Houzz: How the Deck House Co. brought California modernism to the East Coast

Editor's Note: The following is a guest contribution from Houzz, a leading platform for home remodeling and design.

The Deck House Co. achieved tremendous success, building over 20,000 classic midcentury modern houses — primarily in Massachusetts and North Carolina — from its founding in 1959 to its merger with Acorn Structures in 2005. Not only were they made in great quantity, but they also were so widely copied that the term “Deck house” has become as synonymous with midcentury design in New England as “Eichler house” has become in California. Now, with the ongoing revival of interest in midcentury design, Deck houses are once again in high demand, and their high-quality construction is standing the test of time.

William Berkes and Robert Brownell, the founders of the Deck House Co., were influenced by the designs of the modernist pioneers, including Walter Gropius, who had built one of the early modern houses in Lincoln, MA. But these modern homes were often stark and perhaps too aesthetically radical for the East Coast market, so Deck House toned down its designs to appeal to the taste of the average home buyer.

'East Coast Eichler' 

Deck House Co. designs share uncanny similarities with Eichler homes, the popular prefab houses by Joseph Eichler that were built primarily in California in the 1950s and ’60s. While historians will need to sort out which company influenced the other, we do know that the Eichler Homes Co. started a full 10 years before the Deck House Co.

Here are some of the striking similarities.

Gables of glass

Both companies typically fitted the gable ends of their houses with large panes of glass that expressed the structure’s frame. Deck houses often have simple gable shapes that are readily recognizable and instantly say “home.” Along with the gables of glass, the homes feature generous overhangs that borrow a page from the Frank Lloyd Wright playbook and create a sheltering aesthetic. This house is a classic example, with symmetrical and expansive glass on the gable end, and sliding glass doors below. Solid walls of vertical painted Douglas fir siding flank the doors.

Wood framing

Both companies used post-and-beam construction. The heavy rafters of Douglas fir are exposed and often finished with a dark stain. The structural roof decking between the rafters is tongue-and-groove wood with a clear finish. The exposed structure and the natural wood finishes give the home a natural modern look compared with the stark white boxes of the modernist pioneers. This house is a classic example of exposed wood framing where each of the widely spaced roof rafters rests on a wood post that is exposed to the interior.

Climatic innovations

A common complaint of original Eichler homes was their lack of insulation, even in the moderate climate of California, where most were built. Deck houses, built in the colder East Coast climate, avoided that mistake. Walls and roofs are well-insulated, and, where possible, windows are oriented to the south to catch the sun’s warmth. The upgraded roof structure accommodates the snow loads of New England.

Related story: See Which Design-Build Firms Are Reviving Deck House Architecture 

Deck House-Inspired Design

Echoes of the Deck House Co.’s aesthetic can be seen in many midcentury modern houses designed by New England architects. Clients who wanted something outside the norm of a Deck house hired local architects to adapt the style to a custom design. These homes are less hard-edged than the modernist homes of the era, and yet they’re still far more daring than the traditional Colonials typical of New England. 

This house, originally designed by the architectural firm Soep and Berliner in 1967, is a perfect example. Here, a massive sandstone chimney with back-to-back fireplaces is centrally located and divides the open-plan living room from the study.

The living room of the same house displays a classic feature of Deck design: widely spaced roof beams and the structural wood decking spanning them. Here, the beams sport light gray paint instead of the original wood tones. The renovation of the house in 2013 revealed well-insulated exterior walls and rigid foam insulation above the ceiling.

Related story: Connect With New England Architects

This Massachusetts house was designed by architect Henry Hoover in 1958. The exposed post-and-beam structure, gable roofs and vertical Douglas fir siding have much in common with Deck and Eichler houses. The fact that it was designed a year before the Deck House Co. was founded suggests much cross-fertilization in the design community at that time.

Buchanan Custom Builders pulled out all the stops in designing this storage shed in Massachusetts. It’s a clever tribute to the Deck House Co., with the clerestory windows highlighting the exposed roof beams and decking.

Related story: Learn More About Eichler Homes

Filed Under: Residential Building Design
Top image credit: Advantage Contracting