New Fairfield, Connecticut
Architects & Firms
With perhaps the exception of the architecture of the Machine Age, buildings across history have collaborated with nature. Tara and its southern kin wouldn’t sport generous porches if their makers hadn’t recognized the need to deflect direct sunlight from interiors. For a savvy contemporary example, consider the Harare, Zimbabwe, Eastgate Building, whose architecture is based on self-cooling termite mounds to reduce ventilation energy consumption by 90 percent.
Artreehoose, a 5,400-square-foot weekend house overlooking Lake Candlewood in New Fairfield, Connecticut, falls within this spectrum. Although the municipality strictly controlled where Della Valle Bernheimer could build, the Brooklyn-based architecture studio did find creative leeway out of bounds: Its design evokes the generous canopies of elm trees that had once occupied the area before succumbing to disease.
Replacing a house for which a local power company had provided an easement, the new building was only permitted to occupy the identical 1,800-square-foot footprint. The client had decided to tear down the predecessor, which she describes as “a lodge-style cottage” that seemed ill-suited to its location because “this piece of property really demanded a beautiful year-round weekend place.”
For this telecommunications executive, “weekend place” equates a decidedly casual lifestyle: “You put your hair in a ponytail and take off your makeup and you have your friends over for a barbecue.” The homeowner adds that, while occupying the old house, she and extended family would spend most of their summertime hours enjoying a generous south-facing porch. Her design brief consequently stressed an easy “walk-in, walk-out” relationship between building and lakefront.
In order to maximize square footage, Della Valle Bernheimer positioned the house’s ground floor perfectly atop the old structure’s footprint, and largely skinned it in 10-foot-tall windows and sliding glass doors that permit multiple connections between interior and outdoors. The architects then bent the rules slightly by pushing the second story to the rooflines of two former porches. Upon combining that top-heavy form with the glassy expanses below, partner Andy Bernheimer, AIA, says, “We had a visceral response to use the tree—the canopy that cantilevers out—as an illuminating device.”
To support the heavier copper-and-cedar-clad second floor, the architects, with Guy Nordenson and Associates Engineers, developed a structural system of long-span scarf-jointed Douglas fir plywood joists and concealed Vierendeel trusses and billets on solid steel columns, which are similar in size and color to the windows’ aluminum[CK] mullions. The interior is organized around a skylit double-height great room; looking into this space from outside, large solids, such as a walnut-clad stairwell leading to a second-floor media room and a Schiffini kitchen wall, appear as virtual tree trunks from which the house unfurls.
“Because the footprint was somewhat predetermined, we had more time to massage the configuration of the interior,” Bernheimer says. The architects conceived of it as a series of interlocking volumes—calibrated around those solid forms on the first floor, for example. Yet the gesture does not interfere with the openness of the plan. Upon entering Artreehoose, a visitor looks down the length of the house to the view framed by the west elevation’s second-story cantilever. (It also reveals a large rock outcropping ensconced by the house and garage volumes, forming a kind of courtyard condition.) Upstairs, from the bedrooms that occupy that cantilever, one peers from the single-loaded corridor, past the double-height living area and terrace that serves as an outdoor theater in summer, to the media room.
“There are many surprise vistas,” the homeowner says of the scheme. “It’s just like living in a treehouse.” The lake is always present, even in the reflections of the glass. And where that view is framed directly, such as in the slotted window adjacent to the master-bathroom tub, there is the sense of floating in as well as above the water.
Lake Candlewood informs interior flourishes. Finished with an intense polish, the plank oak floors appear as rippling water; paired with the same local bluestone pavers used for hardscaping. Trees figure into this final layer of detail, too. The board-and-batten exterior evokes growth rings, and Edison bulbs suspended simply from electrical sockets in the great room may as well be fireflies dancing between branches.