A Little Cabin Reaches Such Great Heights

When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
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Like knots in a tree, compelling designs sometimes form around an impediment. When Maricela Salas and Mary McGoff purchased a piece of land in the Berkshires, they had no idea that a rocky ledge would complicate construction of the simple house they’d imagined. But it also gave them exactly what they were after: a retreat that immerses them in the natural world.

A cantilevered cabin designed by R D Gentzler blends into the forest, even as it hovers above a 20-foot drop-off. Its south face is almost entirely glass, but a roof canopy limits solar gain. "We sit on the deck all afternoon watching the trees, and the time just flies by," says resident Maricela Salas.

Having camped in the region for years, the couple wanted their new house to approximate the connection with the land they’d felt sleeping in their tent. They’ve happily shared a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for 15 years, so they were more than willing to forgo a sprawling footprint. 

After an informal competition among colleagues and friends (Salas is the business director at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects), the couple chose R D Gentzler, principal at New York’s Framework Architecture, to design their dream. In the end, Gentzler created something uncannily like a downtown loft transplanted onto a wooded lot in Monterey, Massachusetts, just 10 minutes by foot from the Appalachian Trail.

The residents splurged on double-height Marvin Integrity windows.

 "Our experience designing urban apartments prepared us for the efficiency that this project required," says Gentzler of the 850-square-foot cabin. "The small footprint also helped us create the intense relationship with nature that the clients wanted." 

That inside-outside connection is reinforced by double-height glazing in the living room, financed by savings resulting from the project’s small scale. Other decisions kept costs down while bringing the home closer to the natural world: The exterior is visibly knotted pine, and the building frame is engineered wood, not steel.

Those costs were partially recouped by using knotted pine planks for the exterior. 

Nature did have one expensive—but enchanting—surprise in store. On the long and sloping lot, the best siting for the house turned out to be a rocky ledge.

"We were naive when we bought the lot and didn’t know there was so much ledge," McGoff says. "But we are so happy because, in the end, that is what makes this house so special."

"The cantilevered deck was always part of the design," adds Gentzler. "But now that the house is perched on the rock outcropping, the living spaces are 20 feet above grade, up among the treetops. This really enhances the feeling of immersion in the surroundings."

The kitchen and lofted guest bedroom take cues from urban living—including an apartment-size Summit refrigerator. The cabinets are IKEA and the tile is by Heath Ceramics. 

A south-facing overhang extends above the porch, blocking direct summer sunlight and helping keep the interior cool. But in the winter, when trees are bare and the sun is low, light streams in and warms the space. Spray-foam insulation and an advanced heat-recovery ventilator maximize these effects.

Whether nature is bare or in leaf, McGoff and Salas agree that the home brings them closer to nature than the tent they used to share.

"When we used to camp, we often ended up spending time in nearby towns," says McGoff. "Now, we just park the car and hunker down."

Adds Salas: "We never want to leave." 


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