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Inner Workings

A traditional farmhouse belies its technological advances



John Gruen

For Rafe Churchill, the bright-yellow farmhouse he designed in Sharon isn’t about the sustainable technology that he and his brother concealed when building the home. It’s about the traditional look and feel that you can’t miss. “This being a farm property, we wanted to design a house in a setting that was appropriate because the owners do have plans to develop the property for small farming use and permaculture,” Churchill says. 

Churchill, a third-generation builder who owns Churchill Brothers, LLC, with his brother Seth, modeled the home after an early-1900s–style, center-hall colonial farmhouse. While Rafe runs the design studio, his brother manages most of the construction work. They started building this home in April 2011 and finished just nine months later. 

The brothers have been doing sustainable-building projects for several years, and Rafe says it’s not as challenging as one might think. “If you design responsibly and follow by building responsibly, you’re really halfway there,” he says. Sticking with the original design is something Rafe says is imperative for containing costs and usually leaves clients happier in the end. Staying “on plan,” he says, is something that set these clients apart from others. Having worked with the Churchill brothers on a sustainable townhouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the family asked them to do their country home. 

“They came to us and said, ‘We want a very simple house, a house for us to use on the weekends and maybe for longer stays in the summer, and we don’t want our kids to have huge bedrooms with private baths. We want the family to spend time together,’” says Rafe. 

With that in mind, Rafe based the design of the four-bedroom, 2½-bath home on a traditional plan, with minor modifications to allow for a little more room in the common spaces because sharing those spaces is important to the family. Says Rafe, “If you’re inviting people to your house to spend time with you, why are they locked away in a thousand-square-foot suite when really they should be in the common areas together?”

In contrast to its traditional layout, the home also has some very up-to-date features. Solar panels on the roof basically offset all of the home’s electricity costs. Geothermal wells and heat pumps allow for radiant heat. Rainwater cisterns provide water for irrigation, filling the fresh-water pool, and flushing toilets. The home is also so well insulated that outside noise doesn’t permeate indoor spaces, nor can even a breeze be felt coming through the windows or doors as it would be in a drafty old farmhouse. 

“These homes are built so tight that we had to provide air systems that bring in fresh air to allow the kitchen hood to actually function correctly,” says Rafe. As mentioned, the house is equipped with all the latest technology, though it is hidden from view. “The house isn’t designed around the technology, the technology is designed around the house,” he adds. 

The simple, modest design seen from the outside is something the family also wanted to replicate for the interior of the home. That’s why they turned to Rafe’s wife, Heide Hendricks, who owns Reservoir, an interior design company and who decorated the homeowners’ townhouse in Brooklyn. Hendricks says the clients clicked with her passion for finding unique and vintage items and liked her design eye. 

When researching with the clients, Hendricks discovered their interest in Shaker aesthetic. “While they really responded to the uncluttered, well-organized flow of Shaker rooms, we strove to appropriate that. But they also loved furnishings with character and a natural patina,” says Hendricks. “Likewise, it was important for them to not source the stuff from across the country.” 

Hendricks says with a few exceptions, she was able to get most of the furnishings from within 75 miles of Sharon. She found wooden cannon-ball beds for the kids’ rooms at an estate sale, and the wrought-iron beds on the porch came from Hob Nail Iron Beds in Pawling. A cabinet in the powder room came from the Millerton Antiques Center, and a New England elk hide hanging over the living-room sofa was produced in Woodbury. (The animal died a natural death, we’re told.)

While most of the rooms in the home have the same textured, plaster walls and sparse furnishings, a couple of others stray from those motifs. One is the television room, which is filled with bright, vibrant patterns. The mudroom, with its pine walls, also stands out. Hendricks laughs as she says it was always supposed to be like a man cave. “You have the massive, worn-leather chair and the wood stove, and typically there’s a giant pile of fire wood.” The floor of the mudroom also contrasts with the rest of the home. Instead of the Southern yellow pine found in a lot of Shaker buildings, the mudroom floor is made of reclaimed bricks.

Like those bricks and many of the home’s fixtures, Rafe says the owners also intend to reclaim the property’s surrounding farmland—a project that will span the next few years. “They didn’t have a landscape company just come in and do a start-to-finish before they moved in,” says Rafe of his clients’ unique vision. “This is something that they want to see evolve, and I think that’s true of the house itself. They want to live in it, they want to adapt to it.” n

 

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