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Barn Raising

A 1920s dairy barn reborn as a modern house



Photographs by Michael Moran

After a fire completely destroyed the interior of her home, a 1920s dairy barn converted to living space in the 1940s, the owner faced a dilemma—tear it down or salvage it. While interviewing architects following the 2001 fire, she decided to preserve the historic structure and take a radically new approach to the interior. “The owner came to us looking for something modern,” explains Scott Specht, principal of Specht Harpman, the firm hired to design the new house. “We talked about the idea that from the outside, it could appear as a classic gambrel roof barn, but on the inside, the house could offer a totally different, unexpected experience. The goal was to convert it into something clean and contemporary while retaining the character of what came before.”

The barn, which sits on two acres, originally belonged to a ten-acre dairy farm in South Wilton; a second barn stands next to the one that burned down. The owner, who lived in Manhattan, purchased the property in 1978 as a weekend home. “The old house had a warren of rooms carved out of what had been storage space on the first floor and a hayloft above; the conversion was done crudely and without much thought to energy efficiency or comfort,” explains Specht. “The owner wanted lots of natural light, and open living spaces. To achieve this, we eliminated the full second floor, and moved the structural ties up to the top of the ceiling. Because the hayloft floor had held the barn together, we had to add exterior concrete rafters to buttress the walls from the outside.” Most of the exterior shell was in still intact. Specht Harpman, working with the Prutting & Company Custom Builders, was able to retain the concrete block walls at the ground floor, the roof structure and sheathing, some floor joists, and the adjacent concrete silo.

While the new house was built on the same foundation, Specht Harpman added a two-story entry way that projects beyond the original footprint, a sort of modern interpretation of a farmhouse porch. “We designed it in a style that merged with original structure. The addition allowed more headroom in the second-floor rooms because the ceilings didn’t have to follow the gambrel roof line. It also provided for an indoor green house on one side of the entrance and a breakfast area on the other,” says Specht.

The interior has been rearticulated as one large open space with three smaller structures, or boxes, stacked within it. The airy L-shaped living and dining area ceiling soars the full height of the barn. A row of French doors and large windows along the exterior walls flood this room with light. In contrast to the openness and drama of the public space, the private areas, contained within the separate boxes, have lower ceilings and scaled-down proportions. “We wanted to make these rooms cozy, more intimate,” says Specht. They used consistent materials, colors and forms to tie the public and private spaces together.

A box adjacent the living room contains a first floor office and a sitting area above. The main box appears to float in the center of the barn, overlooking the public space, and houses the master bedroom and bath. At the far end, a third box includes a guest room and bathroom on the main floor and another office, closets and a hallway leading to an outdoor deck on the second floor.

While Specht Harpman used stock materials throughout much of the house, the results are sophisticated and dramatic—anything but standard. “We wanted a contrast between rough and finished surfaces. The owner also had specific ideas about materials she wanted, such as a concrete floor in the public space, and river rocks for the master bathroom floor. Together we selected a simple palette of wood, stone and metal, in the spirit of the ‘rule of three’,” explains Specht, referring to the design principle of limiting decorative elements to no more than three materials from any one perspective.

Most of the custom millwork is maple plywood, a blonde wood chosen for its warm, even patina. The poured concrete floors in the public area and the knotty wood floors in the private spaces provide texture and visual interest. Many features in the house straddle both modern and historical contexts. The storage drawers built into the stairs evoke the classic Japanese technique of using every available space, but also reflect an early American Shaker aesthetic. The band of millwork running along the walls at the height of the original second floor references the old hayloft. The new fireplace, relocated from an exterior wall to the center of the house, and encased in honed black granite with two stock metal flues rising exposed to the ceiling, recalls the central hearth of older homes. “It is actually the most energy efficient location,” explains Specht. The house boasts several other green features, including foam insulation, and radiant floor heat on the first floor. However, he notes that “the truly environmentally friendly aspect of the house is the fact that we recycled and repurposed a building deemed beyond saving. This reduced construction and demolition waste, and the amount of new material required.”

“I love the feeling of space and light in this house,” says the owner, who has filled it, sparingly, with an eclectic collection of modern and organic furnishings, informed by her previous career in the fashion industry and her new career as a landscape designer. Although she has two offices, she finds herself working most often at the dining table. “I particularly love the light there, and I can look out at the gardens and birds.”

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