It seems fitting that Alan Barlis’ client, who spent some 40 years at Ralph Lauren, was drawn to the pastoral hamlet of Waccabuc when he went looking for a place to build a country house. The site he found, in Westchester County, was originally part of a 19th-century farm compound in the town of Lewisboro. What’s more, its old wood house and two historically significant barns looked like something right out of a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. The mold-infested house had to go—its materials were recycled and salvaged—but the new house and old barns became a canvas for the owner’s eclectic collection of found objects, which only enhanced the property’s lived-in, timeless appeal.
Removing the decayed building opened the landscape to the L-shaped pair of barns in the northwest corner of the 2.77-acre lot, prompting the new house to engage with them. The client was very hands-on, and all about the landscape, says Alan Barlis, FAIA. “He’s really into this idea that it’s all about living with nature. There’s a feeling that you could do yoga in any corner of the house.” In that sense, the one-story floor plan almost recalls the Japanese tradition of additive structures whose rectangular rooms literally step out into the garden. Three-dimensionally, however, the forms have an unmistakably rural American flavor: the gabled barns inspired three steeply pitched, rectangular volumes linked by airy sections with lower gable roofs.
Alan arranged the footprint in an L-shape that faces the L of the barns. Arriving visitors follow a long gravel drive that curves along a billowy meadow before reaching a parking court partially hidden from the house. Up a series of stone steps, the path turns left toward the front of the house, which faces south to the meadow and an existing tree line. As befitting a casual retreat house, the sunlit entry volume is an in-between flex space. One of the connectors, this section has a 10-foot ceiling—in contrast to the three cathedralized volumes—but the back wall is all glass and opens to a stone terrace and firepit, creating a see-through effect at the entrance. This room is a bit “theatrical,” as Alan describes it, with a fireplace on each side and a long view to the meadow, swimming pool, and one end of the barn. Five-foot-wide openings allow it to feel like part of the larger volumes that flank it—the living room to the left and the kitchen to the right.
The open kitchen is the footprint’s hinge, feeding to the other connector on a 90-degree angle to the main living spaces. This connector’s two en-suite bedrooms and mudroom borrow space from a double-wide hallway leading to the high-pitched main bedroom on the north. “The hallway, wide enough for bookshelves and chairs, becomes another loungy place for the family to sit,” Alan says. “The doors to the bedrooms are 5 feet wide, with an 18-inch panel and a 42-inch panel of beautiful, planked oak. Most of the time they are left open; they become kind of a sculpture.” Like the front entry door, they were made by local artisans. When the doors are open, the two bedrooms also borrow views across the hall to a flat lawn, stone terrace, and firepit on the west, in the crook of the house’s footprint.
The building’s simple framing, clean details, and triple-pane windows not only optimize energy performance, but also let in an abundance of light and views. “The volumes are alone in the landscape, so they have views in four directions through other buildings, and three exposures, so almost wherever you’re standing you can relate to the landscape,” Alan says. Their black Boral cladding defers to the natural setting, unifies the composition, and complements the dark wood on the barns. “The idea of a dark outer shell, and looking inside and seeing layers of white, was something the client was interested in,” he says.
Appropriately for a getaway, the interiors prioritize relaxation, conversation, and play. Oak plank floors and plaster walls are a muted backdrop to the continually changing light and, if desired, furniture groupings. The owner, who has since sold the house, at times used the entry space as a dining room, playroom, or lounge. “He’s always testing different ideas with interiors, thinking about furniture and objects,” Alan says. “He did an installation garden room there at one point and was always sitting with his 11-year-old twin girls, playing with them in the teepee.”
Under the living room’s soaring ceiling, three walls of thin, black-framed plate glass windows—rising 14 feet from the floor on the gable end—admit light from three directions. The fireplace, open to the adjacent entry volume, makes it a cozy spot for reading and conversation, and its airy proportions allow plenty of room for yoga and different furniture arrangements.
Even the kitchen, on the southeast corner, is a flexible, active space. Its cooking core is a chunky white box with thick concrete countertops and textural wood shelving and drawer fronts. Even so, it has an ethereal quality in the high-ceilinged room. “It’s beautiful and simple but also functional and real; it doesn’t have to be more than it is,” Alan says. It is more than meets the eye, however. The box hides a powder room and pantry behind the cooking area, and a ladder inside the pantry leads to a secret loft atop the cook space. It also conceals a stairway down to the mechanical room. On the south is a 14-foot-tall window, and a large set of doors lead to a southeast-facing breakfast terrace and a stone wall, offering a place to enjoy the sun throughout the day.
Prospect and Refuge
“The landscape is incredibly important to the feeling of the architecture inside,” Alan says. “The site feels like it’s flat, but our client pointed out that there was a 10-foot drop from one end to the other as it went east to west,” Alan says. “Within the house footprint there’s a 4- or 5-foot grade change. That grade shift allowed us to address the idea that each space has a different relationship to the land.”
Early on, he worked closely with landscape architect Stephen Stimson to strengthen those bonds. For example, the living room’s perch, 3 feet above grade on a board-formed-concrete foundation, overlooks the barns. But the east side feels tucked in, bounded by a low stone wall that retains a “tilted meadow,” as Stephen calls it. “The house wants to feel like it sits on flat ground,” Stephen says. “We established a plinth for the house by cutting into the hill on the east and flipping the material to the west to create the podium. On the east, we did a graded slope with maples, witch hazel, and lilacs—plants typical of historic farms—that you look out at from the bedrooms and kitchen. You feel the hill pressing down. On the west side it’s more of a podium, where you look toward the barn below you.” A more cultivated garden defines the western terrace outside the living room, which has the longer views across a neighboring historic farm. To the rear of the lot, just steps from the restored barn, is a secluded swimming pool.
Like a series of bespoke cabins, the house’s simplicity, siting, and intimate scale foster a sense of connection to the environment. “We heard from the client that the serenity of this place has made such a difference for him; he said he’s never felt better,” Alan says. “Feeling the power of connection to nature and light was a big driver for the layout, and it’s nice to feel that it was a tangible part of what the house did.”
Plans and Drawings
Waccabuc, New York
Architect: Alan Barlis, FAIA, principal in charge; Liza Paredes, associate, BarlisWedlick, New York City and Hudson, New York
Builder: Patrick Morrissey, P. Morrissey Contracting, Mount Kisco, New York
Landscape architect: Stephen Stimson, FASLA, Stimson Landscape Architects, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Structural engineer: Sellers Treybal, Richmond, Vermont
Civil engineer: Site Design Consultants, Yorktown Heights, New York
Project size: 3,800 square feet
Site size: 2.77 acres
Construction cost: $340 per square foot
Photography: Peter Aaron / Adrian Jones
Cooking ventilation: ProLine ProV Liner
Cooktop/range: La Cornue
Door hardware: Zola, Baldwin
Faucets: Watermark, Newport Brass
Sinks: Rohl, Kohler
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