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Lights, Camera, Build

This Old House visits Barrington


Building a home in an established neighborhood can sometimes feel a little like the eyes of the world are watching your every move. In the case of Geoffrey Allen and Michelle Forcier, that was exactly the case. The couple, both doctors with Rhode Island roots, had made nearly a dozen moves in the past 10 years, living in locales including North Carolina, Connecticut and Chicago. It wasn’t until the two spotted a 1925 ramshackle beach shanty overlooking Barrington Town Beach that their fate was solidified. Michelle, a Brown alum, says that she exclaimed, “That’s it.” And the popular PBS television series This Old House agreed.

Before the sale, the couple was getting familiar with Barrington by renting there, unsure if they and daughter Riley, now four years old, would ultimately hang their hats in the comfortable coastal community, or on Providence’s highly desirable East Side. “But when we came to Rhode Island, we felt that – since the state is on the water – we ought to live near the water,” says Geoff, who now counts Narragansett Bay as his front yard.

Despite its long, dark and narrow kitchen, awkward layout, and largely ignored views, the couple could see the potential charm in the weather-beaten, two-bedroom cottage. It was a wonderful little beach shack but the rooms were really tiny and the couple couldn’t see any of the views. They turned to Mary Dorsey Brewster, AIA, of Brewster Thornton Group Architects in Providence to bring the salt-soaked Cape Cod style shanty into the 21st century, and Barrington builder Andy Tiplady to execute that vision. Together they married the 1500 square foot space with a tasteful 450 square foot expansion, which included opening up the first floor to take advantage of the panoramic East Bay view, expanding the second floor to gain two full baths and a third bedroom over the garage, and building a second-story deck off the master bedroom that faces the beach.

Show producers found the property after an exhaustive search, which began with extensive outreach to the local building and architectural community. In addition, there was a public call for entries that yielded several hundred submissions from every corner of Rhode Island. When the producers discovered the Barrington beach house through Geoff and Michelle’s architect, they knew they’d found “the one.”

Of course, the setting was perfect, but the couple’s preferred design aesthetic took a little convincing. “When they first start talking about it, they interview you and ask ‘What are you thinking about?’ and we were like, ‘Kind of a funky Asian beach shack,’ and the This Old House folks were like, ‘Huh?’” says Michelle with a smile.

The show dispatched a handful of interior designers so that Michelle and Geoff could essentially interview them. Lisa Newman of Lisa Newman Interiors at Homestyle in Providence immediately grasped the eclectic design angle while acknowledging the home’s seaside environs. “The challenge for me was that because the house is at the beach, I still wanted it to make sense; but they’re not the typical ‘New England beach cottage’ type people,” explains Lisa. “Because their artwork and their belongings are so Asian influenced, I tried to keep that feeling going through without being too obvious – you don’t want to feel like you’re walking through a pagoda. So it had nods here and there to an Asian aesthetic without being obvious.”

Taking a cue from the sea, Michelle asked Lisa if the various wall colors throughout the home could be inspired by the inside of a mussel shell. On the first floor, calming hues let the crashing waves take center stage. The open floor plan allows the living room to blend into the dining space while the kitchen invites the outdoor in, with natural elements including soapstone countertops, a glass tile backsplash and cherry wood cabinetry, all unified by red oak floors. In the dining room, a design risk that has reaped great reward is an undulating wall made of small, deep gray stone tiles: an artistic interpretation of a wave. Though captivating art peppers the living room – a casually elegant space – it is inevitably rivaled by what is framed by oversized windows. “We’ve oriented everything in this space to capitalize on the unbelievable view,” Lisa says, gesturing to the furnishings that face the West Bay. “It’s not an enormous space, but it feels very spacious.”

Unlike other home makeover shows where homeowners have no idea what the end product will be, Geoff and Michelle worked with the builder, architect, designer and producers of the TV program to ensure the home was uniquely theirs and altogether livable. In fact, the tables were turned on Lisa when the designer was only able to see the couple’s furniture and artwork that she had to work with about one week before the completion and final shoot date. “I didn’t know anything about Geoff and Michelle,” she explains. “I didn’t know anything about their style.” To her delight, the couple’s Asian, African and global-inspired taste excited the designer. “Their stuff is so cool,” she says candidly.

During the course of the project, lurkers who heard about the decades-old home improvement show working their magic in Barrington would come to the site to check it out. People pointing and craning their necks to get the best vantage point became a familiar part of the building process. Local contractors, including plumbing and heating consultant David St. Angelo of Delta Mechanical Contractors and electrician John Butterfield of Butterfield Electric, in addition to the show’s master carpenter Norm Abram, host Kevin O’Connor, landscape contractor Roger Cook, and plumbing and heating consultant Richard Trethewey, eventually grew accustom to gawkers. “I was definitely feeling like this is a fishbowl, and trying to decide if we’re the fish, or they’re the fish,” said Lisa with a smile.

When the final shoot took place mid-January, contractors, neighbors, crew, friends (and of course, Geoff, Michelle and Riley) convened and took in the project-turned-home. “We’ve just had a very rich, full wonderful life,” says Michelle. “Coming home every night is a little bit like vacation.”

The national premiere of the This Old House “Barrington Beach House” project aired in late January with nine additional episodes following, including five to air this month on Thursday nights (check local listings). New episodes are online every Sunday night at 7pm on www.thisoldhouse.com/toh.