Reade Kontje's home is a work in progress. Outside the cedar shakes are fresh; so too is the sawdust on the table by the front door. The lawn is a mix of grass and weed. The trees have mostly been cleared and are drying in a woodpile in back, but one old pine still stands by the driveway. On it hangs a simple yellow sign: Reade's.
The home is hers in a way that few others can say.
Ms. Kontje purchased the land through the Vineyard Haven youth lot program two years ago. She designed the house in studio class at college in Boston. She built the house, taking a year off to work on the project. She took the first shovelfuls of dirt out of the foundation hole; she raised the first wall; she traveled as far as Maine and New Jersey in search of materials.
"Sometimes I would come over and just look at it, just sit and be in awe of the whole thing. I have been amazingly fortunate; I worked for it, too, but still - to have been given this opportunity at 24, that doesn't happen very often," Ms. Kontje said.
She added: "I still think about it every day."
Ms. Kontje is a Vineyarder. Her mother lives in Vineyard Haven, her father on Chappaquiddick. She has brothers and sisters and extended family on the Island. She is passionate about the Vineyard, and she speaks with conviction about finding a way for young people to invest their lives here.
"For some people the Island is claustrophobic; for me it is warm and comfortable, a kind of larger home. And it needs to be taken care of. I want to be an active part of carrying on the community," she said.
Ms. Kontje is currently taking classes at the Boston Architectural Center and working at an architectural firm, but she plans to put her skills to use as an affordable housing advocate after graduation.
"To do that I need to be away right now for a little bit," she said.
"So many of my friends have said to me they could never think about staying here because they could never get land. But look at me - this is what affordable housing does."
The house sits on a third of an acre off Franklin street. It is two stories and 1,800 square feet but feels more spacious, in part because of the windows that let in light at every turn. In some ways the style is reminiscent of a farmhouse; more generally Ms. Kontje wanted to capture a timeless quality.
"I am more interested in the feel of a house. A building can look nice, but at the end of the day there needs to be more to it than that," she said.
"Through this process I realized I loved going places and looking at old stuff." She pointed to the antique heart pine flooring. "I love old wood, the look of wood that's been supporting a building for a long time. There's a lot in it."
Much in the house has been restored and reused.
The newel post came from a salvage yard in Cataumet. The 1950s gas stove was an E-bay purchase; the deep porcelain sink was donated by her boyfriend Greg Milne's parents. The hutch in the dining room was her great-grandmother's and the elegant table alongside it belonged to Mr. Milne's grandparents.
The fireplace is faced with beach brick, softened by the ocean and washed onto Vineyard shores.
Ms. Kontje walked the south shore for hours with family and friends collecting the bricks. "People were even leaving bricks on my doorstep with a note. The fireplace is such a symbolic center of the home anyway, and to have all this love and energy go into it is incredible," she said.
"With people pitching in, with creativity and hard work - this is what affordable housing can be," she added.
After graduating from high school Ms. Kontje attended college in Vermont for one semester before returning home. In January of 1998 she started working with her father, Geoff Kontje, who owns Chappaquiddick Construction Company.
"He said to me, ‘Don't waitress, you're gonna get sucked into it.' [Working for him] came out of needing to make a living. I was working on the north shore, on the north side of the house, totally freezing cold," she said. "I started off being his duckling. He would ask me to plug the saw in, and I would. It was literally on that level. I barely knew how to hammer a nail. He taught me all of it.
"I found that I was fascinated by building and passionate, and that I had some real opinions. By the end I was running projects," she added.
Ms. Kontje received her contractor's license in 2001. About that time she began to think about going to school for architecture. "My parents' homes were always places I could go to feel safe, warm, comfortable. Everybody deserves that, to have a place they want to go home to at the end of the day. I realized I wanted to do that for people," she said.
She also began to look into the youth lot program in Vineyard Haven. She went into town hall every two weeks for a year to ask about open lots. Two finally became available, and she was told to enter the housing lottery.
But her name was not drawn.
"I thought okay, I have to let go. I decided to go back to school and just put that dream on hold," Ms. Kontje said.
Then she received a vague message from the town administrator about the land. She did not call back. "I thought, this is too much. Emotionally I can't go through this again," she said. Then came a second message. Something told her not to ignore it.
"I was told that the properties were back in their hands, that one person after another hadn't qualified or had said no thank you. I was told that if I qualified for everything, the land was mine."
Ms. Kontje was officially awarded the lot Oct. 24, 2002.
While in school that year she designed the house. "The design came from looking at the land, taking the basic shape [of the house] and manipulating it, figuring out how to best make it fit on the land," she said.
She started construction the following August. From working with her father she had developed relationships with a lot of subcontractors on the Island.
"They gave me the best deals, they said, ‘We know you're young and starting out and some day you will throw work our way.' It gave me this wonderful sense of community; we really live in a place where people look out for each other."
She worked for her father during the day and went over to the house at nights and on weekends. Friends and family helped out when they could. "Some days it was like a party in here. When the first wall went up, it was like a barn raising - it was really such a fun thing to do. I value family above all, so to have them with me and encouraging me, it got me through."
Now that Ms. Kontje is back at school she is renting the house at low cost to a friend. "I can see why it might be tempting for people to charge so much money. Really, I could cover my mortgage in one summer. But the thing is, I got this affordably, and that's the way it needs to stay," she said.
Ms. Kontje said it is hard to have someone else - even a friend - living in her new home. "I didn't design this as a house to be rented. I realize it is a lot to ask someone to take care of - but this place really is my heart, my soul, my blood, sweat, tears.
"Right now it feels this close." She held a hand in front of her nose. "I see a window, the sill, the trim, nothing but materials. I look forward to the day when I can see it as a whole."