It’s not unusual for New Yorkers to have problems with their neighbors; after all, many a co-op brawl has started over a little late-night noise. But it is rare for the downtown crowd to have a beef with a pack of rowdy beavers—which is exactly the situation in which architect Lynn Gaffney and her husband, financial portfolio manager Bill Backus, found themselves recently at their weekend home in the tiny town of Sharon, Connecticut (population: 2,968). The beavers, who reside in the swamp behind Backus and Gaffney’s house, generally keep a low profile, but every so often let loose with a torrent of logs and sticks that block all the nearby drainage pipes, making a watery mess of local roads and forcing residents to haul away the detritus.
It’s rather comical to imagine a pair of self-described intrepid Manhattanites battling beavers, but such was the couple’s intent when they decided to build in Sharon. Disgusted with the high price of property and the politics of the co-op market, Gaffney and Backus opted to remain urban renters and spend their money building a 2,000-square-foot house outside the city, in an area so rural “it didn’t even have the remotest feel of suburbia,” Gaffney says. They settled on an eight-and-a-half-acre plot that backs up against wetlands, a two-hour drive from their apartment.
Gaffney, principal of New York–based firm Lynn Gaffney Architect (lga), prefers to design in an agricultural vernacular merged with sustainable elements, when given a chance. “I like the simplicity of shed-like buildings, the way they’re stripped down to bare necessities,” explains Gaffney. “I’m also intrigued by barns and their sense of functionality combined with the layers of vertical storage spaces.” The combination of a rural location with compliant clients (Backus’s only design request of his wife was that the house have a washer and dryer) seemed like the perfect such opportunity.
In order to stay within her desired aesthetic and also be green, Gaffney chose to build with structural insulated panels, or SIPs, as they’re commonly known. The panels are essentially pieces of dense foam insulation sandwiched between two thin layers of engineered wood, and they’re used in place of traditional stud and frame construction. The handy thing about SIPs, and the reason they’re so popular with sustainable proponents, is that they’re prefabricated off-site, manufactured with a minimum of waste since they’re cut to order, and then quickly assembled on-site.