An old barn becomes the model of efficiency
Preservationist David Babcock knew this was a Shaker barn from the beam work.
Photos by Matt Petricone
A sign hangs in Stephen Cowell’s front window, a relic from his days campaigning for President Obama. It says: “Forward.” For an energy guru who defines his job as “saving the planet,” the sign’s message epitomizes his approach to life.
After reading Living Barns by Ernest Burden in 1984, Cowell was turned on to the idea of transforming an old, abandoned barn into an energy-efficient home for his growing family. A two-year search ensued in the Berkshires, until Cowell and his bride, Ricki, stumbled upon a Tyringham barn on the verge of collapse. It was love at first sight.
The Cowells were taken with the barn’s sheer magnificence and openness, not to mention the breathtaking vistas that expanded beyond its back door. It took nine months of persistence to convince the owner to sell. Cowell then sold most of the property’s 65 acres to Massachusetts’s Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to create a sanctuary, and a smaller piece to a neighbor—essentially making back what he spent on the home purchase.
He planned to restore the barn himself—a massive undertaking—but he was used to making just about anything happen. A community organizer who created the Urban Studies Department at Brown when he was a student there, he found his cause during the Iran-hostage crisis. Oil prices were through the roof, so he set himself a challenge: “Let’s take a city and have everyone stop using oil in 12 weeks.”
The city was Brockton, Massachusetts, and 85 percent of households attended workshops to learn tips like installing plastic storm windows and closing chimney drafts. When the city’s oil consumption dropped by 13 percent, the Massachusetts legislature gave Cowell $4 million to create change throughout the state. In 1984, Cowell founded Conservation Services Group, which designs and implements conservation and renewable-energy programs nationwide with a staff of 800.
“I believe democracy doesn’t work unless you do it,” Cowell says. He ran logistics in southern Ohio for John Kerry in 2004 and in Cincinnati for Obama in 2008, winning the latter, a rarity for Democrats in that city. In 2009, he drafted the energy portion of Obama’s $16-billion stimulus package.
So, yes, back in 1986, Cowell was ready to take on the barn restoration.
A week into the project, a man pulled up on a motorcycle and asked, “Do you know what you have here? This is the last Shaker barn in America to be restored—and I’m going to do it for you.” This wasn’t just anyone stopping to shoot the breeze. David Babcock’s family has restored Shaker barns for three generations, and his father was featured in Living Barns, the book that first inspired Cowell.
Resident historian Cornelia Gilder wrote in Views of the Valley that this barn was built by John Gardner in 1848 and later, when family member James Gardner joined Tyringham’s Shakers, he donated it to the settlement in accordance with their custom of communal goods. “I have always seen the Gardner property as a place that the Shakers may have hoped to expand had they prospered numerically,” says Stephen Paterwic, an overseer of Hancock Shaker Village. The Tyringham settlement began in 1792, peaked in 1840 with 107 members, and closed by 1875, when the members had largely died off, a result of their principle of celibacy.
“These Shaker buildings represent our American heritage,” says Babcock. Pulling the family’s converted log truck out of retirement, he spent a year moving the barn off its crumbling foundation to a location with full southern exposure, just 100 feet away. Then he reassembled it, beam by beam, using original tools to carve out pegs the Shakers would have used, as there are no nails in Shaker construction.
With the frame up on the three-story, 6,000-square-foot space, Cowell asked himself, “Could I get a house this big to be self-sufficient so that we don’t need a heating system?”
He proceeded to turn a foundation wall into a Trombe wall—encasing the black, concrete flank with windows so that it would absorb and redistribute heat throughout the home. Leaving nothing to chance, Cowell’s walls have one-foot-thick insulation, and the whole building is insulated with two inches of foam.
The home is now a model of efficiency. Cowell retained pieces of the past within, such as a massive wheel suspended from the ceiling. Connected by ropes to a large wooden door, as it was for the Shakers, this showpiece is what Cowell proudly calls “the first garage door in America.”
After 12 years working on this labor of love, the Cowells moved in full time in 1999, with plenty of space for their five children and growing number of grandchildren. Ricki, a photographer and printmaker who converted a smaller barn on the property, oversaw the décor that capitalizes on the breathtaking views. A prized possession is a picnic basket purchased at a yard sale from former neighbor Nat King Cole. They have yet to take it to Tanglewood, fearing it might create a ruckus.
The home continues to catch the attention of passersby. The Cowells have held three weddings, including that of comedian Cory Kahaney, who pulled over during a drive down Tyringham Road and stated, “This is the most beautiful place in the world. Can we get married here?”
For Cowell, who is as forward-thinking as the Obama sign in his front window, the answer was, “Yes, you can!”
Rick Cowell bought a picnic basket from Nat "King" Cole's wife, Maria, before she left Tyringham. Nat used it to entertain guests.