For those who return year after year to upstate New York’s Adirondack region, the mountains are filled with memories. The area is well-known for the Great Camps built for wealthy titans of the Gilded Age—sprawling compounds owned by Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and scattered along the many lakes.
Today, the area attracts a host of vacationers, including a pair of families that has been going there together since the late 19th century. They finally built a home in the 1950s, but over time the ever-expanding clan filled the house above capacity. To cater to the crush, they built an addition sometime in the 1980s, but the group kept growing—and coming, even though almost half of the extended families now live on the West Coast. "We felt it was a keystone of our life," says Gerrit, who is a leader among the group. After 15 years crowded together, they decided that they needed to build another place to accommodate what was now around 25 people.
Finding land was not a problem; the families owned three adjoining parcels, acquired between 1950 and 1975. But locating a designer presented a challenge. "It’s remarkably hard to find the right architect if you’re not in architectural circles," explains Gerrit, who spent several hours with the local AIA to no avail. Finally, in a magazine, a family member saw a project by Gray Organschi Architecture that struck a chord with the group, who were impressed with the firm’s sensitivity to the natural environment. While the entire area is covered in traditionally rustic Adirondack-style houses, Gerrit says that the combined families were ready to try something new.
It really was the whole crew. The house was planned by committee, with all of the members able to make their voices and concerns heard. "We are spread all over so there were several phone calls and online conferences," Gerrit recalls. The architects didn’t find this to be an obstacle at all. "It was like having a very good board," says partner Lisa Gray. "The [group] was amazing. They gave us a lot of feedback. It was intense in the true sense of the word."
"If anyone wanted to weigh in, they could," Gerrit says. "And they did."
The brief that the gang gave the architects was challenging. They wanted sleeping for 14; a large kitchen and dining area, since cooking is how they spend time together; and universally accessible bedrooms and public spaces. They wanted all of this with as minimal an impact on the site as possible, maintaining the natural woodland environment and utilizing green construction methods. And they wanted as small and cost-effective a house as possible.
Since budget was important, the architects were careful with space planning. The house is about 3,000 square feet with six bedrooms, four of them on the second floor, surrounding a staircase to the large open space below where cooking, dining, game-playing, and movie-watching take place. (The crew counts several cinephiles and one filmmaker among them.)
The two-story dwelling is clad in tamarack, a species of larch that recurs in the house’s interior to wrap around part of the kitchen. According to principal Alan Organschi, tamarack is very weather-resistant; it’s also locally sourced. The interior floors and walls are ash, another local wood, some of which was harvested from the trees that had been uprooted to make room for the house’s footprint. One luxury the owners agreed to was Bayerwald sliding windows, a German product that the architects chose for energy efficiency.
The house has many other green features including a heavily insulated envelope and fixed glass, low-VOC paint, local slate on the fireplace, and a large overhang on the house’s south side that shields the interiors from the summer sun and allows light in during the winter months. A green roof is covered with local plants—not the usual sedum—sourced by Emily DeBolt of the Fiddlehead Creek Native Plant Nursery. This living roof filters rainwater and provides additional insulation. The house is not solar powered—yet. But the wiring is in place so that they will be able to install solar panels in the coming year.
Along with sustainability, accessibility was a prime concern. No one in the group currently uses a wheelchair, but everyone believed in planning ahead. The house was not designed to conform strictly to ADA requirements, but it meets many guidelines. The entire ground floor, which includes three levels and a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, is universally accessible—without it being obvious that the house was designed that way. The architects say that the ramping on the first floor, necessary because of the uneven ground beneath, adds spatial interest and variety, without the limitations of steps.
"The indoor/outdoor nature of the house is available to all, wheelchair-bound or not. But the moves to achieve this accessibility are quite subtle (we think and hope)," the architects explain. A deck encircles the first floor, allowing access for those who can’t, or prefer not to, navigate the ramps.
The finished product has been met with enthusiastic approval and delight from all involved. The only problem to date is a common one in the area: deer.
Says Gerrit: "I’m thinking of replacing some of the shrubs with less delicious ones."
Deputy director of design at Metropolitan Home magazine until it closed in 2009, Arlene Hirst is now a freelance journalist. Her byline appears frequently in New York Times Magazine as well as Surface, Modern, and Interior Design magazines and Elle Decor Italia.