Historic Wickford Village is known for its small-town charm punctuated by more than 50 mom-and-pop shops, a community-oriented event schedule including concerts and festivals, and a bevy of authentic early colonial homes dating back to the 1700s. Omar and Rachel Ajaj did not own one of those homes. “We were the only house here from the 1950s that was renovated in the ’70s,” says Omar, laughing. “It didn’t fit in the town.”
The couple bought the property in 2012 and decided, for the first time in their lives as homeowners, to demolish it in its entirety. “We’ve dabbled” in major renovations, Omar explains, “but not of this magnitude.” He and Rachel knew that building a home in a historic village, and on a “postage stamp lot” close to the water, would require multiple permits and town approvals, but they were confident about developing an architectural design that would complement Wickford’s Rockwellian charisma while accommodating the needs of their growing family (which now includes three children, ages three, two and 14 weeks). Thankfully, the couple’s personal style and thoughtful approach ensured that their new home was seamlessly absorbed into Wickford’s existing ambience – but getting there came with some challenges.
“We’re fairly traditional and knew we wanted a shingle-style home,” says Omar. The couple turned to D. Michael Collins Architects in Natick, MA, to design a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home that maximized their lot size without overwhelming it.
“We chose to design in a coastal shingle style that we felt was appropriate for the location and to add to the eclectic mix of styles on the street,” says Michael. “The local historic commission was one of the more time-consuming hurdles we had to deal with. They had very specific requirements that we had to respond to, yet they were very fair in their critique and requirements for approval.”
Michael adds that Omar and Rachel were drawn to the shingle style from the beginning, so his architectural renderings with natural cedar shingles, stone details and hardscapes and sweeping rooflines hit the mark. “They were hooked as soon as I showed them the very initial concept sketches,” he says. But the couple also had a clear vision. “Rachel and Omar were very collaborative clients, always pushing the envelope a bit to get the most out of the design.”
By the time they broke ground, the couple and Michael had secured Zoning Board of Appeals and Board of Health variances, reconfigured lot lines and property easements and met all coastal flood zone requirements. “We had to make at least four presentations to the Historic Commission before we could even file for the building permit to build anything,” recalls Michael. “The actual construction was a walk in the park by comparison to the approval process!”
By then, the couple had a solid wish list for builder Steve Lawrence of Lawrence Builders in Wakefield, with practical and aesthetically driven requests to fit their lifestyle. “We definitely wanted a very open floor plan and the kitchen open to the living space,” says Omar. Rachel had a clear vision of the home’s ideal first impression. “I always wanted a grand entryway,” she says. With their three little ones in mind, Rachel pictured quintessential family memories being made there – holiday photos, the first days of school and other precious moments captured in photos at the home’s front door.
“And we needed a big garage,” adds Omar. Taking into consideration the demands that come with a family of five, the Ajajs worked with the architect to design a multifunctional mudroom off the garage for the many sets of wet boots and snowsuits, raincoats, winter parkas, summer sporting equipment and more. “We did all built-ins for the kids, so they have their own cubby,” says Rachel.
The couple also wanted to capitalize on the primary reason they had bought the property: the water view. “When you walk in, we really wanted you to see through the house to the harbor, but to make it a well-planned-out space,” explains Omar.
As the kitchen inevitably becomes the heart of the home, the couple made sure the room took advantage of those coveted water views, but in an unexpected way. In fact, they broke a cardinal rule of home design: they planned a space around a piece of furniture. “The whole kitchen was set around a 200-year-old slab table from Bali,” says Omar, and the family has no regrets. “Where we eat has 180-degree views of the water.” The rest of the kitchen has more local ties, using cabinetry from Apex Kitchens in Middletown.
When it came to the interior design aesthetic, the couple’s shared tastes inspired what they describe as a “traditional and coastal but soft and livable” vibe. “We designed everything: colors, drapery, furniture, fixtures,” says Rachel. “I wanted really soft tones, something I wouldn’t get sick of, and nothing too bright. We made a book with every room and every color and had it available for the painters. We like every color we picked.” So does their three-year-old daughter, whose ultra-feminine bedroom includes a princess bed surrounded by soft pink hues and sea-foam green accents.
Though both Rachel and Omar consistently use the word “traditional” to describe their aesthetic, their taste is decidedly fresh. For example, ultra-trendy shiplap in various spots in the home invokes a coastal-meets-country vibe, while art deco lighting can be found throughout – “a traditional feel but with an edge,” explains Omar.
Watching the home construction progress – while munching on some Allie’s Donuts – ultimately became a Saturday morning tradition for the family. The couple jokes about being warned that it would be an accomplishment for them to “build a house and not get divorced.” “We learned a lot and we liked doing it together,” says Omar. “It was a lot going through it, but the end result is totally us.”