Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Allan Shope graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1978 and was a founding partner of Shope Reno Wharton Associates.  At Shope Reno Wharton, Allan designed houses, academic buildings, museums and environmental education centers from 1981 to 2006.  During Allan’s time at SRW Associates, the world changed profoundly with the need for renewable energy and sustainable architecture becoming increasingly apparent.  Allan left Shope Reno Wharton in 2006 to start a new architectural office dedicated to sustainable architecture.

Allan married Julie Flicker in 1985, and they have four wonderful kids, currently aged eighteen to twenty-six.  Allan’s passions, beyond family and architecture, include woodworking, farming and environmental causes.  Allan and his family live on a large organic farm in Dutchess County, New York, where they grow fruits, vegetables, and emus.  A large portion of the Shope farm is a forest, which is sustainably managed to provide wood that Allan uses for furniture-making and architectural projects.

Allan has served as a Trustee of the Dutchess Land Conservancy and currently serves as a Trustee of the Cary Instititute of Ecosystem Studies.  He is a visiting teacher at Harvard University and President of the Board for the environmental organization Clearwater.

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Address

78 Sinpatch Road
Wassaic, NY 12592

Phone

Phone: 845 . 877 . 6335

Fax: 845 . 877 . 6399

     

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Allan Shope Architect is a firm dedicated to creating buildings with sophisticated craftsmanship, carbon neutral operation, and inspired design. This office was started by Allan in 2006, following a 25 year career leading the architectural firm of Shope Reno Wharton Associates. Allan Shope Architect focuses on a select number of projects each year for clients who want to challenge aesthetic and environmental conventions with the buildings they construct.

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Energy

The world needs innovation in our built environment, not “greened up” traditional designs. We must begin to create buildings that produce more energy than they use. This architectural firm is dedicated to exploring all construction methodologies that could facilitate this goal. We are working with passive and active solar systems, geothermal systems, earth buffering, wind energy, mechanical synergy and aerobic amoeba to create carbon neutral buildings. The effective integration of these energy sources into inspired architecture is essential in a world with diminishing natural resources.

Location

The first step in designing a house is choosing the site. After considering legal requirements such as applicable zoning laws, yard setbacks, wetland ordinance restrictions and coastal regulations setbacks, most people look for the best views, distance from neighbors, and proximity to roads and amenities like ponds. We always counsel our clients to consider one other important priority when siting their homes: understanding and respecting the natural community that lives on their property. We can and should build houses that co-exist harmoniously with the ecosystems that surround us, and live not as kings of the universe, but as stewards of the land.

Materials

Today’s global economy makes available a vast selection of materials from the farthest reaches of the earth, allowing every architect to create buildings using identical materials specifications wherever they build in the world. The result is architectural uniformity and sterility. Although the availability of imported materials is an attractive convenience, we enjoy incorporating the forms and materials that are indigenous to a region. Vernacular forms and materials offer not only the environmental and economic benefits of less energy consumption for transporting the materials, but also a distinctly regional experience, with architecture that is unique and appropriate to its surroundings.

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power.  The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades.  These I saw.  Look ye also while life lasts.

From an 18th Century Epitaph

Most architects seek the inspiration to create beautiful architecture in the wrong place, emulating the historic styles they see in the pages of architectural history books. Truly meaningful architectural beauty has always been a reflection of our humanity, not of the past. Proportion, scale, texture and form are the building blocks of architectural beauty. The greatest buildings in the world, such as Ronchamp, the Guggenheim Museum, Falling Water and Bilbao, are not defined through style. They are a reflection of humanity and all of its potential. Creating original, meaningful designs that reflect their place and time is more challenging than selecting a Georgian Colonial or Shingle Style design, but, potentially, far more rewarding.

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power.  The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades.  These I saw.  Look ye also while life lasts.

From an 18th Century Epitaph

Most architects seek the inspiration to create beautiful architecture in the wrong place, emulating the historic styles they see in the pages of architectural history books. Truly meaningful architectural beauty has always been a reflection of our humanity, not of the past. Proportion, scale, texture and form are the building blocks of architectural beauty. The greatest buildings in the world, such as Ronchamp, the Guggenheim Museum, Falling Water and Bilbao, are not defined through style. They are a reflection of humanity and all of its potential. Creating original, meaningful designs that reflect their place and time is more challenging than selecting a Georgian Colonial or Shingle Style design, but, potentially, far more rewarding.

Copyright © Allan Shope Architect, 2014

Introduction To The New House Project

The Design and Construction of the Oak Hill Road House

During the summer of 2013 we began construction of a new house, located on Oak Hill Road in Livingston, NY.  The site is a high bluff looking south along the Hudson River, with a big view of the Catskill Mountains to the west. The 3000 sq. ft. house will be built into the hillside with a sod roof to shelter us from extreme heat and cold.  We are excited about this project and hope the house will accomplish the following five goals:

  1. The design of the house and landscape should demonstrate a respect for the history of the site and a commitment to land stewardship.
  2. The construction of the house should reflect its time and place via vernacular materials and craftsmanship.
  3. The house should be low maintenance in every respect.  We do not want to be owned by our house.
  4. The mechanical systems of the house should be simple, low tech, easy to repair and easy to operate, should use no fossil fuels, and should produce all of the energy required for all domestic hot water and HVAC…. a “reduce and produce” approach.
  5. The architecture of the house should demonstrate the power of architecture to contribute to the daily experience.

While the actual construction of the house began during the summer of 2013, we have been working on preparations for several years.  These efforts have included collecting materials from the forest, such as enormous granite monoliths, cutting and drying 80 black walnut trees, building millwork and furniture for the house, creating architectural designs, and doing general site work to install utilities. We kept an architectural journal during the process and shared twelve journal entries in emails sent to friends and family on consecutive Saturdays beginning June 15, 2013.  The journal entry topics and schedule are as follows:

  • June 15             Land Stewardship vs Stewardship
  • June 22             Selecting and Replacing a Black Walnut Tree
  • June 29             Ten Chairs - A Maker's Journey
  • July 6                 Tuning a Door
  • July  13              A Very Big Bowl
  • July 20              Granite Monoliths
  • July 27              Architecture as a Non-Visual Experience
  • August 3           Globalization and the Demise of Vernacular Identity
  • August  10        Wood
  • August  24        Architectural Sustainability: The Challenge of Change
  • August  31        The Hudson River Renaissance
  • September 7    Architecture as a Reflection of Human Potential

We began to post construction photos with comments in October.

 

West View

West View

Living Room

Living Room

Living Room

Living Room

Parapet Wall Evening

Parapet Wall Evening

Parapet Wall Daytime

Parapet Wall Daytime

Comments

Tom and Pat Small, 06.10.2013, 11:56

Will be looking forward to following your progress. It will be amazing and a world in itself.

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

1. Land Ownership vs. Stewardship

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect…  That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. - Aldo Leopold

I believe that even the most committed naturalists and land conservationists generally don’t begin life attuned to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.  Environmentalists evolve from a perspective of land ownership to land stewardship.  This evolution is usually not an epiphany; rather, many unconnected moments transform the human mind over time.

As a child, growing up in rural Connecticut, where the natural world was my playground, land ownership represented a personal challenge to me.  Land was owned by other people;  every boundary line was an imaginary fence to conquer.

In my twenties, I purchased my first piece of land.  It was very exciting.  I remember driving to the property after the closing, walking to the highest point, and feeling triumphant.  I owned this land!  The laws of our community gave me rights to build things and tell others that my boundary line was now their fence.  My mind raced to envision the property as a house site.  It was wonderful!  I built a house and raised a family there.

In my forties, I purchased more land, hundreds of acres.  I loved the land and wanted to put together a big, beautiful undeveloped property for me and my family.  But what began as an enterprise of acquisition changed.  I grew more concerned about future generations.  As I researched how to manage my land intelligently, I learned about the environmental impacts of my decisions.

One of the moments that reshaped my thinking happened on the day in 2006 when David Strayer, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, invited me to wade with him into the Ten Mile River, which runs through our farm.  He had me pick up one of the mussels that lie in the riverbed, and informed me that, while they appeared healthy and abundant, these freshwater pearly mussels were actually the most imperiled group of plants or animals on the continent, with dozens of species already extinct.  He told me that every mussel I could find in the river was at least fifty years old because for the past half century some pernicious combination of environmental factors had thwarted their propagation.  If no one could figure out what was causing their breeding to fail and fix the problem, the clock would run out on mussels in the Ten Mile River.  There was an entire world that existed on our property that I had never seen.

In my fifties, my view of land grew even less anthropocentric when I became a falconer and learned to become a partner with my hawk to assist her hunting. The hawk does not regard land as property lines or zoning regulations; she experiences movement, opportunity, calculation, limitations, danger, initiative, and ultimately survival for her or her prey.  The raptor’s-eye-view that I have shared with her has enabled me to partake in the relationship with the land that Aldo Leopold advocated, becoming part of the natural community rather than its owner. I no longer felt the desire to own hundreds of acres; just one simple piece.  I began to divest myself of land.  I was ready to focus on one special property on the Hudson River....

The Oak Hill Road Property

My goal is to build a house and develop the property on Oak Hill Road in a way that not only provides for our needs, but also respects and responds to the land and its surroundings.  Every decision about the house and property takes into consideration the long-term needs of the environment and society at large.

  • Carbon Neutral Architecture - We will attempt to achieve a net zero carbon footprint for the energy usage of the house by incorporating photovoltaic panels, a solar water heater, earth berming, geothermal ducts, high-tech insulation, and other technological innovations to create a house that produces as much energy as it uses (more details in a later journal entry).
  • Environmentally Friendly Architecture - We aim to create a building that has no negative impact on the plants and wildlife around it. My daughter, Elizabeth, recently told me about a bird protection glass that has been developed.  Coated with a reflective ultraviolet pattern visible only to birds, the glass prevents them from thinking they can fly through it.  We are excited about using it for every window in the house.  Organic vegetable gardens will be incorporated into the house in stepped beds that make up the earth-berming retaining walls.
  • Sustainable Forestry - A primary goal in our forestry program is to increase biodiversity by returning the woods to their indigenous makeup.  Our first step has been to work on eradicating the invasive plant species, allowing sunshine and nutrients to reach the native plants that the invasives were choking out.  Then, through deliberate thinning of the forest, we allow individual trees to reach their full glory.  On the animal front, we have for years enjoyed encouraging vulnerable species - setting up birdhouses for kestrels and hives for honey bees (including two feral swarms we captured and moved into hives in early June).  We will continue to do that, as well as build an osprey nest on the peninsula that juts out into the river.
  • Sustainable Land Use - The property lies within the viewshed of the state historic site, Olana, the former home of the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.  A conservation easement that we have executed with Scenic Hudson ensures that the view from Olana, as well as from the river, remains unspoiled.

Whenever I need to make a design decision, I visit the land and let it speak to me.  The Hudson River Valley has seduced generations of humanity, and I am no exception.  I no longer own the land; the land owns me.

Oak Hill Hudson View

Oak Hill Road Property View of the Hudson River

Baby Kestrel Chicks

Kestrel Chicks

Honey Bee Swarm

Honey Bee Swarm

Sydney Shope Capturing Wild Honey Bees

Sydney Shope Capturing Wild Honey Bees

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

2. Selecting and Replacing a Black Walnut Tree

Gathering

Human beings have foraged for survival for thousands of years.  Gathering nature’s bounty from the woods, both to eat and provide shelter, is a primordial human activity.  I have always loved searching in forests to find beautiful trees to create special bowls, furniture, and houses, just as I have enjoyed hunting for such delicacies as morels and ramps to cook special meals.  The land-to-hand process offers an innately satisfying means of survival, in harmony with our surroundings.

Selecting

The Oak Hill Road house will be largely fabricated from local trees.  We have cut eighty mature black walnut trees to construct the floors, furniture, doors, cabinets, and millwork. These trees have undergone a selection process that would impress even the most rigorous college admissions office.  Color, density, patterns of grain, dimensions, and condition have all been carefully considered.

The first walnut tree we chose was for building a table and ten chairs.  We needed a tree with a wide, dense, short trunk and massive lateral branches that could provide strong curved grains as the branches transitioned out from the trunk. Walnut comes in many colors, depending on soil type and nutrients where the tree grew.  The ideal tree would have a rich dark color to its heartwood, with very tight grain, which occurs in trees that have endured poor soil and lack of water.  The tree needed to be at least two hundred years old to yield adequate dimensions.  The size and color requirements for the chairs and table eliminated 99% of the thousands of available walnut trees we considered.  Of the remaining hundred or so trees, damage such as trunk rot, interior animal nests, insect boring, and historical lightning scars reduced the number of possible contenders to twenty.  Half of those trees were in locations too difficult to reach with equipment, leaving us with ten viable candidates.  Five of the remaining ten trees had produced far fewer walnuts, indicating that they were in biological decline and thus preferable to remove from nature.  Eventually, I would use all five finalists in the house.  The one with the largest diameter trunk earned the distinction of becoming the table and chairs.

Cutting

A walnut tree that has spent two centuries developing into one of nature’s masterpieces should be treated with reverence.  I try to make use of every piece, and to integrate the tree’s unique characteristics with my design.  In order not to waste the lower part of the trunk, I make a single horizontal cut at grade using a chainsaw with a long, 48-inch bar.  This usually causes the tree to bind against the saw, which necessitates employing a series of steel wedges to finish the cut.

Sawing

We take the trunk and primary branches to our farm, where we have a Wood-Mizer sawmill that is capable of cutting planks 24 inches wide, 10 inches thick, and 40 feet long.  Having my own sawmill allows me to cut a log deliberately to accommodate each part of a project.  Every cut can be made to yield a piece of lumber with the ideal grain configuration. It is a slow process, but worth the time. This tree took about eight hours to saw, and yielded 550 board feet of exquisite local walnut.

Every tree is an adventure when you saw it.  One walnut log created a disaster on the sawmill when the blades suddenly broke and the drive gears of the motor bound up with a bang. We had hit a large piece of metal inside the log, which turned out to be a horseshoe that had been hung on the side of the tree two centuries earlier.  The tree had gradually grown around the horseshoe, eventually completely embedding it inside the trunk.  Marks on trees often bear witness to events that took place around them, such as fires, floods, or droughts, and it is not uncommon to find a nail or bullet inside a tree, but such a large object ingrained in the wood and capturing a moment in history was worth the damage to the sawmill and will certainly find a prominent place in the house, reminding us of the distant past the wood enshrines.

Drying

After the logs have been sawn into planks, each piece of lumber is waxed on its end grain to prevent water from leaving the boards too quickly.  The boards are then placed in a barn, stickered to allow airflow between each plank, and air-dried for at least one full year for every inch of board thickness.  Most commercially-sold walnut is dried in a kiln, which mandates a steaming protocol inside the kiln every two days for almost two months in order to prevent surface cracking.  The repeated steaming of the wood neutralizes its color, eliminating the rich contrasts that make walnut so special. The advantage is that kiln-drying is much faster than air-drying.  Some of the wood we cut for this project was six inches thick, which meant that we needed six full years to dry it.  Six years seems like a long time in the demanding schedule of most projects; I see it as simply the physical reality of using this particular wood.

Replacing

When the tree has fallen, we cut off the pieces we are not going to use and heap them into a messy, intertwined pile. The squirrels promptly make nests in the dense jumble of branches because it protects them from predators.  They hoard walnuts from the tree deep in the center of the pile. During the winter, many of the squirrels are killed, which leaves their walnuts to germinate in the spring.  The young saplings shoot up for the sunlight, through the pile, during their first few years of life.  The tangled branches protect the saplings from deer, allowing them to grow to a height above the browse line. As the pile slowly disintegrates, it creates the nutrients that the young trees need to grow.  Roughly a decade after cutting the tree, when the saplings have reached a height of about ten feet, we identify the strongest sapling and cut down the others around it to give the chosen tree the advantage of growing without competition.  Genetically, the young tree is the actual offspring of the older tree that I felled.  I hope someday someone will chance upon this replacement tree, and decide it is the perfect one to create something special.

Black Walnut Tree

Black Walnut Tree

Walnut Log Pile

Walnut Log Pile

Walnut Log On The Sawmill

Walnut Log On The Sawmill

Walnut Planks Drying

Walnut Planks Drying

Horseshoe Embedded In Walnut Plank

Horseshoe Embedded In Walnut Plank

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

3. Ten Chairs - A Maker's Journey

I have always wanted to build a set of chairs from a single tree.  I finally found the time to realize that dream when my departure from the established architectural firm I had founded in order to start a new one happened serendipitously to coincide with the moment the recession hit.  During the lull before the business of architecture began to pick up again, I began to design and build what came to be called my Recession Chairs.

The process of making something from wood is an unpredictable journey, guided by materials, ability, and vision. These factors evolve and interact until, with time, thought, and a lot of trial and error, the task becomes clear.

For this project, I cut a large black walnut tree on our farm (as described in the previous journal entry).  I sawed most of the trunk in a conventional manner, producing wonderful wide planks and thick turning stock, but I also had in mind something a little different: where the primary branches connected to the trunk, instead of cutting them off, I saved those joints and sliced them laterally (see first photo).  The resulting curved grain suggested the design of the chairs.  Wood has tremendous strength along the cellulose fibers that make up its grain.  I wanted to take advantage of the natural strength of those curved pieces, as well as their voluptuous shape, to create arms and backs that would be thin and lightweight, gracefully flowing, and naturally ergonomic to accommodate the curves of the human back.

A chair is a difficult object to build because it demands more strength and comfort than other furniture.  In addition, my design involved the use of compound curved pieces with complex grains.  I am a proficient woodworker, having learned as a child from my father, later studying with master woodworkers in college, and - over the years - building everything from bowls to tables to houses.  However, like most woodworkers, I had always focused on methods of joining straight-grained pieces of wood.  Those standard joints would work for parts of the chairs, but not the curved arms and backs.  I would have to expand my knowledge and abilities through research and experimentation.  I began by exploring in books, museums, and antique shops to find the type of woodworking joints my design called for.  I then experimented, building mockups, first just of the joints, then of the whole chair.  The process of constructing prototypes, testing them, modifying the designs, and re-building, took months.  Many chairs broke before I developed the design that married strength, comfort and beauty to my satisfaction.  (One quick shout-out: I was fortunate to have readily available a human subject capable of performing brutally rigorous assessments of the chair’s strength… me.)

Each chair consisted of 21 handmade parts, which meant that the task of building ten chairs required identifying and organizing 210 pieces of black walnut with appropriate grain and dimensions, plus a few extras (for replacing casualties of large water buckets for the emu that Julie carried through the woodshop).  I built the seats first, legs and struts second, and backs and arms third.  The seats were made of four interlocking frame parts, with a floating solid panel in the center. When the seats were complete, I proceeded with the legs and cross struts, which were time consuming. I had to turn forty identical legs on the lathe and then reinforce them with horizontal struts that were doweled to each leg.  The most difficult task during the construction of the chairs was the arms and backs, which had to be carved by hand and fitted individually to the seats.  There were five parts to the curved hoop that rose out of the seat in the front of the chair.  Each part was radial in section as well as curved in plan. Fabricating each of these pieces required following the curved grain of the wood, which allowed very little room for error.  The curve of the wood grain had to match the curve of the chair’s back and arms, which had to match the curve of a human body that would sit in the chair, if it were to be successful.  Each piece needed to be carved with hand tools. The ten chairs are similar enough to one another that they look like a set, but different enough that I can tell them apart by touching them.

When the woodworking for the ten chairs was completed, the chairs were saturated with linseed oil that had a small amount of pine pitch and mineral spirits added as a coagulant.  The wood was allowed to dry for one month, and then buffed smooth.  A final surface of beeswax from our apiary will be applied just before we begin to use the chairs on Oak Hill Road.

I would never wish for a recession, but the Recession Chairs are my lemonade from that lemon.

Curved Walnut Log

Curved Walnut Log

Chair Parts

Chair Parts

Chair Bases Assembled

Chair Bases Assembled

Glung Jig For Chair Arms

Gluing Jig For Chair Arms

Clamping Jig For Chair Back

Clamping Jig For Chair Back

Chair With Back Spindles And Front Arm

Chair With Back Spindles And Front Arm

Chair Assembly

Chair Assembly

Finished Chair

Finished Chair

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

4. Tuning A Door

Doors are often considered a purely functional element of a building’s design, but they are capable of making meaningful contributions to life. When I needed to build fourteen interior doors for the Oak Hill Road house, it may come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading my journal that I wanted to create the most special doors I could imagine, employing and highlighting the beautiful local materials available to me. My goal was to build doors that would delight the eye, and also please the sense of touch and sound.

Sight

While the chairs described in my last journal entry were the fruit of one tree, the doors came from many. I had hoarded exceptional walnut for decades, since my college days, in the belief that someday it would have an important use. That day finally arrived when I needed to select the walnut boards for the doors’ large central panels. The big barns at Listening Rock Farm had afforded me the space to stockpile hundreds of wide walnut planks over the years. All along the walls I leaned approximately 120 boards that fit the minimum size criteria - 24 inches wide by 8 feet long - and then studied them to determine which ones looked the most exciting and expressive, like a work of art. The first one I chose had an ancient bullet, perhaps from the Revolutionary War, lodged in its center. The metal of the bullet had altered the color of the wood, generating a lovely blue streak, and the grain had grown around it in spectacular patterns. I then picked the remaining thirteen panel pieces deliberately for their individual, intrinsic beauty, also keeping in mind the relationship between the panels of the doors that would be placed near one another.

Each central panel is surrounded by stiles and rails, which are, in turn, surrounded by door jambs and casings. Like two sets of frames around a painting, those pieces were chosen not to compete with the central panels, but to complement and support them with consistency.

Touch

A door shows that it is a serious architectural component of a room through its actual weight and feeling of solidity and stability. Walnut, by its nature, feels solid, as well as deliciously smooth and sensuous. Creating stability is more of a challenge. Seasonal humidity fluctuations cause cross-grain expansion and contraction in wood. I have built the doors to minimize the effects of variable humidity by using “stave core” construction, a technique that involves building a stable core with a finished visual face consisting of a walnut exterior. For all of the stave core lumber, I cut the trees, milled the lumber on our sawmill, and air-dried the wood for three years before beginning construction. The door’s stability is influenced by the drying process of the wood, the direction of the wood grains, the species of the core wood, the nature of the glue used for assembling the door, and the types of joints connecting the parts. I used soft glues and cut every piece of every door meticulously to minimize cross grain movement. Doors are usually mass-produced as part of a building’s architectural millwork. I built each door with painstaking care as if it were a musical instrument.

Sound

People like to hear doors close authoritatively. In Georgian architecture, doors were designed in such a way that they could be adjusted to control the sound as they close, in a process called “tuning” a door. The noise made by closing a door arises from the door latch snapping into the void in the strike plate. A door is tuned by adjusting the amount of tension required to make it latch shut. The tension is created by hanging the hinge side of the door in a perfectly straight, vertical line, and forcing the door to bend on its swing side by bowing the stop, so that the top and bottom of the door hit the stop before the strike catches. The bend, and resulting tension, can be increased by installing a strike plate with the edge of its void further from the latch, or can be decreased by using a strike plate whose void edge is closer to the latch. If the bend is too great, there is too much tension in the door, and the sound will be too high. Too little tension, and the sound will be too low. No tension at all, and the door will rattle. My ideal would be to set the tension so that each door’s sound is identically deep and sonorous.

The hinges, mortise locks, and strike plates – the parts that actually initiate the sound – all need to be well manufactured of cast bronze to be able to tune a door. We were fortunate to have at our disposal exquisitely-crafted bronze hardware salvaged from buildings that were being demolished next to our farm in Amenia, NY. The reused hardware offered the dual advantage of providing the highest quality I could find as well as reducing our embodied carbon footprint for the project. And I love giving fine materials a second life.

I have never seen anyone tune a door, but I believe I can do it. I plan to erect the new house during the upcoming year, and will at that time hang and tune the doors. I know they will be beautiful, solid, smooth, and stable. I have pondered the possibility that they may fall short of symphonic. My family and friends may judge the acoustics harshly. There may be digital audio sensors involved before it is over. But it is my hope that when I have finished hanging these doors, they will resonate with the potential that everyday objects can offer our daily experience.

Whole Door

Whole Door

Plinth Block And Door Base

Plinth Block And Door Base

Solid Walnut Door Panel

Solid Walnut Door Panel

Bronze Doorknob

Bronze Doorknob

Door Bottom Stave Core Construction

Door Bottom Stave Core Construction

Door Bottom Stave Core Construction

Door Bottom Stave Core Construction

Door Bottom Stave Core Construction

Door Bottom Stave Core Construction

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

5. A Very Big Bowl

Turning a bowl on a lathe is a gratifying woodworking activity that even a child can do. With little skill or effort, a wooden object can be produced from a single piece of wood, with no joints or other complexities, its form a simple, basic gesture, its purpose friendly and practical. At age 11, I turned my first bowl, a sugar bowl with a lid, for my mother. I have since turned dozens, mostly salad bowls, for myself, friends and family - and have also taught many people to turn their own bowls. The best wood to use is a burl, a growth that sometimes arises on trees, believed to develop as a result of stress, such as an injury or fungus. The burl’s grain is twisted and interlocked, wildly non-directional, which makes it visually dramatic as well as strong and durable, with no tendency to split.

Whenever I walk in the woods, I keep an eye out for burls. You can never be sure what you will find inside them until you begin the turning; the colors and patterns reveal themselves continually throughout the process. I have experienced occasional disappointments, when the bowl’s shape and markings failed to live up to my hopes, or the bowl exploded on the lathe, but most of my turnings have entailed a delightful exposition of the wood’s natural beauty as the vessel took shape.

Five years ago, I embarked on an extreme adventure in woodturning. A violent windstorm had blown over a huge Circassian walnut tree in an orchard in Turkey, exposing an enormous underground root burl that weighed over a thousand pounds and measured almost six feet in diameter. From the moment I saw a picture, I was captivated. Unsure of what might lurk within and what I might concoct with such a mysterious treasure, I arranged for its transport to my woodshop.

The object that arrived on my doorstep looked like an alien pod apt to hatch in the night. I considered making table tops, cabinets, and various other sensible projects for the new house, before deciding to abandon practicality and turn a very big salad bowl. Among the obstacles to my intended venture, I didn’t own and had never even seen a lathe that could handle anything close to that size. The US Navy came to my rescue with one they had built in the 1920s to make patterns for large battleship guns. It weighed several tons. Mounting the bowl on the lathe required devising a faceplate of one-inch-thick steel with 36 holes for ¾-inch by 6-inch lag bolts to connect the burl to the lathe. The new metal faceplate weighed 1500 pounds with the raw burl bolted to it.

The turning took ten days. Time was of the essence because wet, non-native wood can be destroyed quickly by local fungi. I broke chisels, lathe bearings and mounting bars because no cast iron parts could withstand the vibration forces of something this heavy. I needed to fabricate tool rests of reinforced hardened steel. It then became apparent that the rim speed of a six-foot diameter object turning at 300 rpm is considerably faster than that of the two-foot diameter objects to which I was accustomed. The increased speed created friction that caused my chisels to become white hot. Slowing everything down required special engineering to alter the electrical phase impulses entering the lathe motor. Even at a relatively slow turning speed, the burl, which was eccentric in density, shook violently and threatened to rip itself off the lathe. I added specially cast weights to the burl to balance its rotation, in a manner similar to balancing the wheel of a race car. Yet despite all the measures I took to ensure safety in the process, few people dared to join me in - or even near - the building whenever I turned on the lathe, not unreasonably envisioning the bowl flying off and smashing through the barn walls.

Turning the bowl posed perils and required ingenuity at every step, but the spectacle that eventually came to light made the effort worthwhile to me. The grain inside the burl emerged as wild and chaotic near the perimeter, and grew gradually more geometric towards the interior, with the cylindrical annual rings disappearing into darkness in the center. This graphic transition from anarchy to order created infinite visual depth in an object that was only nine inches deep. In addition, as I started to peel off the bark, I discovered a wonderful exterior texture that looked like hundreds of little cones making up an unearthly landscape. I wanted to preserve this natural texture in as many places as possible while still making enough of a mark to define the shape of a circle. I always tried to allow the spirit of the wood to dominate the design, to sustain the right balance between my intervention and the inherent form of the burl. The interface between the manipulated and the natural surfaces manifests the vitality of man and nature working in concert.

The bowl is now complete, sanded and finished with a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax from our apiary. At just under six feet in diameter and 320 pounds, I feel confident that if we ever need to make a salad for four hundred people, we have the perfect vessel. Until then, we will put the bowl on the living room floor of the Oak Hill Road house as a place for our two cats to enjoy the afternoon sun.

Original Burl Untouched

Original Burl Untouched

Natural Exterior Texture Of Burl

Natural Exterior Texture Of Burl

Sugar Bowl Turned At Age 11

Sugar Bowl Turned At Age 11

Removing Material WIth Chainsaw Prior To Turning

Removing Material WIth Chainsaw Prior To Turning

Bowl Edge With Natural Surface

Bowl Edge With Natural Surface

Turning The Underside Cut

Turning The Underside Cut

Bowl Mounted On Lathe

Bowl Mounted On Lathe

Finished Bowl

Finished Bowl

Finished Bowl

Finished Bowl

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

6. Granite Monoliths

The pyramids of Egypt make as powerful an impression today as when they were built over four thousand years ago.  Their designs and scale strike a primordial chord, but it is also the materials – the monoliths from which the ancient structures were constructed – that inspire awe.  The viewer can’t help but marvel at the forces that could have moved such massive boulders, at the unimaginably vast amount of time the stones have existed on our planet, and at the equally inconceivable eons they will likely persist, long after any living being has perished.  When people build with large stones - whether creating pyramids, houses, landscapes, obelisks, or gravestones – the virtually timeless and immovable nature of the material enables them to leave a compelling, lasting mark, and to mitigate their mortality.

For the Oak Hill Road project, I was fortunate to come across a bountiful supply of granite monoliths just a few miles away from our farm in Amenia, New York.  An enormous granite ledge two-thirds of the way up a mountain on Bog Hollow Road had faults running through it.  During the winter, water that ran through the faults froze near the surface of the cliff, expanded, and broke off enormous pieces of granite, which fell to the bottom of the cliff in a giant pile.  Over the course of tens of thousands of years, the wind, rain, sun, frost, animals, and plant life buffeted those rocks, gradually forging worn edges and surfaces on which myriad mosses and lichens sprouted.  The result: hundreds of granite behemoths, each one a unique, magnificent sculpture crafted by nature.

I had two purposes in mind for the stones: eight were chosen to stand vertically in pairs as pillars to define portals, and 56 were selected to create a series of terraces stepping up the hill alongside the house.  It took many days of clambering around the mountain to determine which stones’ scale, colors, textures, proportions, and form would best meet my needs.  After making the selection, moving them proved particularly challenging because I wanted to keep each one perfectly intact, to preserve all the manifestations of their individual histories, and to minimize any signs of human manipulation.  Transporting objects that weigh up to fifty tons without damaging delicate ecosystems that have developed along the exterior surfaces demands more TLC than most earth-moving machines and their operators tend to favor, but we managed to accomplish it.

The granite monoliths are all gathered now in Livingston, awaiting their final placement.  The terracing stones will be set carefully in relation to one another, with close attention paid to the shape of the space between the stones to allow tiny new ecosystems of mosses, lichens, and other small life forms to thrive there.  The terraces will make up an edible landscape, planted with vegetables and fruits.  Although the plant life is fleeting, the stones testify to the permanence of the gardens, and to my belief that growing food should always be part of living.

There is a certain amount of hubris involved in uprooting granite monoliths from the locations where nature has deposited them.  It took millions of years to create these exquisite objects, and I have intervened to make my own mark with them.  I have endeavored to treat them with respect, to ensure that my meddling only enhanced nature’s artistry.  Time will tell.  Time will also change.  The stones will outlive the house, despite my best efforts to create a long-lasting structure, and Livingston may not end up being their final resting place.  Ramesses II never could have envisioned that a pink granite obelisk he erected before the Luxor Temple three thousand years ago would be shipped off to Paris in the nineteenth century, installed at the center of the Place de la Concorde, and dubbed Cleopatra’s Needle.  If the greatest pharaoh of Ancient Egypt's Golden Age couldn’t keep his big stone in place, I certainly can’t hope to, but I am happy to be able to share this moment in history with the granite monoliths on Oak Hill Road.

 
01_ Natural_Rock_Fall_In_The_Woods

Natural Rock Fall In The Woods

02_ Natural_Rock_Fall_In_The_Woods

Natural Rock Fall In The Woods

03_ Natural_Microcosm_Between_Monoliths

Natural Microcosm Between Monoliths

04_ Lichens_On_Monoliths

Lichens On Monoliths

05_ Lichens_And_Moss_On_Monoliths

Lichens And Moss On Monoliths

06_ Stone_Pillars

Stone Pillars

07_ Stone_Pillars_And_Path

Stone Pillars And Path

08_ Lichens_And_Plants_On_Monoliths

Lichens And Plants On Monoliths

09_ Natural_Form_Of_Granite_Monolith

Natural Form Of Granite Monolith

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

7. Architecture as a Non-Visual Experience

During the 1980’s, my architectural firm received a request to design a doghouse for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The doghouse was to be part of an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, along with doghouses designed by other architects which would then be sold at auction to purchase puppies that would be trained to assist blind people in their daily lives.  There was considerable competition among the various architectural offices designing the doghouses.  No one wanted to be the creator of the doghouse that earned the lowest bid at the auction.  Our doghouse was elegant and beautifully crafted.  It commanded the exhibition gallery and immediately spoke to anyone looking at it of architectural sophistication. I felt proud when it brought the highest price at the auction and turned out to be the most photographed by the press…. clearly a success.

Twenty years elapsed, and I saw the doghouse again.  It was owned by an individual who prized it as part of an American folk art collection. I looked carefully at it and didn’t understand it, even though I had been involved in its creation. After spending some time analyzing what felt amiss, I came to the conclusion that we hadn’t cared enough about the dog.  We had designed the doghouse for people and for the press, when we should have designed the doghouse to respond to its tenant.  I resolved not to make the same mistake if ever asked to design another doghouse.

Another decade went by and I stumbled across a photo of the doghouse while cleaning my office. My sympathy for the dog had not diminished, but once again I reacted to the doghouse differently.  I realized the design should have reflected and responded to the unique relationship between the dog and his owner.  The emphasis on visual beauty in an object owned by a person who couldn’t see it and inhabited by a dog who couldn’t comprehend it, exceeded irony.  In fact, of the twelve doghouses designed by well-known architects in the exhibition, none of them responded to the guide dog and blind person’s particular relationship, needs, and attributes.  Surely we, as a profession, should be capable of dealing more effectively with architecture as a non-visual experience.

I have no plans to design another dwelling for a guide dog, but the doghouse epiphanies raised my awareness about how little architecture reaches out to the non-visual senses.  I would like to create moments in the Oak Hill Roadhouse where the touch of an object is as rewarding as the sight.  The floor offers one such opportunity.  Floors tend to be flat and unexciting to touch, but human feet are sensitive.  Most people can recall the childhood pleasure of walking on a beach, with the receding tide leaving patterns of ridges in the sand.  I remember closing my eyes and allowing my feet to follow the patterns. Without sight, my other senses sharpened: the sounds of the birds became more intense, the lick of the waves more sensuous, the dampness of the fog more penetrating, the smell of the salt and seaweed more vivid.  I then opened my eyes to see if the ridges in the sand, my memory of their pattern, and the touch of my feet had brought me where I expected.  They had.  I would like the floor of my house to provide a similar adventure.

To that end, I have cut twenty large walnut trees, milling them as 1½-inch-thick, live-edge boards, meaning that they have not been cut to have parallel edges but instead have retained the shape of the tree.  The mantra of Montessori education, “follow the child,” advocates allowing each child to excel by molding the teaching to the individual child’s natural interests and capabilities.  Likewise, I try to adhere to the woodworking mantra of “follow the tree.”  Both children and wood can reach their full potential by capitalizing on their inherent attributes, and not using a cookie-cutter approach.  Rather than allowing the machines that have developed over the past two centuries for cutting straight, flat boards, to dictate the shape of my wood, I have - as with the twelve chairs described in an earlier journal entry - maintained the trees’ contours.  I will scribe the boards to one another, matching their individual curves, and then crown each board to be thicker in the center than at the edges, so that the floor undulates like the rippled sand on the beach. The floor will be installed in a pattern that leads you places by sight and touch, to rooms and to exterior paths and views, down the river and behind the mountains.

Obviously, my passion for trees and wood runs deep.  I love the look of beautiful wood, as well as the smell when it’s being milled, the sound of boards settling together, and the feel of a finely sanded surface. We always tried to teach our children that if they did something wrong, not to regard it as a mistake or failure, but rather as a “learning experience.”  The doghouse was a learning experience for me.  It taught me I should feature and share in my architecture the non-visual pleasures I know wood can offer.

 
Doghouse

Doghouse

Ripples On A Sand Beach

Ripples On A Sand Beach

Scribed and Crowned Natural Floor

Scribed and Crowned Natural Floor

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

8. Globalization and the Demise of Vernacular Identity

The global economy creates valuable opportunities. In the field of architecture, an exhaustive palette of readily available, mass-produced building materials makes construction cheaper and easier than ever before. Windows, doors, roofing shingles, floor tiles – every part of a structure – can be ordered and shipped from anywhere to anywhere on the planet. Architects all over the world use identical computer programs to assemble designs with a speed, accuracy, and uniformity that have driven drafting boards and T-squares into nearly complete obsolescence. All that efficiency saves money and prevents mistakes, but I am troubled by the attendant sacrifices.

The alternative to globalized architecture that I have embraced on Oak Hill Road is my version of vernacular architecture, which entails employing local materials and designing in response to local conditions, needs, and customs. From the ancient indigenous tribes’ adobe pueblos nestled into majestic canyon walls in the American Southwest, to the nineteenth century industrial kilns of upstate New York, resourceful societies have developed elegant, commonsense solutions to their particular habitation needs without recourse to Philippine mahogany, high-voltage transmission lines, or AutoCAD. Those artisans can lie in their graves feeling proud of the ingenious architectural responses to their distinct territories and moments in history – the vernacular identities – that they created. The place and time in which we live now calls for a new vernacular.

The most urgent challenge that today’s architecture should undertake is carbon neutrality. The use of local materials – an element of vernacular architecture by definition – reduces energy costs associated with transportation. As discussed in earlier journal entries, local stones and wood will be major components of the Livingston house. A less obviously regional material widely available in our modern society comes not from nature but rather from the extensive previous generation of buildings all around us that are in the process of being demolished. Reusing materials from nearby discarded buildings decreases not only the carbon footprint of manufacturing and transporting, but also diminishes the amount of waste consigned to landfills. Among the materials I have harvested from derelict buildings, copper is my favorite.

The copper for Oak Hill Road comes from various neighboring structures that were originally built in the early 1900s. Decades of exposure to the elements at myriad angles and positions has caused the copper to weather inconsistently, and produced a lavish array of colors and textures. We carefully removed the old roofs and recut the copper sheets to create strikingly patterned exterior siding. In addition to wonderful aesthetic qualities, the material also offers meaningful energy efficiency. The patterns of the copper plates have been designed to allow for the maximum yield in reusing an old material, with less than five percent waste in the transition from the old roofs to the new siding. The crimping, cutting, and fastening details involve human labor but little energy to accomplish. While new copper has a high embodied carbon footprint due to its manufacturing process, the reused copper’s footprint is effectively zero because it has been fully depreciated in its life on previous buildings. Moreover, the material is timeless and will never disintegrate or need repairs, further reducing its carbon footprint. Copper also has a high capacity for absorbing and retaining the sun’s heat during the winter, which reduces the heating requirements of the building.

Unlike copper, painted wood necessitates hefty financial and energy expenditures for re-painting every three to five years and for maintenance every ten years or so to replace rotten components. Nevertheless, architects and homeowners in this region cling to it. Why? Perhaps the profession of architecture has evolved too far.

Vernacular architecture is sometimes called “architecture without architects.” The people who inhabit the buildings, who are in touch with their environs, do their own designing and constructing. They concern themselves with functionality, efficiency, and ease of use, and their design aesthetic seeks harmony with their surroundings. The omnipresent modern architectural practice of planting a painted wooden box on top of the land - neglecting to take advantage of the ground’s thermal benefits through earth berming - follows fashion, not logic. Today’s architects, on the other hand, have grown progressively more distant from the physical reality of construction and rarely know how to build with their own hands. The hammer was replaced by the pencil, and the pencil has been replaced by the computer. Technologies, tools, information, and materials fly around the planet so effortlessly, it seems more sensible to devise plans and specify products sitting at your desk, clicking buttons, than to step outside your door and see what’s available around you. Architects no longer lead through knowledge of craftsmanship, historical styles trump common sense, and the global virtual reality has eclipsed local reality.

I want to create architecture mindful of the world at my fingertips, and not via a keyboard. A century from now, I hope any historian looking at the house on Oak Hill Road would be able to say that it expressed an appropriate vernacular identity for its place and time.

Prehistoric Vernacular - Cliff Dwelling

Prehistoric Vernacular - Cliff Dwelling

Historic Vernacular - Local Kilns, Livingston, NY

Historic Vernacular - Local Kilns, Livingston, NY

Allan & Julie Shope Residence

Modern Vernacular - Reused Copper Siding On Prototype House

Modern Vernacular - Reused Copper and Stone Palette for New House

Modern Vernacular - Reused Copper and Stone Palette for New House

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

9. Wood

The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, for when light comes the heart of the people is always right. Forty-seven years ago one of these Calaveras King Sequoias was laboriously cut down, that the stump might be had for a dancing-floor. Another, one of the finest in the grove, more than three hundred feet high, was skinned alive to a height of one hundred and sixteen feet from the ground and the bark sent to London to show how fine and big that Calaveras tree was—as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness. This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive.... Now some millmen want to cut all the Calaveras trees into lumber and money. But we have found a better use for them. No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food. But both for Washington and the tree that bears his name higher uses have been found.  - John Muir

It was the 4th century BC. Aristotle was defining ethics, the Romans were building their first aqueducts, the Chinese were beginning to transport silk to Europe, and a tiny seed, released from its cone, commenced germination in the loamy soil of Mendocino County, California. A few centuries later, when Christ was born, the seed had grown into a giant redwood, hundreds of feet tall. During the course of the next two millennia, black-tailed deer sometimes rubbed their antlers on the trunk. Black bears, anxious for a bite to eat before the berries and acorns emerged in spring, occasionally mauled the bark to release a sip of sap from within. A pair of Northern Spotted Owls nested in a cavity, and hatched successful clutches of baby owls for numerous seasons. Every few decades, forest fires licked at the tree and cleared the surrounding understory. The hardy redwood endured, its thick, tannin-rich bark resistant to disease, insects, rot, fire, and lightning – nature’s fiercest artillery – that would have leveled lesser trees.

Large Native American tribes coexisted peacefully with the redwood. The Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun made their homes along the coasts, rivers, and grasslands, and would have passed by the tree when they entered the redwood forests in search of plants such as ferns. Large branches that broke off from the tree, or whole fallen neighboring redwoods, provided an invaluable treasure from which durable building materials and furniture could be made. Canoes were fabricated by spreading pitch on the log, setting it on fire, extinguishing the flames, and then scraping the charred wood to the desired shape.

Columbus set sail on his celebrated journey to the “New World” when the tree reached its 19th century of life. Three hundred years later, in 1804, Lewis and Clark undertook their expedition out west. Within half a century, hundreds of thousands of easterners decided to follow in their footsteps and began flocking to California in search of gold. When the forty-niners’ dreams of finding scads of the precious metal failed to come true, they turned to the "red gold" in the forests, a material in great demand to build housing for the hordes of miners. Loggers and lumber companies proliferated. It was indeed a New World around the redwood, with native trees and people under siege. The Mendocino War of 1859 was just one of many genocidal slaughters of local inhabitants by the white settlers, and compounded with epidemics of European diseases, the robust Pomo population shrank from about 8,000 in 1770 to an estimated 1,450 in 1880. The redwoods fared even worse: hundreds of sawmills that mushroomed across California slashed two million acres of virgin forest to less than 5% of its former size.

This particular redwood was no exception; it met the axe in the1890s, probably harvested for constructing buildings in San Francisco. Subsequently, adding insult to injury, the lumber most likely went up in smoke in the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, all was not lost. The stump remained, patiently waiting to tell its story, for 120 years.

The enterprise of arranging for a fourteen-foot diameter, fifteen-ton stump to be hoisted out of the ground, hauled from a remote forest to a usable roadway, conveyed across the country, and lifted onto a wall where it can be appreciated is daunting. I willingly committed myself to the endeavor. When the stump arrived and was unloaded in the driveway, it looked dirty and weatherbeaten, but I felt certain that something worthwhile lay within. I wanted to slice it into crosscuts to make the annual rings visible. We needed to order a custom-made chainsaw with a seven-foot-long bar to reach through the fourteen feet of wood by entering from both sides. We made the first slice, exposing the heart of what remained of the redwood. After 120 years of silence, the tree once again had the chance to speak. I sat with it for hours - contemplating the patterns and markings, the order and disorder, the evidence of droughts, blizzards, wildfires, diseases - awed by the stories it told. I realized it needed an interpreter, some kind of guru, to let its most quiet subtleties find expression. It needed Coly Vulpiani.

I had never worked with Coly, but had heard for decades about his unique talents as a master craftsman in fine wood-finishing. I called him, described the project, and he agreed to embrace the adventure. Before he began, we finished slicing the stump, creating four magnificent crosscuts, each earmarked for a specific destination. We also needed to do a massive amount of sanding to prepare the surfaces for him. Fortunately, we had four children, and believed that child labor was as beneficial to them as it was to us. The two middle ones became particularly adept sanders during the summer of 2002. Then it was Coly’s turn. I’m not exactly sure how he did what he did, but I often saw him brewing what appeared to be natural magic potions for polishing the wood. I think I once even spied an eye of newt going in there. He used flames to open the wood’s pores. He sanded, polished, burnished, and conjured until he released every sublimity and revealed every message the redwood could utter.

We have enjoyed having the redwood crosscut on our barn wall, but I look forward to seeing it on a daily basis in Livingston, where it will be the centerpiece of our main living space. For me, the significant experience the redwood offers is more than the pleasure of witnessing nature’s beauty; it is an awareness of our place in time. When you visit a planetarium, the exhibits raise your consciousness of how small you are in relation to the universe. Likewise, the redwood shows how relatively brief our moment on this planet is. It reminds us that we are not just individuals, but part of a historical continuum. And it appeals to our better selves, our ethics.

 
Late 19th Century Felling a Redwood with an Axe

Late 19th Century Felling a Redwood with an Axe

Late 19th Century Felling a Redwood with an Axe

Late 19th Century Felling a Redwood with an Axe

Late 19th Century Felled Redwood Log

Late 19th Century Felled Redwood Log

1992 Redwood Stump in Forest

1992 Redwood Stump in Forest

1992 Sawing Crosscut from Redwood Stump in Wassaic, NY

Sawing Crosscut from Redwood Stump in Wassaic, NY

1992 Sawing Crosscut from Redwood Stump in Wassaic, NY

1992 Sawing Crosscut from Redwood Stump in Wassaic, NY

Ben Shope Sanding Redwood Crosscut

Ben Shope Sanding Redwood Crosscut

Finished Redwood Crosscut on Wall

Finished Redwood Crosscut on Wall

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

10. Architectural Sustainability: The Challenge of Change

Sometimes the ideas we grew up with turn out to be just plain wrong, and we need to adapt.

Many of us grew up sun worshippers, sunbathing at every opportunity, always wanting to look tan, believing that basking in the sun’s rays was healthy.  Once we learn how risky those rays actually are, a sensible response would involve adjusting our behavior and our thinking: wearing sunblock, avoiding exposure, developing more of a liking for the look of uncooked skin, and modifying our perception of the sun’s benignity.

Our whole society has made similar misjudgments.  We considered the passenger pigeon population so infinitely vast that we could persist in slaughtering them with reckless abandon.  We perceived the Hudson River as a suitable dumping ground for sewage and toxic waste.  We placed our confidence in such seemingly miraculous panaceas as DDT, asbestos, and lead-based paint.  Sooner or later, we recognize the need to change gears.

What did we grow up thinking about houses?  Most of us believed the bigger the better, but it turns out that swelling the dwelling doesn’t bring about a corresponding enlargement in the occupants’ happiness; it just inflates the fuel bills, along with the time and money spent cleaning and repairing.  Our aesthetic tastes favored architectural styles harkening back to such bygone eras as colonial America, Victorian England, and classical Greece, but it turns out that those traditional forms don’t quite jibe with the energy efficient mission.  In the past, we didn’t think that mattered; we regarded fuel as a cheap and abundant commodity, but it turns out that fossil fuels are actually finite, politically troublesome, and harmful to our environment.  Given that homes and buildings consume over forty percent of the energy used in the United States today, we should obviously conclude that it’s high time we started designing more sustainable buildings if we care about our planet.

Are we ready to come to grips with today’s architectural realities?

Sustainability has been the overarching guideline for every design decision in the prototype house on Sinpatch Road and in the new house on Oak Hill Road.  This is not a battle that will be won by dabbling; you need to seize every opportunity available to you if you are going to try to achieve a performance that approaches carbon neutrality.  The house uses earth berming, building the structure into a hillside.  Berming allows me to take advantage of the ground’s consistently moderate temperature of approximately 55º, which is far warmer than the cold air in winter and cooler than the hot air in summer.  If the electricity goes out in the dead of winter, the house never freezes, and at the height of summer, a power outage is no sweat.  Tight construction enhances efficiency for heating and cooling.  Passive and active solar technologies provide renewable sources for heat and power.  Construction materials, such as reused copper cladding on the exterior and concrete floors on the interior, are extremely durable, never requiring repairs or replacements.  A grass roof provides insulation and sequesters carbon.  The fresh air system – essential for a tight building – incorporates high-efficiency geothermal technology.

I find tackling sustainable architecture challenging but not painful.  I have needed to embrace a new aesthetic, to abandon architectural history as my guide, and seek inspiration from my humanity and the local environment.  The endeavor makes me feel alive professionally.  Cutting-edge materials, technologies, and construction methodologies crop up daily.  Tracking down the latest applicable inventions and separating the wheat from the chaff is a demanding but often exciting and rewarding pursuit. Ascertaining energy requirements realistically is also a difficult but necessary undertaking.  The price tag for building sustainably frequently discourages people; the initial investment for a sustainable house can amount to 20 or 30 percent higher due to the superior quality of the materials and technologies.  Fortunately, the building’s reduced energy demands, elimination of maintenance bills and increased longevity not only allow the owner to recoup those expenses, but can even make a sustainable house cost less than a traditional one over time, a process called “payback” (if you live long enough).

Architecture always entails a delicate balancing act among competing demands, and homeowners must determine their own personal priorities.  In an ideal world, decisions regarding cost, aesthetics, and sustainability would all harmonize, but in fact they sometimes clash unavoidably.  I designed a wall of large windows on Oak Hill Road for two purposes: to maximize exposure to the southern sun for passive heat gain in winter, and to make the most of the view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.  The ideal angle for each purpose differed slightly, so I chose to split the difference, which represents a compromise between sustainability and aesthetics.  The windows also created another conflict: their size and location endanger birds because glass is invisible to them, and many of our feathered friends would be liable to collide with the giant panes.  Consequently, I am using a special new glass that is coated with an ultraviolet reflective pattern visible to birds but not to the human eye.  It costs more, but protects aesthetics and sustainability of local wildlife, two higher priorities for me.

The fireplace is another design issue I am juggling.  Anyone who knows me knows I have a weakness: I love fires.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a pyromaniac, but I am captivated by the power of a huge bonfire; the beauty and tranquility of a fireplace blaze on a snowy winter day; and the aroma, taste, and unpredictability of baking fresh bread in an outdoor stone oven.  Sadly, I have come to realize that the traditional indoor fireplace compromises the house’s tight construction and air quality.  As a guy who grew up in a 1720s farmhouse and always considered the hearth the heart of a home, the decision to eliminate an indoor fireplace is a wrench.  I haven’t given up.  I am exploring new fireplace technologies that might save me yet.  If I don’t find an environmentally friendly hearth, I am ready to leave the 18th century behind, and take the plunge into the 21st. As Dylan says:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
 

 

Allan & Julie Shope Residence

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 1

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 2

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 2

Allan & Julie Shope Residence

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 3

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 4

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 4

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 5

Earth-Bermed House Prototype 5

The Challenge of Change

The Challenge of Change

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

11. The Hudson River Renaissance

At first glance, the land on Oak Hill Road looks like untouched wilderness, but if you observe closely and delve into its history, surprising narratives unfold.

The most visible remnants of the past are the brick kilns, peaceful now, nearly hidden, in various states of disintegration, testaments to the industrial commotion that took place little more than a century ago.  In the late 19th century, iron manufacturing magnates identified ample, high-quality ore deposits in Mount Tom, southeast of the Oak Hill property.  The enterprising businessmen also found the topography of the area advantageous for their venture: a continuous downhill slope all the way from the mouth of the mine to the Oak Hill Road riverfront enabled them to use the power of gravity to transport the mineral blocks along an elaborate, 3.5-mile mini-railroad system that they constructed – including a bridge crossing over the Hudson River Railroad tracks – to a dock from which ships carried the ore to an ironworks upriver in Troy.  Just before reaching the dock, the train cars full of iron ore ran along a ledge above a row of nine kilns, each sixty feet high, twenty feet wide, and capable of roasting one hundred tons of ore per day.  The cars dumped their contents into the tops of the kilns, where it was burned with coal dust to remove impurities.  After cooling, workers loaded the purified ore from the bottom of the kilns into empty cars that then rolled another couple of hundred feet downhill to the boats at the dock.

In its heyday, hundreds of men toiled in the mining operation, helping to feed our young nation’s voracious appetite for Bessemer steel to build railroads and bridges.  Numerous rough, unpainted, two-family wooden dwellings were built on the Oak Hill Road land for the workers who operated the kilns and loaded the boats.  Nearly all the trees of the virgin forests for miles around gave their lives in support of the iron roasting and house building enterprises.  A scattering of white oaks, tasked with the mission of providing shade instead of fuel or lumber, were spared the ax.  The business lasted a mere two decades and shut down shortly after 1900, unable to compete with the vast deposits of superior quality ore discovered at Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.  Only the crumbling kilns and traces of a few stone foundations remain, along with the rare, ancient, white oak survivors sprinkled amid the second-growth forest.  Nature has bounced back from man’s assault.

Similar dramas pervade the Livingston property.  Animals once on the verge of extinction thanks to human transgressions have been drawn back from the brink.  New York State accommodated abundant wild turkey populations before the Europeans arrived.  The early settlers cut down the forests for timber and to create farms, destroying the turkeys’ habitat.  They also killed the large fowl for food all year round, hunting without restriction until, by the mid-1840's, not a single turkey was left in the state.  A full century later, after farming had declined and woods had begun to grow back, a small remnant population of wild turkeys in Pennsylvania crossed the border into western New York and took root.  Their presence ignited interest in bringing them back throughout the state, and, after several false starts, conservationists succeeded in reestablishing plentiful, healthy populations of the bird, enough to allow seasonal hunting (although my vegetarian family keeps the wild gobblers on our land safe from any close encounters with cranberry sauce, no matter how extensive the flocks).

The bald eagle demonstrates another such triumph.  Trapping, shooting, and poisoning, as well as reproductive impairment from pesticides (especially DDT) and toxic compounds in the fish they consumed, decimated the eagle’s formerly bountiful numbers in the last century.  The banning of DDT and countless conservation efforts over the past few decades led to a dramatic resurgence, even prompting the eagle’s removal from the Endangered Species list in 2007.  While the iconic bird of prey still struggles with such threats as habitat destruction from logging and development along waterways, lead poisoning from ammunition in prey shot by hunters, and power line electrocution, New York's bald eagles fledge approximately ten percent more offspring each year than the year before.  It seems that lessons have been learned, and Americans feel such a passion for protecting our majestic national emblem that its future appears secure.  Few sights surpass that of a bald eagle fishing in the Hudson River.  Since their recovery, that rare treat has become a frequent viewing experience on the Oak Hill Road land, yet no matter how common, I will always find the spectacle breathtaking.

The entire Hudson River valley presents a story of rejuvenation.  As the last glacier receded twelve thousand years ago, it left behind magnificent mountains, a glorious clean river flowing down from the Adirondack Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, a vibrant, diverse ecosystem, all of which stirred thousands of years of human inhabitants to treasure the region.  The Native Americans who lived there – Mohicans in Livingston – trod softly, making full use of nature’s bounty respectfully and sustainably.  The settlers who ultimately drove them off the land behaved far less charitably towards the wilderness they occupied.  In a relatively short period of time, a small number of short-sighted, arrogant people inflicted enormous damage, exploiting the land and treating the river like a sewer.

Eventually, the residents of the river valley rose up.  In 1969, Pete Seeger spearheaded the construction of a traditional Hudson River sloop named Clearwater.  The replica sloop was to be owned by its contributing members (“everybody’s boat”) and sail along the river “... showing people what the river used to be, how it’s polluted now and what it can be,” arousing awareness and passion for the mission of saving the river.  Along with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, many outstanding organizations sprang up – including Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and Hudsonia – to reverse centuries of abuse and propel the river and its surroundings towards a full ecological recovery.

These stories have no end.  The forces that want to capitalize on nature, no matter the cost, and the forces that struggle selflessly to revitalize and protect the environment, will always be locked in a tug-of-war.  But when I stand on the land in Livingston and see a bald eagle snatch a fish from the river, or watch Clearwater sail along carrying a load of eager schoolchildren, I feel inspired by nature’s ability to recover from atrocities and mankind’s willingness to change to a more just path.

Sailing up my dirty stream
Still I love it and I'll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.  - Pete Seeger


01 Hudson River View from House Site

Hudson River View from House Site

03 Historic Iron Ore Kilns on Oak Hill Road Property

Historic White Oak Amid Regenerating Forest

02 Historic White Oak Amid Regenerating Forest

Historic Iron Ore Kilns on Oak Hill Road Property

04 Wild Turkey Poults

Wild Turkey Poults

05 Bald Eagle Fishing

Bald Eagle Fishing

06 The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

12. Architecture as a Reflection of Human Potential

I grew up in an old house in Simsbury, Connecticut during the 1950’s and 60’s.   The land in our town was made up primarily of rich alluvial soils that were used for growing shade tobacco to make cigars. When the tobacco was picked in August, it was dried for several weeks in long tobacco barns that dotted the landscape of our community. Local kids, like me, were hired as cheap labor to do menial tasks like opening up barns.

I would walk out to the tobacco barns, about half a mile from our house.  Most tobacco barns are built on a north-south axis, broadside to the early morning sun rising in the east. They have no windows, just large pairs of doors at each end wide enough to drive a tractor through.  I would unlatch the big entry doors on the southern end, swing them 180 degrees back against the wall, and lock them into place with a metal hook.  Then I would stand in the doorway and look into the barn.  It was absolutely dark, an abyss of nothingness.  Scary.  I would take one large step into the gloom, turn right, and stride eight paces forward.  Reach down near my ankles to find a metal latch attached to the vertical siding of the barn, open the latch without being able to see it, and then swing the board into the open position and lock it in place.  The morning sun would slice through the opening, across the dirt floor, in a brilliant stripe of light.  I could now see the space around me.  The task of working my way along the east side of the barn, opening every other vertical board, became rhythmic, taking one pace forward and bending down to open the next latch, over and over again. Most barns have several hundred vertical siding boards mounted on hinges. As I progressed along the side of the barn opening the slats, the pattern of lightness and darkness caused by the sunlight hitting the floor moved along with me. The pattern was exquisite, and enhanced by the sun heating the moisture in the dirt floor, causing steam to rise from the ground.  When I finally reached the far end, I would open the large doors and proceed to work my way back along the west side of the building, opening every other vertical board until I returned to where I had started.

The 14 feet by14 feet darkened doorway had become a great portal, framing a rhythmic sequence of alternating lightness and darkness, drawing my eye down the center aisle of the barn. The aisle felt important. It was processional, defined by the perspective of the columns on the left and right, leading to the altar of the fields and sky in the distance. The enclosure of the structure punctuated the vastness of what lay beyond.  The stillness of the barn floor offered a visually profound contrast to the movement of the steam rising from the floor. The manipulated, square opening of the door at the other end of the building stood in stark contrast to the natural forms of the trees and clouds.  The space was even alive acoustically with the pattern of the barn siding creating an undulating sound and silence of the wind and tractors and voices outside in the fields.  This was my cathedral.

Years passed and I became an architect.  After decades of studying and practicing architecture, I found myself most awed by buildings like Ronchamps, designed by Le Corbusier, the Guggenheim Museum in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bilbao by Frank Gehry.  Each inspires without conforming to any historical style.  The simple but powerful contrasts in a tobacco barn that touched a chord in me as a child are the same building blocks of beauty through which these more sophisticated buildings communicate: enclosure and vastness, stillness and movement, sound and silence, lightness and darkness, natural and manipulated form, perspective, axis, texture, color, scale… these are the elements of a building that touch our innate aesthetic senses, and speak to the human soul.

A few weeks ago, driving through Simsbury, I saw the barns.  I stopped the car.  Times had changed.  No longer in use, the barns had begun to deteriorate badly. The rural town of my youth had urbanized, changing from a farming community to a banking and insurance industry hub.  Traffic lights peppered once peaceful, unconstrained roadways.  Housing and businesses blanketed former farms and forests.  The barns and the world around them had morphed, as had I, now quite a bit older, larger, and (hopefully) wiser.  I walked to the most easily accessible structure through the dense weeds that had burgeoned around them.  The doors and side slats lay wide open, apparently abandoned at the end of a drying season with no one caring about ever securing them again.  I stepped inside.  The long, cadenced pattern of alternating bands of light and shadow greeted my eyes instantly.  Unruly shafts of sunlight intruding through gaping holes in the roof couldn’t obscure the rhythm; it still moved me, along with the rising steam, the rows of columns, the distant horizon visible through the far door.  The tobacco barn was still my cathedral.

Whoever designed the tobacco barns certainly would have adhered to the architectural principle of “form follows function,” giving a low priority to the barns’ aesthetic qualities in favor of utilitarian considerations.  However, both missions coincided serendipitously.  Many factory buildings and agricultural structures demonstrate the same – often unintentional but nevertheless happy – marriage of form and function, and as a result manage to embark on new lives after their industrial or farming activities have become obsolete. The main barn at Listening Rock Farm enjoyed just such a rebirth.  Ideally, architects should always focus on both needs to the same degree.  Beauty should not be sacrificed for practicality, and practicality should not be sacrificed for beauty.

The house on Oak Hill Road won’t look like a Connecticut tobacco barn, but I hope it will speak to people in the same way that the tobacco barns spoke to me.  The adventure will unfold this year.  We will share monthly construction photos.  By next summer – bonfire time – you can judge if the house in Livingston has reached its potential.

Connecticut Tobacco Barns in Winter

Connecticut Tobacco Barns in Winter

Connecticut Tobacco Barn Broadside

Connecticut Tobacco Barn Broadside

Connecticut Tobacco Barn Interior

Connecticut Tobacco Barn Interior

Listening Rock Farm Renovated Barn

Listening Rock Farm Renovated Barn

Listening Rock Farm Renovated Barn

Listening Rock Farm Renovated Barn

Listening Rock Farm Renovated Barn

Listening Rock Farm Renovated Barn

Copyright © ItemBridge inc., 2013

Oak Hill Road Construction, March 2014

This is the third set of construction photos for the house on Oak Hill Road in Livingston, NY.

Since our last construction photos in November, we have completed the concrete structure, waterproofed all with a roof membrane, and installed the exterior doors to give us an enclosed space, comfortably heated with a temporary wood-burning stove. We have been installing the scribed walnut floor, a demanding component of the house with respect to materials and craftsmanship.

The materials to build the floor have come from twenty large black walnut trees that we cut down four years ago. We milled the planks on our sawmill to 1½ inches thick and left them with the edges that were the original shape of each tree, removing just the bark and sapwood. Milling the wood posed physical challenges: most of the planks were over twenty feet long and weighed over 100 pounds; the largest were 45 feet long and weighed in excess of 300 pounds. In addition, sawmills are designed to handle rectangular shapes and tend to rack, bind, and break blades when cutting planks with non-parallel edges. The sawing was also demanding mentally, as I needed to adjust my mindset from the customary goal of yielding the longest, straightest planks, to making cuts that produced the most dramatic and voluptuous boards. Even stickering (stacking the wood for drying) became more complicated because the boards didn’t align.

However the greatest challenges arrived after the boards had been milled, planed, and air-dried in our barns for four years. When it came time to make the final decisions about which planks went where and the exact shape of the path, I began by drawing the patterns on paper, then tried drawing them full-scale on the floor. I wanted them to look and feel natural and effortless, as though wind were blowing through the house down to the river. The shape of the boards could be altered with a simple saw cut to fit the path that I had drawn, but the more I tried to control the design, the more contrived and unnatural it felt, and the quality of each board would diminish the more it was altered. It became clear that the elegant shapes of the original walnut trees needed to guide the design of the path. My architectural preconceptions were only hindering the effort. The moment that I stopped trying to control the shape of the path and allowed the wood to have a voice, the solution became evident. It has been a painstaking process to slowly and deliberately weave the individual boards with each other in a pattern that explodes from the doorway to the windows, reaching out to the river and mountains beyond. We are now well underway. The transition from design to actual fabrication of this floor has been facilitated by the skill and enthusiasm that a dedicated group of fine craftsmen have brought to the project.

After all the floorboards are fitted to one another they will each be crowned gently on their surfaces to provide a tactile experience as you walk across them. They will then be scraped and finished with linseed oil and beeswax.

On the exterior of the house we are installing the copper siding. It looks like a big shiny new penny now, but will turn a lovely chestnut brown in a few months and then gradually become a soft greenish grey color with age. Throughout the course of designing this house we have tried to see simple choices differently. It is very common in the northeastern part of the country to build wooden buildings that are 1 or 2 stories above the ground with wood siding painted white – the classic New England farmhouse. This approach requires perpetual painting and wood replacement as components disintegrate. Over the lifetime of a wood building, its maintenance costs far more than the initial construction. We have made an effort to understand the true cost – for both money and energy consumption – of traditional wood siding, with its associated maintenance, and decided to clad the entire building in 20-ounce cold rolled copper, which is slightly more costly than wood initially, but maintenance free for the lifetime of the building. We also like how the copper looks and how it will change over time.

We are on schedule to complete the house by October 1.

The next set of construction photos will be posted in April during the placement of the giant granite monoliths. Until then, enjoy the spring!

  01 Bedroom Floor 02 Living Room Floor 03 Living Room Floor 04 Copper Exterior

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