Real estate is big business on Martha’s Vineyard. Even when times are tight, it seems you can’t turn a corner without spotting signs of new construction and homes being built, renovated or torn down. Carpenters, welders, stonemasons, sheetrockers, shinglers. The Island economy turns on skilled tradespeople of all kinds, and with a healthy workforce of laboring professionals it’s no wonder Vineyard homes are often featured in magazine spreads and on HGTV.

But where does the home-building process begin? What happens before the first crews show up? How do ideas for a new home or an updated kitchen move from dream to reality? Erin Ryerson goes back to the drawing board with three up-and-coming Island home designers to learn about craft, juggling young families with a budding career, and what it means to work a traditional 9-5 on an Island where seasonal schedules prevail.


Principal and Owner, sullivan and associates

When he graduated from the Boston Architectural College (BAC) in 1994, Chuck Sullivan had been living in Boston for seven years and needed a break from the city. He moved to the Vineyard, got a job at Jimmy Sea’s, went to the beach as much as he could and tried to read Moby Dick. “I never did finish that book,” he laughed.

After one summer on the Island Sullivan was hooked. He returned a year later to work for Hutker Architects. He stayed with them for four years before launching his own firm in 1999. Sullivan and Associates is based in Oak Bluffs, where a purposely small staff of six people stays busy year round. “I didn’t want to have to lay people off in the off-season,” Sullivan explained.

“We evolve a little each year,” he said. “The Island provides a nice life cycle.” In school, Sullivan was drawn to the BAC’s co-op format, where students take classes and work in their field concurrently. Sullivan worked largely on industrial buildings and saw how those projects relied heavily on the economy. As a business owner, he likes that the Island economy is relatively recession-resistant. “It’s easier to absorb the harder times here,” Sullivan said.

Though the firm works largely on residential projects it's also known for designing State Road and Beach Road restaurants. “I like the mix,” he said. “There are perks and challenges to every job.”

Sullivan recognizes salt air-weathered shingles as the Vineyard’s signature style, but he likes to think that he’s contributing to a more contemporary version of that classic coastal New England look.

Recently he watched as the Martha’s Vineyard Pirate Adventure Ship sailed around the Oak Bluffs harbor and wondered what it would be like to work a seasonal job on the water. “Still, I kind of feel like I do work in the service industry,” he said. As for Moby Dick, Sullivan thinks he might get around to finishing once his three- year-old twin boys go to college.

Practices makes perfect: up-and-comer Nick Waldman refines his aesthetic at home. Anthony Esposito


Designer, Breese Architects

When Nick Waldman moved to the Island in 2012 with his wife, cookbook author Sarah Waldman, he had only ever been to visit. He never did the summer shuffle or the make-all-your-money-in-three-months hustle. He has always worked a 9-5 office job and he knows that's a little strange. “But I feel fortunate for it,” he said. “Historically I’ve been busier in the winter than in summer which is good for me. But then again, I can’t go surfing for months at a time which also looks like a good time.”

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and working in Providence for a couple of years, the economy began a downturn. And while he started out working on exciting, creative projects, he was eventually doing basic carpentry and decided it was time to get out. He accepted a job as a designer at Breese Architects in Vineyard Haven, but has recently scaled back to part time, in order to focus on solo projects.

Most recently, Waldman was hired to design a 400-square-foot garage studio/apartment for Island artist Daniel Cooney and his wife Carolina. Waldman said the process involved a shared vision and lots of collaboration. “It was really nice to work for a local family that appreciates good design, and that are going to use the building all year,” he said. With modern lines and a striking, contemporary design, the studio gives the effect of a treehouse for grownups, which the clients enjoy.

Waldman likes working on the Island for quality-of-life and practical reasons but he finds it frustrating at times. “It’s all about finding the right people,” he said. “I’m not interested in nostalgic New England architecture. I care about good design, and the experience of living in a house, not just what it looks like.”

Waldman values the Vineyard’s strong sense of community and the way quality work garners a good reputation, which makes it easier for him to find like-minded people to work with. And though the Island can be oppressively expensive, Waldman prides himself on finding ways around that. When not busy at his day job or with one of his solo projects, he likes to experiment on his own personal canvas: the Vineyard Haven home he shares with his wife and two young sons. In addition to a full kitchen remodel, he has built bookshelves and an outdoor shower entirely with reused materials. “It’s fun to get creative with cheaper materials,” he said.


Principal, Hutker Architects

Hutker's Greg Ehrman sees work from start to finish. Anthony Esposito

Greg Ehrman moved to Martha’s Vineyard to work for Hutker Architects in 2000 and he’s only questioned his decision to lay roots and raise a family on the Island once or twice in sixteen years. “As long as the pros always outweigh the cons we’re good,” he said. As a principal at Hutker, one of Ehrman’s responsibilities is recruiting and interviewing new talent. He gets calls from young architects and designers across the country. “It’s not for everyone,” he concedes. “We are a very professional outfit in a very casual place.” Still, when he sees aptitude and passion in a prospect he does what he can to snatch them up.

Before he moved to the Island Ehrman worked for a large firm in Boston. He enjoyed working around high-quality design but he never saw any of his projects built. With a bit of lingering frustration, he described working on a project for nine months only to see it die on the drawing table. But on the Vineyard he is able to work closely with clients and see his work from start to finish. He is currently working on Hutker’s first “passive house," a rigorously energy-efficient structure.

Island work has afforded Ehrman some unique opportunities. He recently finished the renovation of an Aquinnah home that was originally designed by acclaimed New York City architect Steven Holl, one of the design masters Ehrman studied in architectural school at Northeastern University. He tries to be open minded and adaptable to his clients’ needs but feels a strong connection to his Yankee roots (he’s from New Hampshire) and is particularly drawn to simple, clean, high-quality design.

One of the downsides to living and working on the Island is the lack of access to professional training and lectures, so Hutker makes a point to encourage its staff to get off-Island and into the city from time to time. “Sometimes that means a night off-Island and the early boat back,” said Ehrman. “You have to plan more and spend your time more carefully but in the end I think people end up where they want to be.”

Ehrman credits the creative and inspired atmosphere for a large part of his professional satisfaction. “We have a joke in the office that every project is the best project ever,” he said. “I learn something at work every day.”