Techbuilt House

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December 8, 2010

The first residence built in Tuxedo Park, New York, after World War II wasn’t one of the Shingle-style mansions that proliferated there after the tycoon Pierre Lorillard IV developed the village as a high-society retreat in the 1880s. Instead, on 1.3 acres (the garden/tennis court of an old estate), architect Carl Koch, a prefab pioneer, erected one of his earliest “Techbuilt Houses,” a 2,400-square-foot four-bedroom home constructed largely from standardized four-by-eight-foot modules attached to a post-and-beam frame—a simple, efficient and affordable structure that went up in a brisk three weeks in January 1956. “To pull that off is amazing,” says architect Gilles Depardon, who with partner Kathryn Ogawa recently completed the house’s renovation.

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    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  Depardon describes Koch’s four-by-eight module (based on the industry standard for a sheet of plywood) as “a sandwich – an outer layer of plywood, an inner layer of Sheetrock, and what they called a foil insulation” – a document written by the house’s original owner describes it as an “aluminum reflective radiant barrier” – which, says the architect, “was falling apart” from neglect. The entire house, he adds, “was a mess,” with much of the interior “too far gone to save – we gutted it.”  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    Depardon describes Koch’s four-by-eight module (based on the industry standard for a sheet of plywood) as “a sandwich – an outer layer of plywood, an inner layer of Sheetrock, and what they called a foil insulation” – a document written by the house’s original owner describes it as an “aluminum reflective radiant barrier” – which, says the architect, “was falling apart” from neglect. The entire house, he adds, “was a mess,” with much of the interior “too far gone to save – we gutted it.”

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  The structure’s exterior, however, finished in redwood siding—chosen for its sturdiness and resistance to rot—“had held up very well—we just gently power-washed it,” Depardon says. The architects chose a moss green for the infill panels, as the originals “had deteriorated to such a degree that we couldn't tell what color they’d been.”  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    The structure’s exterior, however, finished in redwood siding—chosen for its sturdiness and resistance to rot—“had held up very well—we just gently power-washed it,” Depardon says. The architects chose a moss green for the infill panels, as the originals “had deteriorated to such a degree that we couldn't tell what color they’d been.”

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  “We took the terrace off because it made the lower level really dark,” Depardon explains. “Also, there was an incredible Japanese maple tree in front that was planted when they built the house, and the terrace was killing the view of it from the upper level.” The house’s original aluminum frame windows “were quite elegant, but single-pane—energy was not an issue at that time. We matched the aluminum, but put in new thermally broken glazing.”  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    “We took the terrace off because it made the lower level really dark,” Depardon explains. “Also, there was an incredible Japanese maple tree in front that was planted when they built the house, and the terrace was killing the view of it from the upper level.” The house’s original aluminum frame windows “were quite elegant, but single-pane—energy was not an issue at that time. We matched the aluminum, but put in new thermally broken glazing.”

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  The architects greatly admired the structure’s siting, not only for the way it captured southern and eastern light through ample fenestration, but also for the design’s interplay with the property’s preexisting elements. “It’s nestled by this amazing three-story retaining wall, and the old stone and modern clean house play off each other very well. There was also a fountain in front that’s very Roman in flavor—all these relics make the place feel kind of special.”  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    The architects greatly admired the structure’s siting, not only for the way it captured southern and eastern light through ample fenestration, but also for the design’s interplay with the property’s preexisting elements. “It’s nestled by this amazing three-story retaining wall, and the old stone and modern clean house play off each other very well. There was also a fountain in front that’s very Roman in flavor—all these relics make the place feel kind of special.”

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  “Originally there was a wall right down the middle of the lower floor where the pole is,” Depardon explains. “It was relatively dark, and we felt the best thing to do was to open it all up.” While Koch’s design featured wooden walls, “we decided not to put the plywood panels back in, and chose Sheetrock to lighten it all up.” The architects also replaced the original concrete floor with one incorporating a radiant heat system.  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    “Originally there was a wall right down the middle of the lower floor where the pole is,” Depardon explains. “It was relatively dark, and we felt the best thing to do was to open it all up.” While Koch’s design featured wooden walls, “we decided not to put the plywood panels back in, and chose Sheetrock to lighten it all up.” The architects also replaced the original concrete floor with one incorporating a radiant heat system.

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  Depardon and Ogawa inserted a new kitchen and designed its rectilinear island. The dining area had been an enclosed family room, “and it had, funnily enough, a washer and dryer in it,” Depardon recalls. “We all live differently than we did in the fifties.”  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    Depardon and Ogawa inserted a new kitchen and designed its rectilinear island. The dining area had been an enclosed family room, “and it had, funnily enough, a washer and dryer in it,” Depardon recalls. “We all live differently than we did in the fifties.”

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  On the second floor, the architects maintained the existing exposed post-and-beam structure. “That’s an amazingly small tensioning rod,” Depardon says of the bar between the two beams. “But if you didn’t have that, the house would open up – the roof could push the outer walls out.” Depardon and Ogawa exchanged the original furniture-grade Luan mahogany ceiling for a stained birch plywood and replaced what was left of the old cork floor with a new one.  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    On the second floor, the architects maintained the existing exposed post-and-beam structure. “That’s an amazingly small tensioning rod,” Depardon says of the bar between the two beams. “But if you didn’t have that, the house would open up – the roof could push the outer walls out.” Depardon and Ogawa exchanged the original furniture-grade Luan mahogany ceiling for a stained birch plywood and replaced what was left of the old cork floor with a new one.

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  “We left the roof exactly as it was, with the old four-by-eight-foot modules,” Depardon explains, noting that the original panels, attached to the two-by-four frame, effectively held the house together. “It’s an unbelievably tight structural system, and we had to recreate it – we couldn’t just layer Sheetrock on it.” The architects also removed a wall, opening up the public space, and installed a long bench beneath the windows. “The area near the eaves is so low you’d have hit your head,” says Depardon. The bench serves as a cue to sit down.  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    “We left the roof exactly as it was, with the old four-by-eight-foot modules,” Depardon explains, noting that the original panels, attached to the two-by-four frame, effectively held the house together. “It’s an unbelievably tight structural system, and we had to recreate it – we couldn’t just layer Sheetrock on it.” The architects also removed a wall, opening up the public space, and installed a long bench beneath the windows. “The area near the eaves is so low you’d have hit your head,” says Depardon. The bench serves as a cue to sit down.

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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  The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels made from frosted Japanese rice paper between layers of glass.” The architects created skylights and installed rooftop solar panels that heat the water and first-floor radiant system – changes Depardon considers faithful to Koch’s philosophy of rationality and cost-effectiveness. “The idea was, this is a great little piece of architecture – let’s try to be respectful of it.”  Photo by: Carl Bellavia
    The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels made from frosted Japanese rice paper between layers of glass.” The architects created skylights and installed rooftop solar panels that heat the water and first-floor radiant system – changes Depardon considers faithful to Koch’s philosophy of rationality and cost-effectiveness. “The idea was, this is a great little piece of architecture – let’s try to be respectful of it.”

    Photo by: Carl Bellavia

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