Architect Aaron Zalneraitis and Milestone, the East Hampton residence that he designed for himself. MICHAEL HELLER
The namesake milestone on Aaron Zalneraitis's property.
Mahogany decking and bluestone steps. MICHAEL HELLER
Inside Milestone. MICHAEL HELLER
The screened-in area of Milestone. MICHAEL HELLER
Inside Milestone. MICHAEL HELLER
The Milestone kitchen. MICHAEL HELLER
Calligraphy in the Milestone bedroom. MICHAEL HELLER
The Milestone living room. MICHAEL HELLER
Architect Aaron Zalneraitis in the living room of the East Hampton home he designed for himself. MICHAEL HELLER
Architect Aaron Zalneraitis found a parcel of land on the fringe of Springs where he could build a home for himself, and on that land he also found the inspiration for the home’s design and name: a milestone.
The granite marker on the corner of the property is one of a series that runs along Old Stone Highway from the center of Springs to the center of Amagansett. The artifact distinguished what was otherwise a typical subdivision lot and became the genesis of his idea for the home, Mr. Zalneraitis said during a recent interview.
The house consists of three long metal-clad volumes, evenly spaced, with see-through living areas between them.
“Milestones are a series of manmade permanent insertions into the earth,” Mr. Zalneraitis said, explaining how the design plan unfolded. “How can I make my house something like that?
“So each of those three volumes is a manmade permanent insertion into the earth, and I follow through, in detailing and with materials, on that idea. I clad it in metal. It’s manmade, it’s durable. The inside of those boxes has plaster walls and linoleum floors.”
The three long volumes are custom but have been mistaken for shipping containers. “When I was constructing the house, people would ask me if I was building a container house,” Mr. Zalneraitis said. “No, they’re quite a bit larger than containers.”
While containers are usually 10 feet wide and 10 feet tall — because they have to fit on roads and under bridges — the volumes that make up his house and garage are about 13 feet tall, he explained.
“It’s funny, I had never aimed to go for that appearance, and it never even crossed my mind that the house would look like something that would give people that notion,” he said.
While shipping container houses are generally made of multiple containers joined together, Milestone has see-through gaps between the long rectangular structures. In contrast to the durable, manufactured materials of the three volumes, Mr. Zalneraitis used a natural material, wood, on the floors and ceilings of the gaps, one of which is glassed in, the other screened in.
From a distance, the difference between the large sliding glass doors and the large sliding screen doors is indistinguishable, which he said is very much intentional and by design. In the interior spaces, the floor and ceiling are oak. The decking outdoors is mahogany and lined up with the interior floors.
“They’re aligned perfectly with each other, and you definitely get the sense that what’s going on outside is continuing through the house, though the actual species of the wood changes,” he said.
The metal standing-seam shingles on the outside of the three volumes continue inside the house to reinforce their monolithic quality. “The typical standing-seam is seamless in the horizontal direction, but here you’ll see some subtle horizontal seaming in the panels,” Mr. Zalneraitis said. “I did that because it makes for a more rigid panel that is less prone to warping.”
Two of the volumes contain a bedroom and bathroom each, and the kitchen and pantry are found in one, while a mudroom and a laundry area are in the other. The third volume comprises the garage, mechanicals and an outdoor shower.
The glassed-in gap is the living room, with an L-shaped couch and freestanding Wittus Shaker wood-burning stove, and a small breakfast table. The screen porch has a larger dining table, and that’s where Mr. Zalneraitis eats most often. “I use it pretty early and pretty late into the season,” he said. “I’ll be out there when it’s 50, 55 degrees.”
The house has 1,035 square feet of interior living space, and the screen porch and garage combined add another 700 square feet. The design bucks the trend on the South Fork of building as big as possible, but Mr. Zalneraitis said it feels quite comfortable and generous.
“It actually doesn’t feel that small,” he said. “The bedrooms are simple, white-painted spaces that aren’t over-furnished, and they feel quite comfortable. And the living room has those two big glass walls, and it could open up to the outside.”
The house also makes efficient use of space, with no staircase and hardly any hallways, and one of the en-suite bathrooms has a second entry, so it doubles as a powder room for guests.
“I could have done more than twice the size that I built, and I just don’t need it, and it would be more than I would ever want to take care of,” Mr. Zalneraitis said. “I built this, really, for me. It wasn’t built with the idea of resale or profitability. It’s my dream house — what worked for me.”
Keeping on a budget, he said he chose IKEA’s original classics for the bedroom furniture, which is “remarkable for its simplicity and function,” and saved his efforts for the living room and porch, furnished with pieces from Design Within Reach and Room & Board.
The exception is the dining table, a 1961 design by Nicos Zographos, that was a gift from Harry Bates, the founder of the renowned architectural firm Bates Masi + Architects in East Hampton.
Mr. Zalneraitis is now more than five years into his second stint working for Bates Masi + Architects. He credits both Mr. Bates, who retired in 2017, and the firm’s other namesake, Paul Masi, with molding every aspect of his professional career, from how to approach design to how to manage life-work balance.
He originally joined Bates Masi + Architects in 2003 right out of Cornell University, where he earned a Bachelor of Architecture. “I found an advertisement for the position tacked to a bulletin board in the basement of one of our buildings,” he recalled. He checked the firm’s website and determined that it was a place he’d like to be. “I gave Paul and Harry a call and drove the seven hours down for the interview, and I got it.”
He stayed with the firm until 2008, when he moved to New York City to pursue other opportunities and got experience designing townhouses and apartments.
“After I had been in New York for about six years, I started to yearn for the days when I was doing ground-up buildings. I actually took a position at another firm that was doing more of that work, but it wasn’t quite the same as here,” he said.
“One day I got a call from Paul asking me if I would ever think of coming back, and I said, ‘You know, come to think of it, I would.’”
He had built a life in New York City, but considering that most of his time is spent working, he figured that what he does for a living trumps everything else.
“I can always go to the city on the weekends, but I can’t see another way of having the job that I really want,” he said. “I couldn’t see that happening in the city, so I made the move back here. I’ve been so happy ever since — one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Not long after his return to the South Fork, he set out to find the right place where he could build a home for himself from the ground up.
“When I was shopping, I was looking for neighborhoods where I wouldn’t be isolated, all alone through the winter,” he said. “I guess now that the pandemic has happened they’re probably very few neighborhoods that aren’t occupied year-round.”
Though work is a big part of his life and he now lives on the East End all year, he does, in fact, take vacations and get around — when there isn’t a pandemic. On the walls of the home he built are photographs, lithographs and other prints that indicate how well traveled he is.
“I’ve collected some prints during my travels, and I’ve taken some of my own photography that’s hung in the house,” he said.
He’s been to Rome, France, Iceland, China, Taiwan, Korea and Thailand, and, domestically, he’s taken road trips to a dozen national parks where he collected woodblock prints of Yosemite and a silkscreen print of Glacier National Park. An original work of calligraphy in his art collection is by a friend’s mother, Jennifer Deng of Taipei, Taiwan.
Considering his home’s proximity to the water, the house is a tad elevated to mitigate possible damage from storm surge.
“I raised the house up 30 inches off the ground,” Mr. Zalneraitis said. “The grade in this area is only about 10 feet above sea level, and across the street is Accabonac Harbor.”
Addressing drainage concerns also left him with an unsightly manhole cover on the front lawn. It’s centered outside the glass wall of the living room, so it’s hard to miss.
Rather than pretend it’s not there, he decided to work with it. The cover became a platform for a sculpture: a patinated and welded angle iron sphere titled “Nest,” by metal sculptor Travis Seeger of Elgin, Texas.
Also at the front of the house are two sets of bluestone steps, one up to the living room, the other up to the screen porch. Identical steps are off the back decks as well. The bluestone blocks are mostly naturally cleft, but the landscape contractor, Greg Condon of Sound Landscapes, cut them a bit to make them more suitable as steps, Mr. Zalneraitis said.
The landscape itself, which becomes less and less manicured while moving away from the house and toward the harbor, is Mr. Zalneraitis’s design. “It starts with the lawn at the house, and then it moves to some tall ornamental grasses,” he said. “Then it moves to some meadow planting that requires almost no maintenance.”
Aside from the fescue lawn, the plantings are all native to the area, including the 4-foot-tall switchgrass that gives him privacy from the street, he added. Arborvitaes provide privacy around the pool.
He noted that he placed the pool as far away from the house as was possible on the half-acre property. “Two-thirds of the year, the pool is closed, so I didn’t really want to have that sitting right up next to the house where the decks are and the views from the living room,” he explained. “I didn’t want to look directly at a pool cover all year long.”
Milestone, with the help of builder Dan Loos of East Hampton and structural engineers S.L. Maresca & Associates of Hampton Bays, was completed in January 2019. In 2020, the residence received a commendation from AIA Long Island, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects, during the group’s 56th annual Archi Awards.
Mr. Zalneraitis said the home is the culmination of what he’s learned over the years from Mr. Bates and Mr. Masi, and hard to categorize. “Like all of our work, it doesn’t really fit a style,” he said. “Every house that we do is particular to client, its use, its place, both in location and its history.”
He pointed to the name of the Bates Masi monograph: “Bespoke Home.”
“And that’s really what this is — a bespoke home. It’s highly tuned to its context, in all ways.”
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