the one I’m going to develop and present to them,” he said. “An important thing I got out of architecture school is you need to be able to articulate what it is you did and why you did it. I do that, I intellectualize it a lot. When people ask about other options, then I tell them the five reasons that doesn’t work as well as this. They can see I’m not just drifting in some direction without knowing why. There’s a logic to it, it’s not just, I like vanilla and you like chocolate.”

A major milestone in the relationship is the design reveal. 

“After you have that meeting where you show them your ideas for the first time, hopefully they love everything you’ve done and it’s a big milestone. Now we have something on paper and everybody’s on board for that. That’s a big moment in the project,” he said.

Arelt said he came to architecture after earning his MBA and working in advertising, which he found unsatisfying. 

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do even though my father was an architect. I had no inclination toward becoming an architect even though I always liked houses and I was always very creative,” he said. “I took a course in architecture at Brooklyn College and the professor there was a Yale alum and he could see that I had ability so he helped me put a portfolio together and I was able to get into Yale. Now I would never think of doing anything else, it was a blessing that I stumbled upon.” 

He said he used to think of his ideal client as someone who would say, “Have at it,” and give him free rein, but that has changed. 

“Now the client is a partner in it, they have hired me because they think I can deliver what they’re dreaming of. Now it’s a relationship, a conversation. It benefits me creatively, it pushes me. Someone who maybe isn’t a designer themselves but they can see design and they have good suggestions and ideas and it pushes me to make it the best it can be for them,” he said. 

Riverbend

In Deep River, on an eight-acre site with about 500 feet of frontage along the Connecticut River across from Selden Island, is a house-in-progress dubbed “Riverbend” that Arelt has designed. 

“In this case the client, a couple in their 50s, said, ‘We don’t know what we want, but we want something that looks like it belongs on the river’ and they left that up to me to figure out what that was,” Arelt said. “So rather than look at complete architecture, I started to look at pieces of what I thought were reminiscent of river buildings. I saw some of these stones called river jacks, Dutch lap siding, which is a little bit more related to outbuildings and camp buildings, and the big overhang with exposed rafter tails.”

Other elements included the color hunter green and “a fish-scale Victorian flavor asphalt roof that I found somewhere in the midwest,” Arelt said. “That became a palette of materials and I put that together to create the building.” 

Arelt said every house is different and he doesn’t have a set process to approach design. 

“It’s always a tabula rasa, it’s all based on the clients and the site and the context. I come in with no preconceived ideas but I pretty soon have some kind of inspiration,” he said. “[This project] has a big beautiful piece of land so I wanted a house that would kind of spread its arms out and take advantage of that.”

From the driveway at the Deep River house, the breezeway between the garage and the house frames the view of the river, creating one of the many axial sight lines that Arelt said connect the house to its location and enhance the experience of people inhabiting the space. 

“The whole shape of this house when you’re standing here, it just feels like you’re looking up the river that way and down the river that way,” said Arelt, standing on the back patio. “It’s not too close to the edge, it’s not too far, it’s perfectly located. There’s a nice long diagonal experience across the dining area and across the living area. When you get to the end of that, there’s the windows wrapping around. When you’re in the kitchen you’re looking right across everybody and right up the river. Those kinds of things just tie the house so much to the site that it just looks like it naturally grew out of this particular location. That’s probably the single most important victory you can have with a design.” 

Even though the Deep River and Waterford designs differ greatly in style, the two share similarities, including the divergent street and river-facing facades. 

“It’s always a tabula rasa, it’s all based on the clients and the site and the context. I come in with no preconceived ideas but I pretty soon have some kind of inspiration,” he said. “[This project] has a big beautiful piece of land so I wanted a house that would kind of spread its arms out and take advantage of that.”

Arelt said many homes on the water are “transitional,” combining contemporary and traditional elements, which can result in design issues, especially when clients want a traditional look facing the street and an “all glass” exterior facing the water. 

“What will happen a lot of times is you’ll have a house that looks one way in the front with curb appeal, it’s familiar, and then you come out the back and it’s just a wall of glass. It’s schizophrenic from the front to the back,” he said. 

Integrating and varying the design is key, he said.

“This house is not schizophrenic,” he said of the Deep River house. “We managed to have a lot of glass and take advantage of the view. We did it by having this deep porch overhang and a lot of ins and outs with the masses — it’s not just one big block, not just one big plane of glass.”

Arelt used a window style with divided panes at the top, which he said does not block the view of the river and provides an element of character to the house. 

For each house he designs, Arelt likes to create names for the rooms that have connotations related to each room’s goal.

“That room over there is called the winter room,” he said of one space in the Deep River house. “It would be easier to call it the study, but by calling it the winter room you’re reminding them that this is supposed to be a contrast to the outward whitish rooms with all the glass. It’s going to be painted a dark brown. That’s the room where you’re gathered around piano singing Christmas carols, like a Currier and Ives postcard. It’s a ‘George Washington slept here’ kind of room.” 

That connection between design and language is significant in the design process, he said. 

“Words matter. I’ve always loved language. I love crossword puzzles, I think there’s definitely a connection between solving a puzzle of a design and solving crossword puzzles,” he said. 

Continuity

Arelt’s design philosophy is reflected through subtle details in his projects. In the Waterford house, he overlaps design elements so that one function blends into another. For example, in the master bedroom, the dressing, sleeping and bathing areas are lit by a skylight located over the bathroom sinks, with an overlap of about two inches in the sleeping area. 

The toilet is in its own room with a door and that separation frees up the rest of the space so that “dressing and sleeping, bathing can be blended together,” he  said. 

Lyons house in Waterford, CT

He created a subtle reveal at the top of the walls to give “some kind of detail rather than just a square wall and ceiling.” 

“The reveal makes it feel as if the ceiling is floating,” he said.

For Lyons, these details and many others have made staying home during the pandemic more manageable. 

“This has been the one thing I’ve been saying to a lot of people, especially being homebound — it has just been wonderful. I don’t need to leave. We have everything we could ask for. We have space. There could be days that I don’t go outside because I always feel like I’m outside. It’s so open, it’s comfortable. My sister lives next door, but we always entertain here, because it just flows nicely it accommodates for everyone,” she said. 

“I think New England is sort of the last place on earth that has come around to some new way of thinking, accepting of progress. There’s not a lot of call for this in this part of the state, probably more in Westport and New Canaan,” He said. “I think the rest of the country has moved a lot closer to contemporary as the prevailing style, but not here yet, but it’s coming here.”

And the design for the house, with a guest room and home office upstairs, includes long-term potential for aging in place, said Drew. 

“As the idea continued to develop, we started to look at how we were going to live in this home through the rest of our lives. This is our forever home. We talked about things like zero thresholds when we need a walker or a wheelchair or whatever may come to us in our older age,” she said. 

Arelt said he used to do mostly traditional projects for people in their 60s and now he has clients in their late 30s who only want contemporary design, but movement is slow. 

“I think New England is sort of the last place on earth that has come around to some new way of thinking, accepting of progress. There’s not a lot of call for this in this part of the state, probably more in Westport and New Canaan,” He said. “I think the rest of the country has moved a lot closer to contemporary as the prevailing style, but not here yet, but it’s coming here.”

Arelt said his next project is the design and construction of two small, contemporary cottages in Old Colony Beach, Old Lyme, on a site where two cottages will be demolished. He said the footprint, massing and the elevation of the buildings have been approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The project is scheduled to come before the Zoning Commission on July 13 for a special permit.

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