Travel just 1 ½ hours north of Manhattan, and you are worlds away from the cacophony of the city. Imagine the golden sun-drenched landscape of a Hudson River School painting—peaceful, beautiful, and timeless. This is the context for Lake|Flato’s Clinton Corners Residence, a complex of three structures on a 2-acre lakeside property, and the architects’ latest foray into prefabricated construction. While the project uses the DNA of the firm’s Porch House program, it is its own new hybrid species.
The Porch House was conceived as a module-based system, adapted to each site through linking “porch” elements—interstitial connectors that could be open or enclosed or a mixture of both. The porch elements gave the firm the flexibility to adapt the modules to the site in felicitous ways. Bill Aylor, AIA, who’s lead the program with Ted Flato since its inception, has explored a number of means of delivering the modules.
The initial thought was they should be built in a factory to ensure quality and reduce cost. Ultimately, says Bill, the firm has never built two Porch Houses in the same way—for a variety of reasons. Chief among them has been the difficulty of finding top-flight factories that can deliver the standards and the geographic reach required by the firm and its discerning clientele.
Although located in the Hudson Valley of New York state, the Clinton Corners commission came to Bill and project architect Evan Morris through Texas ties. One of the clients has roots in the state and had always admired the firm’s work. When the couple approached the architects about building a weekend/vacation house on picturesque Upton Lake, they were eager for a quick build. Everyone began with the idea that the Porch House process might be a solution.
As design development progressed, it became apparent that the Porch House program would accommodate some of what the clients wanted, but not all. Where it fell short, or rather too small, was in the great room. The clients sought a spacious, almost barn-like open plan kitchen/living/dining room that could host large gatherings of friends and extended family. The prefabrication module delivery system would not work for this portion of the project. So, the team set about devising another means of getting the entire project—which also included a bedroom wing and a separate guest house—done quickly and to the high performance standards of the Porch House program.
Fortunately, in his decade-long quest to build a network of Porch House-capable factories, Bill had struck up a relationship with prefab pioneer Tedd Benson and his New Hampshire-based Bensonwood company, just three hours north of Clinton Corners. “I’ve been talking with Tedd since about 2009,” Bill recalls. “We were always eager to do some work with them because of their capabilities, but also because I thought they were very cool people. At the time the Clinton Corners project came up, I had just been at a conference with Tedd where he gave the keynote address.”
Bensonwood doesn’t do modules, it builds high-performance panels, components, and structural systems, so the company had not been an obvious partner in the Porch House program. But for this particular hybrid project, it made sense to Bill, Evan, and the rest of the design team to explore a collaboration.
What makes Bensonwood so different is its deep roots in craft-intensive custom building, combined with the high-tech savvy of the best European factories (see our Pro-File on page 18). Bensonwood built a name for itself as a leader in timber frame construction, a technique that was dying out before Tedd took up the cause. Now Tedd actually runs three interrelated companies focused on prefabricating building components and assemblies. Bensonwood is the high-end custom residential branch of the business; there’s also a new company called Tektoniks, which provides advanced components to developers and architects for larger commercial and residential projects; and there’s Unity Homes, which builds high-performance houses based on a flexible platform of home plans.
Unity Homes’ houses are intended as a more affordable alternative to pure custom homes, leveraging the efficiencies of a kit-of-parts approach to delivering customizable houses. Each core plan has been engineered for rigorous energy efficiency, healthy indoor air quality, and resource conservation. This trio of goals aligns precisely with what Lake|Flato has been striving for with the Porch House portfolio.
The shared goal for both Bensonwood and Lake|Flato on this and possible future projects is to marry the strength each brings to housing—Bensonwood’s building performance chops and Lake|Flato’s design prowess. On the Clinton Corners project, they explored where the sweet spot might lie between an advanced factory’s system of engineered components and a renowned architecture firm’s aesthetic rigor. Also in the mix, of course, were the programmatic and design goals of the client. On all sides, such a collaboration required a great deal of trust and confidence in each member of the team.
“We were thinking of this as our discovery period,” says Tedd. “To find out where the inhibitions are for architects using our system.”
Says Bill about his fellow architects, “We don’t want to take pencils away from people who want to obsess over every detail. The goal of the Porch House program has been to streamline the delivery process for design, so we have more time to focus on the details. In Bensonwood, we have a great box delivery partner.”
For the Clinton Corners project, Bensonwood’s factory took care of the building envelope and the timber framing. That freed the architects to go high-touch on everything else: site planning, interior architecture, and all the details that bring custom quality to a house. The local custom builder was also liberated to play to his company’s strengths. Jason Jones of Ingrained Woodworking in Rhinebeck, New York, handled all the site work, project management, and skilled craftsmanship that is still an essential part of the process.
“Jason is a very good contractor,” says Bill. “He had worked with Bensonwood before. And his end-grain woodworking is a big part of the success of the project. He was on top of things and had subs we could all depend upon. He worked really hard on the screen elements and coordinated the two separate window systems we used.”
“He’s the kind of custom builder who wears a toolbelt,” adds project architect Evan Morris. “He self-performed a lot of things. It was great for us because in talking with him, we were talking directly with the guys making the cuts and doing the work. Ultimately, adding the factory-built process to custom building may help keep more guys like Jason in business. The small builders don’t have the scale to compete on price for big materials orders. This frees them from the envelope.”
The challenge for architects in using prefabricated envelopes and assemblies such as Bensonwood’s is in moving so many design decisions forward in the process. “We had the weather-tight envelope on site early,” Bill explains. “And that meant we had to have the specifics of the window plan decided earlier than we typically like to. That was one of the interesting things we were faced with. I personally kind of like that approach because it keeps things simpler. Then we can focus on the big moves and still do smaller refined things along the way.”
Tedd puts it another way: “The challenge for architects is to let go of trying to control everything. Here we are totally invested in making really good building performance envelopes and iterating and perfecting. The question is, ‘can we get architects to leave it alone?’ In Sweden, you don’t find architects worrying about the envelopes and assemblies—they can rely on companies to deliver those. They’re designing spaces and buildings.”
Perhaps architects could let go of some control, if there were more forward-thinking factories like Bensonwood in the United States.
No matter how interested Lake|Flato is in the Porch House process, the firm is careful not to lose sight of the quality of house it delivers. At first glance, Clinton Corners feels very familiar, almost iconic. The steeply gabled, two-story bedroom volume evokes a timeless farmhouse structure. Its form, and that of the low-slung guest building, closely follows the Porch House pattern book, which has the uncanny ability to fit in almost anywhere in the country.
The great room building, connected by a glass vestibule to the bedroom wing, departs in size from Porch House dimensions but maintains its flavor—an open plan stripped of redundant functions and needless flourishes. “Elemental is a word we used a lot,” says Evan. “The clients put a lot of faith and trust in the design team, which included interior designer Neal Thomas. They were hands off in many ways. When they did interject themselves, it was to let us know they wanted something functional and unprecious. They didn’t want anything that felt overly decorative, worked, or designed—just something that felt essential.”
“They wanted a well-built tool box, not a well-built jewel box,” adds Bill. “They knew the kids were going to throw balls against the side of the house.” Hardy materials stand up to juvenile hijinks. All three buildings are clad in cedar—the main volumes have a weathered finish and the guest house has a dark stain. Standing seam metal roofing fits in with the rural setting, and polished concrete floors handle the wear and tear of lakeside country life with aplomb. Elsewhere, the material palette is pared to the requested essentials, including white oak trim and woodwork, glulam timber framing, and board-formed concrete for the fireplace chimney.
At the core of the great room is the “gray machine,” supplied by Henrybuilt of Seattle. The cabinet system forms the kitchen and powder room, and provides closed storage for closet, pantry, utilities, and additional open shelving. The cabinet material is unfussy laminate, edged with plywood. “It’s beautifully built but not precious, and it takes all of the useful wear of the house in a very nice way,” says Evan.
Every material, however pragmatic, contributes a subtle layer of texture and pattern that conveys an overall impression of quality. Most striking are the exterior cedar screens that wrap the great room volume at each gabled end. At the front of the house, they inject an element of privacy and protection for a porch. On the lake side, which faces west, they shade the triple-glazed window wall from heat gain and glare. In the late afternoon, they filter that golden Hudson Valley light, gilding the living room in its warm glow.
On the exterior of the house, the screens allow an edited but inviting view from the front of the great room through to the lake, where a bustling community of neighbors shares active summers and quiet winters.
The bedroom volume shelters private family life. It contains a first-floor sitting room and master suite and two kids’ bedrooms on the second floor. It’s divided from the great room by a glass vestibule that also connects the front entry to a rear, lake-view deck. Flanking the vestibule is a set of slatted built-ins. On the great room side, they function as mudroom storage for coats and shoes. On the bedroom side, they form bookshelves for the private sitting area. Door openings within the shelving align with exterior windows, allowing light and views to flow through—preserving that porch-like permeability between indoors and outdoors.
Although most of the plan contains only critical functions, there is one flex space to absorb games and other rainy-day activities. It occupies the space between the front porch and the “gray machine.”
The guest quarters are a short stroll away from the main house, past the swimming pool, and hold two bedrooms with private bathrooms, an ample carport, and a small gym. Taken as a whole, it’s a high-function program that could serve many families very well, while still delivering the delights of a well-built, smartly tailored custom home.
Best of all, the Clinton Corners build came together quickly—in about eight months—which was a chief goal for the clients. “One of the promises of prefab is that it’s faster,” says Bill. “Everyone thinks it’s cheaper, faster, and better—but you’re lucky if you get two of those. Still, this project was definitely faster, better, and cost effective.”
Working with Bensonwood has sold the firm on the component approach to factory fabrication. “It lends itself to mass customization rather than mass production,” says Bill. “And there’s much more appeal to that because it doesn’t sacrifice the hands-on, site-specific quality of the houses. We can’t leave that behind.
“As long as you have an understanding of the rules—the limits and the potential—I think components and panels are the most obvious future,” Bill concludes. “We’re going to see some major advances in how buildings are delivered.”
Plans and Drawings
Clinton Corners Residence
Clinton Corners, N.Y.
ARCHITECT: Bill Aylor, AIA, project manager; Evan Morris, project architect; Joshua Leger, intern, Lake|Flato Architects, San Antonio and Austin, Texas
BUILDER: Jason Jones, Ingrained Woodworking, Rhinebeck, N.Y.
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Neal Thomas, Emily Summers Design Associates, Dallas, Texas
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Susan Wisniewski Landscape, LLC, Beacon, N.Y.
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER/PREFABRICATION CONTRACTOR: Bensonwood, Walpole, N.H.
MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL/PLUMBING CONTRACTOR: Apex Engineering, Calvert City, Ky.
SITE SIZE: 2 acres
PROJECT SIZE: 4,400 square feet
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Chris Cooper
CLADDING: Western red cedar
ROOFING: Standing seam metal
WINDOWS: Marvin, Intus
INSULATION/HOUSEWRAP/SHEATHING: Bensonwood SIP panel construction with Zip System
ENERGY RECOVERY VENTILATOR: Zhender
FIREPLACE: Isokern Magnum
COOKING APPLIANCES: Wolf
MASTER TUB: Victoria + Albert
STAINS: Valhalla LifeTime Wood Treatment