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Wonderment in Surfside

by Andrew Spencer

When you talk to Matthew MacEachern, Principal with Nantucket – and Boston-based Emeritus, Ltd., you get the immediate impression that he’s smart. Really smart. With a degree from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston – an educational trajectory that a semester studying urban planning in the South of France, a fellowship to study Chinese culture in China, and an architecture internship on Nantucket – that impression becomes stronger. But despite all that, he is still able to find incredible sophistication in the somewhat uniform nature of Nantucket architecture.

It’s easy to think that one might easily get bored using that recipe of “five or six simple ingredients” over and over, but Matt is fascinated by the details that go into creating the perfect Nantucket home for his clients. “In such a tight paradigm,” he said, “you focus on details that you might otherwise take for granted. I get a lot of satisfaction out of those details and out of being able to express my own language as a designer within the Nantucket paradigm.” He cited interior details as being some of the most exciting parts of a design project and added that stairs were currently a “personal obsession.” More on that in a second.

In the early 2000s, Matt ran for a seat on the Historic District Commission and was elected to the Board. He admits that he periodically felt frustrated by some of the Board’s decisions, but after being on the other side of the discussion; he quickly grew to appreciate the HDC’s opinions and decisions. “It was an incredibly enlightening experience,” he recalled of his two years on the Board. “You’re confronted with issues that you’d never thought about before, and you have an immense responsibility because when you approve one person’s design, that means other people can use the same ideas going forward.” In addition to providing him with a great deal of insight into how the Board operates, he also built a huge amount of respect for the HDC Board members: “They have a huge responsibility and it’s a huge time commitment.”

In his 20 years of running an architecture firm on Nantucket, Matt has built a reputation for excellence, and a part of the credit for that reputation has to go to the people with whom he works. “We have fantastic, talented people that we work with,” he said. One of those people is Nantucket builder Stephen Cheney of Cheney Brothers Building and Renovation.

Originally from Rhode Island, Stephen came out to Nantucket for the first time during the summer of 1997. To work construction, as he tells the story, “I was immediately hooked by the beauty and the people.” He spent a few more summers on the island before relocating full-time in 2001, at which point he started his construction business, focusing on high-end home building and large scale renovations.

And as talented as he is, he knows, just like Matt, that he’s only as good as those around him. So he makes sure to surround himself with the best when it comes to designing a project. And he speaks very highly of the Emeritus Principal, saying, “Matt is a turnkey architect. ‘He gives me comprehensive plans and makes my job a lot easier.’”

Working together, Matt and Stephen brought to fruition a gorgeous home in the Surfside area, a project that was from the start, filled with a major challenge. “The allowable footprint for building was less than a thousand square feet,” Matt recalled. “So, by the standards of both the area and the island as a whole, it’s not a big house.” Likening the project to that of designing a cruising boat, Matt said, “You can’t afford to be careless with space in that limited of an environment. Every space has to be elevated in importance because if it’s there, it has to be serving a purpose.”

The clients wanted three bedrooms and an open floor plan that connected to the spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean just outside their back door. And while that might seem pretty easy for those of us who aren’t architects, Matt took it to an entirely new level by incorporating NanaWalls, a product that allows the back of the house to essentially open up completely. “It’s really spectacular,” Matt said. “On a nice day, you can fold in the windows on the back of the house and open it all up to the outdoors.”

That amazing addition, however, required a smart builder, too. Enter Stephen Cheney. “The doors are thirty-six feet wide and ten feet tall,” Stephen explained. “When they’re open, it’s great. But when they’re closed, you have the challenge of how to keep the weather out and the air conditioning in.” With nearly twenty years of experience building on Nantucket, Stephen has the expertise to solve that complex problem. “Building a weatherproof house on Nantucket requires a thorough understanding of the time-tested techniques that have proven effective over the years,” he said.

The doors are magnificent, as is the entire home. But there’s that little personal obsession that Matt mentioned, the one about stairs. Matt’s vision was for a flight of stairs that seemed to be floating in space, but which in reality were firmly grounded to the adjoining wall. “It was a lot of fun collaborating on those stairs,” Stephen said. “Matt wanted a very minimalistic design that still maintained full support at all times. You only get one shot to do something like that right.” The solution to the myriad of challenges associated with that staircase included aircraft-grade aluminum and a United Kingdom-based manufacturer.

glass staircase nantucket emeritus design

It’s been said that the devil is in the details, but in the case of both Matt MacEachern and Stephen Cheney, those details are where their professional skills are highlighted. Whether it’s designing and installing walls that can be folded away so that they open up to the prevailing summer breeze or building a staircase that seems to defy gravity altogether, some of their best work is found on those details. And all of those details come together to create a magical living space that, even though it’s only on a footprint of less than a thousand feet, is still big enough to hold an entire family’s Nantucket dreams. Dreams that became true through the talents and knowledge of two superior Nantucketers.

For more information about Emeritus, Ltd. check out their website at To learn more about Cheney Brothers Building and Renovation, please visit them online at

Photography by Tom G. Olcott Photohraphy and Matthew Kisiday Photography
Design by Emeritus, Ltd.
Builder Cheney Brothers Building and Renovation

Article edited. Full version available in ONLY NANTUCKET SUMMER 2020

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