Breathing Room on Peaks Island

An architectural contractor design a serene space for writing and retreat on Peaks Island
Words By Annie P. Quigley
Photos By Rachel Sieben
Architect:Rachel Conly Design|Builder:Thompson Johnson Woodworks|Photo Stylist:Diane Wiencke

A small pile of round, smooth stones marks the entryway of this place, unadorned and quiet. Beyond it is an open, cedar-clad passageway; beyond that, a rectangle of blue sea and sky. Yet, there’s something in this simple, humble collection of stones that encompasses this project: sculptural yet entirely natural, beautiful in its utter simplicity, pared back to allow space for being. 

This place is the work of architectural designer Rachel Conly Design and contractor Heather Thompson of Thompson Johnson Woodworks, longtime collaborators based on Peaks Island who were tasked by a couple to build a small outbuilding for their existing summer cottage there. The vision was quite simple: to have a serene space to serve as a writing studio, to watch the sunset for the early riser of the pair, and to be a quiet place separate from their sometimes bustling summer home a little way off—in short, say Heather and Rachel, “A place for quiet, restoration, contemplation, and inspiration. Minimalism and connection to the outdoors and the magnificence of the site was important to them.” 

Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors create a sense of openness between indoors and out.
Built into the precipitous curve of the land and nestled among tall trees, the structure seems part of the earth.
In the living area, a Mørso woodstove mixes with natural elements: a sculptural antler, a basket of branches for the fire.

The site itself offered endless opportunities, perched high on a ridge and studded with pines. Rachel and Heather say this spot is among the most secluded on Peaks Island—which posed its challenges, too. The land is precipitous, and the studio hugs the slope on one side, the other perched dramatically over it, high above the boulders below. “Before we started building the structure, the foundation area looked like an art installation or a modern Stonehenge with the exposed ledge and installed concrete piers,” says Heather. 

"Although the structure is literally ensconced in natural beauty, we wanted to bring more touches inside to deepen this connection to sky, woods, rock, ocean,"

Then there was the challenge of getting materials into place. “The site was completely untouched,” says Heather. “There was no road. We talked about different options, like hiring a barge to go to the bottom of the cliff with a crane to bring materials up, or building a wooden walkway.” They landed on carrying over what was needed by ferry (limiting trips to be as eco-conscious as possible) and creating a small driveway to carry supplies up the ridge. “The driveway was designed so that the natural flora will fill in and dissolve its definition,” says Rachel—part of the delicate balance of creating a structure that treads as lightly on the landscape as possible in a place that’s physically difficult to build on.    

Thoughtful orienting added to the feeling of solitude. “Part of the site-planning process was putting the studio in a position so you couldn’t see the original house down the road but also couldn’t see neighbors,” says Rachel. Being there, she says, you can’t catch glimpses of any other structures. “It’s like taking a boat four hours north, but you’re right on the island.” 

Sleeping-area furnishing is simple to keep the focus on the view.
The deck’s outdoor shower features custom wood hooks by Heather’s team and a peek-out window on the adjoining vista.
Through the interior WC to the outdoor shower just outside.

The architecture itself fosters clearness of mind and a sense of calm. The exterior is low and nearly symmetrical, clad entirely in white cedar, with an outdoor passage through its center. The design is elegant in its simplicity, the passageway at once dividing the two rooms—a living area/studio on one side, a bed and bath on the other—and uniting them. “We had explored a variety of site concepts for organizing the spaces, including a series of separate distinct structures. The goal had always been to create more of a camp-like experience. Ultimately, unifying the spaces with one roof was a decision that combined both grace and practicality,” says Rachel. 

A corner of the deck under a trellis is fitted with a clean-lined Muuto table and benches—a place to picnic (or write) with a view.
In the sitting area, a low-slung sofa keeps sight-lines open. Behind it is a piece by the artist Diane Wiencke.

Because there was an existing house on the lot, the accessory structure was restricted from having a kitchen and an indoor shower. No matter: A stripped-back design suited the couple’s idea of a retreat quite well. The team, for instance, designed a serene outdoor shower on the deck, just off the interior bath—so that the unremarkable act of taking a shower becomes an opportunity for contemplation and relaxation. Rachel and Heather also approached each piece with carbon consciousness and energy efficiency in mind. “The roof insulation is what you’d do for a net-zero house,” says Heather. “We always try to make decisions that are carbon neutral, use dense-packed cellulose and materials with low global warming potential, and try not to use plastic or vinyl.” 

Inside, the space is furnished simply with a Mørso woodstove, jute mats, and a low-slung sofa in one portion, a sumptuous bed for occasional secluded overnights in the other. Outside on the generous wraparound deck, wooden lounge chairs from Skagerak are a restful place to take in the view or watch the sunrise. “We feel like we literally have a front-row seat to nature,” the couple say. And there are little nods to the landscape scattered here and there: a small stand of branches in the WC, piles of stones by the outdoor shower. “Although the structure is literally ensconced in natural beauty, we wanted to bring more touches inside to deepen this connection to sky, woods, rock, ocean,” the couple add. 

It’s a place of quiet, both literally and in its serene design. “You can sit there and listen to the bell buoys,” says Rachel. “There really isn’t any other noise—it’s very meditative.” 

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