House of Light and Rock
An architect and his wife hammer out a home for the ages
Peter Shaffer is a Boston architect and Berkshire resident who has a reverence for nature and a grounded command of space utilization. His home, literally dug out of the hillside—a 28-degree slope of ledge in Tyringham—is a dramatic blend of sustainability, symbiosis with the surrounding terra firma, and a deep love for the countryside. “One of the most important aspects to consider when designing a space is to think about how it’s going to make people feel. There are many other factors that go into planning, of course, but this is significant to me,” Shaffer says. “I create designs that are bright and cheerful, and this was crucial for our home.”
After living in Newton for almost 40 years, Peter and his wife Lynn, a former Boston-area school psychologist, chose the Berkshires as the site of their first self-designed home. Upon walking into their contemporary, eco-friendly home, you are greeted with an open, four-season, screened porch. It is flooded with light year-round and serves as a mudroom in the winter, a dining/recreation space during the remaining three seasons. “When I was a kid, my father’s two brothers had a cabin on Candlewood Lake and it had a huge screened porch,” says Lynn. “I was a city kid, growing up in the Bronx, and the porch left a real impression on me. This was where we had our meals and spent a lot of time. When we started designing our house in the Berkshires, this area was my only requirement.”
Like many people who settle in the Berkshires, Peter and Lynn have a long history here, established well before building their Tyringham home. They frequented the area when their children went to Eisner Camp during summers. The cultural appeal of the area was a big draw for the couple, who enjoy Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and the Berkshire Museum, as well as walking in the pastoral beauty of the region.
When the Shaffers started looking, a local real-estate agent cautioned Peter that buying a pre-existing structure might not serve his design needs. Peter recalls, “We didn’t plan on purchasing this land, but one day in July 2011, we were walking in Great Barrington, looking in the windows of local agencies and saw this land and decided to jump in.”
The couple designed the home with the family in mind. “In a Victorian house, like we had in Newton, the space is really broken up. Here, we can use the space for time together.” A large kitchen, complete with a stainless-steel island, punctuates the living/dining-room area. “Natural light, captured and utilized in a proper way, can make all the difference to any space,” says Peter, who has designed affordable housing, large-scale senior communities, law firms, laboratories, and other structures. “I have learned that a strong command of light affects the final product.”
Time with family was a huge motivator for creating the 2,500-square-foot home as a space focused more on communal living and less about private spaces. When the grandchildren visit, they are drawn to the openness of the outdoors—climbing the rocks, playing in the garden. “We let the grandkids do everything they can’t do at home,” says Lynn with a smile.
The house features two geothermal wells that provide heating and cooling. No fossil fuels are required to regulate the temperature, which helps to minimize the carbon footprint. The Shaffers also used renewable resources in the construction, such as bamboo flooring and a high-efficiency woodstove, as well as maximizing the use of passive solar energy.
Lynn enjoyed being part of her husband’s work for the first time in their 44 years together. “I’ve listened to Peter talk about design our whole lives, but when our project was being designed,” she says, “it was really fascinating to hear his thoughts on continuity in the space.” Planning, landscaping, and excavating the land was no simple feat. With a 28-degree slope of rock to carve, Peter spent time carefully mapping out the position of both the driveway and the home itself. The plot consists of seven acres, with less than two acres claimed for the house and road. The Appalachian Trail passes behind the land and the vista from the main living space is of woods with a large pond in the back. The home nestles into the landscape unobtrusively, to accentuate the natural beauty of the property.
Leigh Tryon, of Tryon Construction in Monterey, was charged with the complex feat of making a driveway on the steep pitch of rock, solving the problem with a switchback and repurposing all the rocks that were excavated as substrate. The larger, more significant stones were positioned in the gardens and along the drive, creating anchors to integrate the house with the landscape.
Another smart feature is that there are no steps to enter the house from the parking area. This was a specific design feature for the aging couple to avoid navigating stairs on the rocky slope. The Shaffers gardened avidly at their home in Newton, and they transplanted many well-loved plants from there, including chrysanthemums, lady’s mantle, Japanese anemones, and lavender. Their deep love for digging in the dirt and spending time outside is evident, as they’ve built a home that brings the outside in. A contemporary, environmentally friendly design encapsulates this couple’s forward thinking in all of their choices. The result is an organic, modern, and sustainable home that will keep the Shaffers busy for years to come. Says Peter, “We wouldn’t be happy if we didn’t have dirt to dig in.”