Not that long ago, the Jersey shore was synonymous with quaint cottages, charming Victorians, and houses that would be out of place in any other setting. Then came a tidal wave of developers, tear-downs, and a frenzy of new construction with little regard for the community or environment.
“When we first went to Avalon in 1962, it was filled with small, unobtrusive cottages,” says Chester County resident Michael Arizin. “The next generation built upside-down houses with the living room on the second floor and lots of decks.”
What happened next in Avalon, happened up and down the Jersey coast: The arrival of the McMansion. “What is that doing here?” residents wondered. But among the architectural misfits, Arizin noticed something positive happening. Handsome, cedar Nantucket-style beach houses were popping up along the shore. Although different builders worked on these homes, they were all designed by one architectural firm, Asher Associates Architecture of Stone Harbor and Jenkintown. “Mark Asher’s houses stood out like sparkling jewels,” says Arizin.
Asher’s ascendancy as an expert in seashore home architecture started almost by accident. “I did a renovation for the Ocean City Yacht Club 15 years ago and then the Avalon Yacht Club,” says Asher. It wasn’t long before area residents were coming to him with their dissatisfaction about the new kids on the block—the big, ugly boxes. “We wanted to be the good guys,” Asher says, “We paid a lot of attention to details. Good work brings good clients.”
Word spread quickly. Asher designed some of the most outstanding waterfront homes in the exclusive communities of Avalon, Stone Harbor, Ocean City, Longport, Strathmere, and Cape May. Besides becoming adept at meeting coastal building requirements and standards unique to each community, Asher Architects” new and remodeled homes aim at being “good neighbors.” “If someone is building a home next to you, it is usually worse than what was there before. We want to change that,” says Asher, who subscribes to “New Urbanist” philosophies, a traditional design ideology characterized by new buildings that not only respect a town’s unique architectural history but also have a deliberately gentle impact on the environment and community.
“Originally, shore houses were just weekend homes. What people want now are year-round, multi-generational family homes that will age well. The houses we design are not going to go out of style in 10 years. We use a lot of wood, we mix and match traditional with modern materials that weren’t available five or ten years ago.”
Architect Blane Steinman likes to mix traditional details with the realities of modern life. “When designing a shore house, you have to keep in mind that for three or four months out the year, the house is going to be the gathering place for multiple families with additional company on weekends. It’s a whole different lifestyle than your year-round home. People want a big open kitchen, dining, and living area. They want the convenience of a private bath for every bedroom.”
Many of Steinman’s clients prefer the upside-down house with the living-dining area on the second floor. “Having the garage and bedrooms on the first floor makes sense. It enhances views from your second-floor living area and provides privacy from people walking by at street level.”
To tear down or remodel? That is the first question facing buyers of shore property. “There is no single, universal answer to this question,” says Asher. “Both renovating and building new are good investments. The decision depends upon the goal.” If renovating will adequately expand the house to meet your family’s needs, the structure is sound and building codes will allow the desired additions, there’s no reason to tear it down. On the other hand, it may make more sense to tear down the house and build a new “old house” that addresses your functional needs and blends seamlessly with the architecture of its surroundings.
“Going green is great,” says Asher, “and we have the expertise to help you do it.” However, he is quick to point out that green construction is much more than simply installing solar panels. “There’s wind power technology, and there are directives for the best insulation, HVAC, insulated windows, paints, flooring, lighting—virtually anything that will reduce energy use or generate energy on site.” While going green raises building costs, it can pay for itself in the long run by reducing fuel costs as much as 50 percent.
Working with Asher, Steinman, and other area architects, Tim Dewson, president of Dewson Construction, says, “To keep operational costs lower for shore homeowners, we are using geothermal cooling and heating systems, triple-pane glass, and spray-foam insulation systems that are environmentally endorsed.” Bill Freeborn, head of Dewson Construction’s business development in Stone Harbor and Avalon, mentions the new products that keep their construction sites green. “On-demand hot water heaters reduce energy consumption. We use Azek recycled plastic for exterior trim and columns rather than wood, which really takes a beating. Reclaimed roofing tiles made from recycled tires give you the look of slate while being environmentally friendly.”
Mark Asher modestly likes to say his houses are “a simple thing done well.” That is like saying a Balenciaga gown is “just a dress.” The beauty and quality of detail in Asher’s shore houses are enough to make you long for a 12-month summer. Inlaid wooden floors, arched porticos, working fireplaces, cupolas with weather vanes. These are timeless houses where generations will gather to enjoy the ocean breeze, barbeque in the backyard, play Monopoly on the covered porches and celebrate holidays in gracious dining rooms. They are designed to “belong” at the Jersey shore, not just for today but forever. They are part of the natural beauty of that magical place where land meets sea.
That is why when Michael Arizin and his wife decided to build their beach-front, dream house in Brigantine, they knew exactly what they wanted—a Mark Asher house. Asher, who has long-standing ties to Avalon, was excited. It was his first house in Brigantine. Before looking at their lot, Asher visited the Arizin home in West Chester. “He wanted to see how we lived. He wanted to know about our family,” recalls Arizin.
“On the first set of drawings, Mark got it 90 percent perfect. We became disciples of Mark’s purity of design and maintenance-free materials,” says Arizin. Rather than decks, the Arizins opted for four covered porches with just one small deck off the third-floor master suite. Speaking of the white cedar, red-roofed beach house scheduled for completion right about now, Arizin says, “It’s beyond our expectations. We gasp at how pretty it is and how well it works with the environment.”
Mark Asher, AIA
Asher Associates Architects
Tim Dewson, President