A House Not Built for Human Beings
The 14-foot-tall redwood fragment dwarfs visitors to architect Allan Shope’s living room, though its sheer size betrays a different kind of immensity: over 2,000 years of fine growth rings, a humbling reminder of nature’s passage of time. The lesson of the ancient redwood—a pillar of its ecosystem for centuries, quickly felled by humans with little understanding of their actions—is an integral part of Shope’s new home, built with reclaimed materials and filled with wood furnishings made by his own hand.
Located not far from Hudson, New York, the dwelling carefully weighs human needs against the demands of ecological responsibility. "I love second lives for things," Shope says of the salvaged bronze that decorates parts of his home, itself representing a second life for his architectural career. While he’s always appreciated the beauty of nature, Shope’s sensitivity to its vulnerability and complexity hadn’t always manifested in his work.
At the age of 25, he cofounded Shope Reno Wharton, a firm that specialized in extravagant, sprawling, and historicist buildings. His professional success provided the means for him and his wife, Julie, who has written and produced nature programming for radio and television, to purchase a farm in Amenia, New York where they spent summers with their four children, now 21, 25, 27, and 29. Ten years ago, they took up falconry. "I’ve loved birds my whole life," Shope says. The challenging hobby demands an exquisite understanding of raptors: Each animal must be patiently trained, tracked across miles of forest if escaped, and carefully fed over its seven months in captivity before it’s released back into the wild. "Having the wrong nutrition by even one gram of protein," Shope says, and "the bird will be dead in a week. It’s that exacting."
Though he grew up in rural Connecticut and began woodworking at the age of eight, this careful and intimate respect for nature was far from a priority in his old practice. He and his partners would only ask clients, "‘What would you like? What can you afford?’ After 25 years of doing that," he says, "I just wanted to have some other filters on designs."
When he and Julie bought their property, overlooking the Hudson River, they vowed to build a home that would reflect their environmental and aesthetic values. As Shope puts it, Julie was his client: "She’s always the one in our relationship who says, ‘Stop and tell me…how and why? Does this just sound nice or is this real?’" Their first priority: carbon neutrality. To achieve this, Shope embedded the house in a hillside—and under five feet of soil—where the surrounding sediment remains a constant 55 degrees, eliminating the need for air-conditioning. "The carbon-neutral issue totally changed what architecture—this architecture—looked like," he explains. When extra heat is required, a 24 kWh solar array powers under-floor radiant heating; Tesla Powerwall batteries store electricity for later use. "The sun does all the work. It’s actually impressive in its simplicity," Shope says. Floor-to-ceiling glass doesn’t just admit sunlight: their sweeping views maintain a connection to the landscape. For instance, in mid-November thousands of waterfowl "arrive from the Artic and land right in front of the house. You could literally walk across the river on top of them. It’s unbelievable."
Environmental sensitivity isn’t just a carbon dioxide number game for Shope—it has the benefit of an aesthetic dimension. The undulating black walnut floor, which he crafted from trees felled on the property, is an organic and multisensory presence throughout most of the home. Its gentle peaks and valleys, inspired by a beach’s rippled surface, are a delight to walk upon. "How could architecture change if two primary building materials were from your site or region? Given a global economy and smorgasbord of architectural [materials], that’s something that’s gone now." Black walnut was one of two materials that the Shopes vowed would be sourced from the nearby landscape. The 80 black walnut trees he felled were used to make the home’s doors and cabinets. His second choice was granite: Preserving their original moss and lichens, he moved several monoliths to create an outdoor pathway leading from the house and toward—though not reaching—the river below.
Even more striking is the home’s extensive and unusual use of copper cladding, made of panels salvaged from industrial buildings in the region that were slated for demotion. Shope called every roofer he knew, inquired about projects that made use of it, and outbid demolition contractors for the discarded metal. While the copper pieces were more expensive, "they will never get polished, they will never get painted, no one will ever do anything to them, and they will last 200 years," Shope says. The material also appears in the bathroom, which is clad with copper reclaimed from a barn roof in Connecticut. Naturally hygienic, the copper "doesn’t mildew, it doesn’t mold, it’s completely antiseptic," and, he says, "I love the color of it." All of the copper used throughout the home comes with no additional embodied energy: The carbon cost of its smelting was incurred long ago.
Due to choices like these, Shope freely concedes that his home, a true labor of love, required more money and time to complete. If basic construction of the walls, roof, and essential architectural elements was $400 per square foot, he estimates it costs an additional 30 percent for the carbon-neutral features such as the earth-berming, insulation, mechanical systems, and solar panels. Certainly not an insignificant amount, but for Shope and his wife—and the future generations of humans and animals who will inherit the site—the benefits greatly outweigh the costs.
Embedded in the solid earth but open to the changing sky, and reflecting Shope’s fascination with "enclosure, vastness, stillness, movement," the home is designed to be static in many ways: Thanks to its simplicity and robustness, it won’t need much maintenance or modification. While it resists time in that sense, its north point is angled to the sunset of the summer solstice, quietly marking the passage of the seasons.