Home, At Last
An architect’s parents find the perfect balance of low-key living and high style design in a Biddeford ranch.
Phil and Brenda Johnson have moved house 20 times in their 46 years of marriage. At this point in their lives, they’re pros at packing boxes and shuffling items around. They know how to settle into a new space and dust the cobwebs out of an old house. As pastors, their work has taken them to numerous small towns and cities, where they have eased into the congregation, introduced themselves to the community, and carved out spaces for worship, support, and connection. But even though the work was always fulfilling and the continual change exciting, they decided in 2014 to put down roots once and for all. Upon making this decision, it was only natural that they would turn to their son, architect Caleb Johnson of Caleb Johnson Studios in Portland, Maine, to design their post-retirement space.
Not that they’ve entirely retired. “We’ve officially retired,” Phil says, “but we still do what we do.” Brenda pastors a small church in Saco every Saturday, while Phil drives an hour south once a week to preach to a slightly larger congregation in Portsmouth. “We’re in a new chapter in our lives,” Brenda says. “We still work, but we’re pretty much our own folks now.”
A few years ago, their lives looked very different. Before they moved back north to Maine, the couple lived in Naples, Florida, with Brenda’s aging father, who passed away in 2013. In the process of caring for him in his final years of life, they discovered certain things about the aging process that would prove valuable later. “We learned, living in the Naples house, about what we really wanted,” explains Phil. “That’s where we got the idea of having a room reserved for a long-term caregiver.” A moment later, Brenda adds, “We also learned about the importance of being all on one floor. That makes it easier to get around.”
When Caleb Johnson began drafting plans for his parent’s Biddeford home (located on a forested three-and-a-half-acre piece of land that abuts the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge), he focused on creating a structure that would feel comfortable and accessible for years to come. “My parents are both very sensitive to the aging process, and it was one of their top priorities to have a place where they could age in place comfortably,” he says. According to her son, Brenda has always been an impeccable homemaker with an appreciation for beautiful objects and a seemingly innate ability to create finely tuned living spaces. “For my dad, having things tidy is a priority, but they’re both accustomed to very nice environments,” Caleb says. While his parents have their own style, they also appreciate Caleb’s aesthetics and skill. Fans of Caleb Johnson Studios will recognize the home’s concrete slab floor, eastern white cedar siding, and simple rooflines as hallmarks of the architect’s elegant and eco-friendly approach. “They let me do a slightly more modern and clean design than they would have maybe wanted on their own,” Caleb admits. “But I think I pushed them into their comfort zone, not out of it.”
Inside, the low-lying house features an open living room, dining room, and kitchen, two offices (one for each well-read pastor), and an owners’ suite. All the primary living areas are located on the one floor, which means that as they age, the Johnsons won’t have to worry about navigating steep stairs or installing motorized aids. Caleb also created separate living quarters with a private entrance, which his parents currently rent on
Airbnb but that may someday host a caretaker. Another thoughtful touch is the walk-in pantry, located across the hall from the kitchen. Since Brenda tends to take on big culinary projects, Caleb added a mini kitchen in the pantry for his father to use when the countertops are occupied with casserole dishes or mixing bowls. “I love having an open-concept kitchen,” Brenda says. “I’m used to everyone having fun in the living room together while I’m working in the kitchen, but now I can be right there with them.” The house, she says, was purposefully made to be a “comfortable place, not a formal one.” When the grandchildren come over, they tend to gather on the couches or around the fireplace. Brenda can join in the conversation while she prepares dinner, and afterward, the whole family can head to the hot tub for a soak or into the surrounding woods for a twilight walk. “You get outside, and you can look up and see just moon and stars and trees,” says Brenda. “I pinch myself sometimes—this is our backyard!”
For the Johnsons, the land was a major draw. “When Phil and I first saw this piece of property, we loved that the whole forest floor was covered in these incredible leafy ferns,” Brenda remembers. “I told Caleb, I want to walk out into the woods every morning—to have that be a part of my life.” To increase the feeling of being one with the woods, Caleb set the house low on the landscape. “I like landscape steps to be six inches or less,” he says. “An interior step is more like seven inches, and that doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it feels like one.” The step from the driveway to the house is four inches, while the step from the entry porch measures six inches. If at any point either Phil or Brenda needs to use a wheelchair, it would be a relatively simple task to install a metal ramp. “The grade change is so small, it wouldn’t have to be long,” says Caleb.
As Phil and Brenda approach the one-year anniversary of moving into their forever home, they’ve
had time to reflect on their new surroundings. They’ve discovered that they love being close to rocky beaches, their rapidly growing grandchildren, and the increasingly up-and-coming Biddeford downtown. As a plus, Biddeford is part of AARP Maine’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities, an international initiative led by the World Health Organization and administered in the United States by AARP. The program identifies eight “domains of livability” for participating communities: outdoor spaces, transportation, housing access, social participation, respect and inclusion, civic participation and enjoyment, communication and information, and community and health services. Biddeford ticks all the boxes.
Phil, in particular, has found great pleasure in exploring the nearby coastline with his beloved companion, a retired racing greyhound named Danny. While other couples in their age group pass around pictures of their grandchildren, Phil and Brenda tend to show off pictures of their loyal canine. Danny is now a therapy dog, and he frequently spends time in hospitals, brightening the day of bedridden patients. After he does his duty, Phil likes to take Danny to the beach. “He gives it his all visiting the sick and dying,” Phil says. “It takes it out of him.” Every week, after spending three hours at the hospital, Phil takes Danny on a walk at Fortune’s Rock Beach, followed by a trip to Cumberland Farms, where Phil purchases two hot dogs (no buns). He cuts them into 16 pieces and feeds them, one by one, to Danny as he lounges in the backseat of the car. “People say he’s spoiled,” Phil says, “but he’s not. He’s paid his dues.” Danny, like the Johnsons themselves, has earned his relaxation and his peaceful retirement.