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The Many Dimensions of Island Builder Andrew Flake

Profile by CK Wolfson Photography by Peter Vanderwarker and Bob Gothard

He’s talking about process: “You bring all these different people together and create a team. You make sure it’s a good fit with the client and the architect. We have to work together, and when one of those legs on that table isn’t dovetailing properly, it can create a very challenging process.

“Get good people, and treat them well,” he says. “It’s really important to be loyal to your sub-contractors, in turn they’re going to be loyal to you. You create that environment.” His office manager, Beverly Robinson, worked with him for 32 years before she retired and remains high in his regard.

With fluency and surety he rambles off the qualities he looks for in the people who work alongside him: “All the life skills that you could assign to almost anything you do in your life: integrity, honesty, empathy, sincerity, loyalty. Integrity is probably one of the most important.”

Andrew Flake sits shirt-and-sweater relaxed in his uncluttered second floor Beach Road office. “As you get older, if you open you heart and mind to it you acquire a lot of knowledge,” he says. “So there’s a lot of institutional knowledge that comes with putting these teams together.”

“As we all are on the Vineyard, we’re working with some of the best architects and designers in the country. And almost all of our clients are extraordinary people — really good people. They want to do the right thing. We’re in a position to help them do something they may have never done — a position of mentoring and advising and counseling. There are a lot of responsibilities, lots of money, and a timeline. You really have to see it from the client’s point of view, not just from a builder’s standpoint.”

His conversation meanders at the whim of his interviewer’s curiosity. No agenda. Ask, and with little pause he will glide over the details of how he went from land to air to sea and ultimately, to his calling: Andrew A. Flake, Inc. Builders. And it soon becomes apparent that there is a general absence of ordinary about Flake’s life.

One of three siblings in a distinguished family, Flake grew up in historic Chestnut Hill, a village six miles from downtown Boston. His father Dr. Carlyle Flake, was Chief of Pediatric ENT (ear, nose, throat) Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, and in the 1930’s, co-founded the Department of Otolaryngology & Communication Disorders. His mother, Susan Appleton Flake, a registered nurse at Children's Hospital and a nursing volunteer during the polio epidemic, became a pioneer in teaching dyslexic children. After years of involvement in various capacities, she became acting head of the Chestnut Hill School.

Flake was a freshman in the liberal arts program at Boston University before transferring to Northeastern’s five-year program in aviation sciences. (“I always liked to fly.”) He graduated in the cultural and economic chaos of 1972 with one thousand-hours of flight time, a pilot’s license, and no job with a commercial airline to be had.

And then he read a story in Sail Magazine about a man in Nova Scotia who was building an ocean-going sailboat in his backyard. “So I basically revolted, and wound up spending eight-months living in and working on that 80-foot schooner while it was being built on the Bay of Fundy.” He became its second mate and sailed out from Nova Scotia in November storms to South America and around the Caribbean.

“If you are a career-track person and suddenly you lose that track, you have to shift gears,” he says. “I needed to make a change. I was young enough to take a chance and felt there was really nothing to lose. It was better to do it in my early twenties than in my early forties.“

A brief pause in Marblehead where he considered a career in yacht sales and then it was time to process and re-assess. Where better to come to regroup then on the Vineyard in the house his parents built on West Chop prior to World War II and where he had spent all of his summers.

“I grew up here. This is the foundation for a big part of my life. I’ve been part of the fabric here for 70 years,” he says. “So I came here to write resumes, and to support myself, I got a job with a builder, Donald DeSorcy. I had a lot of respect for him.”
He smiles. “I’ll never forget my interview. [DeSorcy] said, ‘Well, there are two things, you have to work at least half a day on Saturdays, and you have to eat your lunch at the job site’ — which seems so old school now.”

What Flake discovered was he “loved working with my hands and getting dirty. It was very comfortable and I learned early I was good at it.” He adds, “Working with my hands morphed into what I am today.”

It was when the West Chop family house burnt down in 1975, that he fully demonstrated his calling. His design and reconstruction of the house garnered attention and brought him into a community of architects and builders.

He remembers: “Houses used to be built without any engineer’s plans. Now they are highly engineered: the environmental aspect, the structure, and the sustainability of the envelope of the house that protects against the elements…. It’s not just the wood; it’s what’s behind the wood. Most of this comes from experience, from trial and error. An experienced builder can be a huge asset to a young architect.”

He continues, “There are air envelope barriers — a whole new level of technology that you wrap the house in. You’re making the house so tight it can’t breathe anymore, so you need sophisticated air exchange systems where you exchange the air at a certain rate, and that has to be engineered.”

In 1978, Flake and architect Sam Dunn opened an upstairs office in a building they bought on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. It was where Ben Franklin Five & Dime once stood. (“My mother would give me 25-cents and I would go down there and buy a kite.”)

What Flake regards as the turning point in his professional life was working with Benjamin Thompson (architect of Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall), “a preeminent architect in the country. He got my name from a local lumber store, and literally walked in off the street into our design-and-build office and presented this opportunity to build a house for the Editor in Chief of Time Life Corporation.

And so it goes. “I didn’t expect to be so active so late in my life. And I couldn’t have imagined having all of the opportunities I’ve had.”

Flake’s work has been repeatedly featured in national and regional magazines including House Beautiful, Boston Globe Magazine, Builder/Architect, and Architectural Digest.

His projects include: Farm House (Charles Rose Architects), a one-story cedar and glass contemporary in comfortable partnership with its historic Vineyard farm landscape; the Duin Huis (Hutker Architects), built next to the dunes and the Atlantic, fitted with Italian bronze doors and windows and crafted to protect against the coastal environment; the West Chop House, (Tigerman McCurry Architects) featuring a tapered stair tower shaped like a lighthouse, capped with a lantern-like crow’s nest; and Menemsha Pond House (Hutker Architects),whose features reflect the Native American history of its site, such as a four-sided fireplace, and a twelve-sided teepee roof that joins a square clerestory to add natural light.

Flake is one of founders of The Martha's Vineyard Builders Association (MVBA), a collective of construction industry professionals, including general contractors, trades people, designers, architect, and insurance professionals. “There’s a tremendous value in collaborating,” he says it like he’s stating the obvious, and notes that what began five-years ago with four or five, now boasts a membership of 120. “We’re trying to become more a part of the community,” he says describing the monthly programs of forums, speakers, and the educational, mentoring and outreach programs being developed.

All that, yet Flake gives no hint of the pressures and stresses that would logically come with his work — he’s too calm. When told that, he responds: “I’m a fierce competitor.”

And as an example, he describes someone throwing a wad of paper across a room into a wastebasket as Game on! After he brags that his (love at first sight) wife June has become a competitive tennis player, and is asked if she’s ever beaten him, he flashes a smile. “No.” He likes to win.

Flake has been competing in triathlons for 17 years. “I like being in constant movement.” In the 2012 USA Triathlon National Championship, he placed fifth in the 65 to 69 age group. He qualified for Team USA in 2013 and competed in the World Championships with the Team USA Triathlon in London, Australia, Budapest, and Chicago. (A litany of injuries over the years forced him to switch to aquabike competitions (half-Ironman swim and bike).

“Sports have been one of the biggest things in my life. It creates stability because now you’re thinking about getting to sleep earlier. You’re not staying out up late. It gives you more efficiency during the day. You get up early, eat better, and live healthier.”

“But I also like calm, and creating a calm space for myself. That’s where the meditation comes in. And it’s a distraction, a balance from all the work. Some people have accused me of being too serious about what I’ve done. But it’s all part of the package…. I tell our daughters (Emily, Isobel, Alexandra) this — I tell them one of the most challenging things you do in your life is to find balance.”