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.
The only downside of the panels is that many contractors are still unfamiliar with them, but Gaffney was lucky enough to happen upon David Jones, a contractor she describes as “green to his inner core” and a knowledgeable advocate of SIPs. His expertise allowed the design to extend its SIPs reach onto the roof, meaning there are no beams where the windows meet the roof, helping keep the house airtight.
Gaffney’s dedication to sustainable design extends to her use of other earth-friendly materials. Nods to eco-design include paint-free plaster interior walls, radiant heating, bamboo and concrete floors, a large percentage of fluorescent lighting, and unfinished plywood cladding treated with linseed oil. In addition, careful siting of the home maximizes solar gain in the winter, and protruding SIP fins on the exterior collude with an overhang to minimize the sun’s rays in the summer, an important consideration when thinking about heating and cooling the tall, open living areas that were inspired by Gaffney’s agricultural bent.
The landscaping, which is still in the early growth stages, pays tribute to the surroundings. The Phantom Gardener, a landscape design company, put in only native plants that need no irrigation, such as magnolia trees and fiddlehead ferns. In lieu of traditional sod, there’s buffalo grass, which grows no higher than six inches and thus never needs to be mowed. And in reference to where the beavers reside, the couple named their home the Bog House.
As the moniker may imply, the house bears no similarity whatsoever to their 650-square-foot dimly lit pre-war walkup in Chelsea, and that’s the way Gaffney and Backus like it. “In New York, we don’t live far from the Lincoln Tunnel, with its sounds of traffic,” explains Backus. “Here, there’s a complete absence of noise. You can stand in our backyard and not hear a thing.”
He thinks for a moment, and then says thoughtfully, “You know, my biggest fear used to be that we would become the quintessential Manhattanites whose digestive systems would shut down if there wasn’t a bagel in sight. This house has prevented us from that.”
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