Creating a new old house in the country
Architects Cynthia Filkoff and Armand Di Biase on the covered porch of a newly constructed house they designed that takes in the spectacular Berkshire views from all of the main spaces.
Photographs by ChiChi Ubiña and Lisa Vollmer
Weekends are sacred, especially as children get older and family members scatter. It’s a time to gather, share meals, exchange stories, take in moments that linger a lifetime. For many city dwellers, the Berkshires is a place to get away on a Friday and stay as long as possible.
Creating a home that speaks to those elements is what architects Cynthia Filkoff, 56, and Armand Di Biase, 59, do best. Partners in business and married for 30 years, they had just the opportunity when they designed a home for a family of four.
A compatible—and trusting—relationship between client and professional is key, says Filkoff. “It’s a big decision, investing into a future. It’s important to develop a relationship and think like the client. Personal family issues come up, too. You have to have a very tight relationship.”
Based in Bedford, New York, Di Biase Filkoff Architects has designed homes in Millbrook, Ancram, Pine Plains, Milan, and Amenia (New York); Lakeville, Washington, Sharon, and Roxbury (Connecticut); and as far away as Charleston, South Carolina.
A Manhattan couple looking to build in New York, just over the border from the Berkshires, wanted a simple home in a rural setting that illustrated attention to every detail—attention that was placed on the present as well as the future as their two children get older and the home adapts to that evolution.
Skiing brought the family of four to the region when their son and daughter were little, along with other features, such as hiking, gardening, going to concerts, enjoying good food, and a having sense of community. As year-round visitors to the Berkshires, this Butternut family decided they needed a place of their own. They met Di Biase and Filkoff through a friend and conveyed what they wanted.
“We developed a really good process,” says Filkoff of working with the couple. “We spent a lot of time together, and until we signed off, we did walk-throughs or talk-throughs, conference calls, agendas, minutes. It evolved into a course of understanding.”
As they were trying to figure out the basics—the flow of the home, the staircase, the style—Filkoff recommended books that helped the clients choose, such as Russell Versaci’s Creating a New Old House. Many homebuyers prefer to have an “old” house, Filkoff says, but with high ceilings, a big kitchen, a dry basement. That’s not easy to find. “For this house, it looks like we renovated an old farmhouse.”
Keeping it simple yet special was something that both the architects and clients started with and kept throughout the process. As Filkoff and Di Biase walk through the home, they talk about how every square inch of space was carefully thought out. What the clients envisioned was a Greek Revival with a bit of farmhouse—a classic look but with a modern vibe and traditional detail.
And that’s what they got: The exterior molding is carefully crafted, and the interior elements are more edited, sleek, and minimal. Floors are traditional wide-planked oak, windows have divided light, and the molding is simple. “What we created was a new old house,” says Filkoff.
The spaces can be reappointed, such as the family room, which can be transformed into a dining room if the couple wants to entertain formally. The screened porch can be a sunroom, the study doubles as a guestroom, and the mudroom/bath is also the cabana/bath for the pool. “The flexibility speaks to how the home was designed to adapt,” says Filkoff.
And everything is understated: There is a lot of built-in shelving and secret doorways, custom cabinetry and sliding doors. The home is also set up to entertain large groups of friends and family. The two-cook kitchen is meant to serve a crowd, with an eight-burner Wolf stove, a grill, pot filler, and double integrated Sub-Zero refrigerators. “We help our clients figure out what they need. No one else has a kitchen like this.”
During the winter holidays, family and friends converge for ski season, and the porch gets just as much use when it’s cold outside as in the summer as screens are changed out for glass panels. The doors fully open to create an overflow from the dining area.
In the pool area, the owner developed a simple radiant system of running cool water underneath a bluestone terrace to absorb the heat and transfer it to the pool. “He came up with the idea and asked us if it could work—and it does,” says Filkoff.
Design elements include an adjoining outdoor barbecue area with an outdoor fireplace. The garage is a place to store tools and also has a bay where skis are easily accessible. The mudroom, cabana, bathroom, and laundry room are integrated into one of the most practical spaces in the house. Wet items stay in this functional utility room with high ceilings and plenty of storage space.
Other small touches that add more interesting elements but don’t take up floorspace include a guest powder room tucked under the stair landing. In the master bathroom, stone-slab material is used in a limited fashion, and the stone tile floor is custom detailed. Moderately priced material has that custom touch to create an understated elegance.
The home has many other one-of-a-kind points, like a glass door that opens to a linen closet that has a window, creating more light in the upstairs hallway. The architectural idea of transparency, where one can see through the house in many different views, is a central design feature of this 4,000-square-foot home, making it feel twice as big. And there isn’t a space or color or detail that the owners don’t love. “I’m so glad they love it still,” says Filkoff. “That means we got it right.”