For This Architect, the Garage Isn’t an Afterthought
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For This Architect, the Garage Isn’t an Afterthought

Patrick Ahearn designs carriage houses and car barns for automobile enthusiasts.

By Nancy Keates
Fri, Aug 27, 2021 11:45amGrey Clock 6 min

When Patrick Ahearn was growing up in Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s, he became obsessed with cars. He knew every model down to its hub caps, which he would render in intricate drawings.

But a high-school guidance counsellor discouraged his dream of being a car designer, telling him he’d need to get an engineering degree, and suggested architecture instead.

Now, Mr. Ahearn, 71, is a nationally known architect, famous for his many hundreds of often large, New England style, classic houses that stylistically blend into the background on Martha’s Vineyard, Wellesley and up and down Cape Cod. His goal is to make the homes appear timeless and authentic, as if they have been there forever—to give them what he refers to as “implied history.”

His projects tend to look alike, and they are easily identifiable as his work. They often include large, luxurious car barns and carriage houses filled with vintage cars. Many of his clients are baby boomer men who share his automotive enthusiasm and become his friends.

“The garage has to be as nice as the rest of the house,” says David Malm, 57, managing partner of a private-equity firm, who has owned several homes and car barns designed by Mr. Ahearn. “You don’t want to go from a house with millwork and brick into a garage with slab concrete and plaster on the walls. It’s jarring,” Mr. Malm says.

Mr. Malm’s Ahearn-designed, stand-alone car barn on Martha’s Vineyard is on a property he bought for around $4 million in 2019. It has brick floors in a herringbone pattern, wood beams and a club-like area with leather chairs, a bar and a television and living spaces upstairs. He is currently renting it out, but usually he keeps his red 1971 MG there. He also has a carriage house in Dover, Mass., part of a $2 million home renovation and new garage project, where he keeps his three Aston Martins. “They’re such beautiful cars. You have to put them somewhere nice,” he says.

Mr. Ahearn says the lines of his garages, like many of the homes he designs, are inspired by classic cars, with roof overhangs that nod to streamlined headlights and windows with frames like the teeth of a 1960 Corvette’s grille. He is inspired by the simple, timeless designs and the time period they represent. “The world was a better place in the 1950s,” he says.

He matches the car a person drives to the project he designs for them, using it as part of the narrative, or script, he creates for how the person lives, which he says helps them pick appropriate fixtures and materials.

“I can tell a lot about a person by their car. Sometimes it determines whether I do their house or not,” says Mr. Ahearn, who has blue eyes, a thick moustache and wears button down shirts and blue blazers.

He tells of one client, the CEO of a major office supply company, who drove a beat-up Toyota Corolla. “That told me a lot about how cheap he was,” says Mr. Ahearn. Throughout the design process, the client was always questioning the cost of the materials and fixtures. “I had to educate him on why it’s not just a vanilla box,” he says.

He recently asked the client, did he still own the Corolla? He did. “He says he’s just not a car guy,” says Mr. Ahearn, throwing up his hands.

Chris Ruggles, 52, a retired software engineer who is a “car guy,” hired Mr. Ahearn to design a 1,200-square-foot carriage house in Wellesley. He knew about Mr. Ahearn’s affinity for cars because every carriage house he liked was designed by him. “He has an easily recognizable style,” says Mr. Ruggles.

The one Mr. Ahearn designed for Mr. Ruggles, for about $600,000, has brick floors, white beadboard walls, a high ceiling and leather chairs for hanging out. The exterior, with its dormers, shutters and shingled roof, makes it look like another house. The doors look like old fashioned carriage house doors but swing open automatically.

Mr. Ruggles likes to spend time sitting quietly in the carriage house, sometimes listening to music, just being around his Albert Blue 1970 Porsche 911E, his Signal Orange 1984 Porsche 911 RSR Tribute and his Old English White 1960 MGA Roadster.

“It’s a Zen thing. It’s relaxing,” he says. His wife, Christina Ruggles, has recently started having dinner parties in the garage among the cars with her friends. “It’s turned out to be a nice little event space,” he says.

The parties that Martha’s Vineyard real-estate broker and contractor Gerret Conover, 58, holds in his Ahearn-designed car barn in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard are wilder: he dresses up mannequins and seats them in his silver 1967 Chevrolet Corvette convertible and his Pearl White 1967 Pontiac GTO.

In Mr. Conover’s garage, which cost about $450,000 to build, the signature Ahearn brick floors accommodate a car lift, the cathedral ceiling houses a massive chandelier, and the walls—premium grade pine with eight coats of varnish—are crowded with what he calls “automobilia”: early to-Mid 20th Century enamel and neon service station signs and vintage calendars. An old Mobil gas station pump and a soda machine complete the look.

Mr. Ahearn’s own 2-acre compound in Wellesley has three separate garage spaces and centres around a 1936 farmhouse he bought for $525,000 in 1991 and renovated, adding two wings, all painted it in his signature Ahearn white (half Benjamin Moore Linen White, half Benjamin Moore China White).

In 2011 he bought an adjacent property for $825,000 and built two new garage spaces: A carriage house and a car barn, for a total of around $2 million. The carriage house’s old-fashioned looking Essex Green stable doors automatically swing open to reveal the four most-prized of his 18 cars (a number that’s always changing, as he buys and sells them): a 968 American Motors AMC AMX in Matador red, a 1956 Ford Thunderbird in peacock turquoise, a 1953 Studebaker Commander in regal red and a 1964 Studebaker Avanti in turquoise.

Mr. Ahearn’s car barn is 4,000-square-feet and has two-stories and a loft. The lower level is what he calls his sanctuary—where he works and hangs out, amid his 1958 365A Porsche Speedster in fjord green, his 1964 356 C Porsche coupe in dolphin grey and his 1970 280 SL Mercedes-Benz in beige grey. Three leather chairs, a big flat screen TV, an electric train set with a model Porsche dealership and dozens of little Porsche model cars, among a sea of other car memorabilia, set the mood.

The intersection of car design and architecture, sometimes dubbed “carchitecture,” goes back to when the first automobiles hit the road over a century ago, leaving a “lasting imprint on the design of our built environment,” according to the introduction to the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s current Automania exhibit. Le Corbusier compared car design to that of ancient Greek temples, while Frank Lloyd Wright, who was obsessed with cars and designing spaces for them, incorporated garages into signature homes like the Robie House in Chicago and Fallingwater outside Pittsburgh.

Nowadays, architects design condo buildings around cars, such as the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., where each of the 60 units has built-in parking in the apartment, separated from the living area by a glass wall to allow views of the vehicles.

Born in 1950, Mr. Ahearn grew up in Levittown, the planned production home community on Long Island developed by William Levitt that was composed of nearly identical Cape Cod—and ranch-style houses created for GIs returning from war. It was to the suburb what the Model T is to the car, says Mr. Ahearn: a pioneer of mass-produced good design that changed society. He credits the community for influencing his designs by making him appreciate the balance between density and scale and that warmth can accompany sparseness.

After graduating in 1973 from Syracuse University with undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture, the first in his family to attend college, Mr. Ahearn packed up his lime green VW Bus and headed to Boston, where a girlfriend was attending law school. He was hired at Architects Collaborative in Cambridge and Benjamin Thompson & Associates, where he worked on the adaptive reuse of Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

In 1978, he started his own practice, converting buildings to condos in Boston’s Back Bay and working on national and international hotel projects. He pivoted to renovating and building single family homes, expanding his now 21-person office to include Martha’s Vineyard in the 1990s, where he has designed hundreds of homes. His projects, ranging between $500,000 and $5 million, now span the country and Canada.

His second and current wife, Marsha Ahearn, had three young children when they met in 1987 and drove what Mr. Ahearn describes as an unremarkable blue Volvo station wagon. He married her anyway in 1989. “Í thought I could correct that,” he says.

Mrs. Ahearn doesn’t go into the garage spaces at her home in Wellesley very often. The series of 15 Chevrolet Suburbans she’s owned stay in the driveway. That is partly for convenience: Since the carriage house and the car barn aren’t connected to the house, they wouldn’t help protect her in rain and snow.

But it’s also that her cars just don’t fit. “I don’t get garage space,” she says



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Stronger demand in some areas is pushing unit rents up faster than houses

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Renters are returning to the apartment market, leading to higher growth in weekly rents for units than houses over the past year, according to REA data. As workers return to their corporate offices, tenants are coming back to the inner city and choosing apartment living for its affordability.

This is a reversal of the pandemic trend which saw many renters leave their inner city units to rent affordable houses on the outskirts. Working from home meant they did not have to commute to the CBD, so they moved into large houses in outer areas where they could enjoy more space and privacy.

REA Group economic analyst Megan Lieu said the return to apartment living among tenants began in late 2021, when most lockdown restrictions were lifted, and accelerated in 2022 after Australia’s international border reopened.

Following the reopening of offices and in-person work, living within close proximity to CBDs has regained importance,” Ms Lieu said.Units not only tend to be located closer to public transport and in inner city areas, but are also cheaper to rent compared to houses in similar areas. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that units, particularly those in inner city areas, are growing in popularity among renters.

But the return to work in the CBD is not the only factor driving demand for apartment rentals. Rapidly rising weekly rents for all types of property, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis created by high inflation, has forced tenants to look for cheaper accommodation. This typically means compromising on space, with many families embracing apartment living again. At the same time, a huge wave of migration led by international students has turbocharged demand for unit rentals in inner city areas, in particular, because this is where many universities are located.

But it’s not simply a demand-side equation. Lockdowns put a pause on building activity, which reduced the supply of new rental homes to the market. People had to wait longer for their new houses to be built, which meant many of them were forced to remain in rental homes longer than expected. On top of that, a chronic shortage of social housing continued to push more people into the private rental market. After the world reopened, disrupted supply chains meant the cost of building increased, the supply of materials was strained, and a shortage of labour delayed projects.

All of this has driven up rents for all types of property, and the strength of demand has allowed landlords to raise rents more than usual to help them recover the increased costs of servicing their mortgages following 13 interest rate rises since May 2022. Many applicants for rentals are also offering more rent than advertised just to secure a home, which is pushing rental values even higher.

Tenants’ reversion to preferring apartments over houses is a nationwide trend that has led to stronger rental growth for units than houses, especially in the capital cities, says Ms Lieu. “Year-on-year, national weekly house rents have increased by 10.5 percent, an increase of $55 per week,” she said.However, unit rents have increased by 17 percent, which equates to an $80 weekly increase.

The variance is greatest in the capital cities where unit rents have risen twice as fast as house rents. Sydney is the most expensive city to rent in today, according to REA data. The house rent median is $720 per week, up 10.8 percent over the past year. The apartment rental median is $650 per week, up 18.2 percent. In Brisbane, the median house rent is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent over the past year, while the median rent for units is $535 per week, up 18.9 percent. In Melbourne, the median house rent is $540 per week, up 13.7 percent, while the apartment median is $500 per week, up 16.3 percent.

In regional markets, Queensland is the most expensive place to rent either a house or an apartment. The house median rent in regional Queensland is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent year-onyear, while the apartment median rent is $525, up 16.7 percent.

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