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Between a Rock and a Really Cool Place

MONDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2011

By


True story: Decades ago, a seven-year old boy and his father are walking through woods on their property, looking for a Christmas tree, when they came upon an abandoned and dilapidated barn, built very near a natural rock outcropping. Because the abandoned barn was so close to the rock wall, the wood on that side of the barn was always damp and eventually rotted. That side of the building buckled and the remaining walls of the barn came to rest on the rock wall.

After some discussion between father and son about what happened here, little John tells his father, “Pop, someday I’m going to build a house with three walls and the fourth one is going to be a rock wall like that one.”

 John's rock house

 Photo: Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

 The boulder makes itself at home in the main living space.

John had fallen in love with the idea of a vertical wall of rock as an interior wall of a house, and spent much of his childhood imagining and planning his dream house.

Fast forward to 2003: John, who is my friend from college, is now a real estate developer and builder in Manhattan and an owner/operator of On The Level Enterprises with his partner, Angelo. John has carried the fantasy of his rock house with him throughout his life, and after a 40-year hunt he and his wife, Sharon, find the ideal piece of property in the Catskill Mountains.They then begin the five-year process of building the house John has been planning since he was 7.

On the property sits the perfect boulder, 15’ x 20’ and 10’ high, weighing approximately 250 tons. 

 John's rock house
 The untouched building site.

John points out to me that the design process was totally influenced by the property. “Of course with such a site-specific home, each location that I found over the 40-year period dictated a different design for the house. Almost all of the sites had significant complications. 

“Access was always a problem as most rock outcroppings are high in elevation and within steep terrain. This site was probably the most difficult, which demanded the most creative solutions resulting in a beautiful design. So really, the land drove the design.  [In the final design] A concept that started out as three walls formed to the landscape ended up fully enclosing the boulder and provided a view [of] the adjacent rock formation from within.”

 John's rock house

 Mark Jenkinson

 View from above

The first task at hand was to build a road to the house site, approximately a quarter mile long. Next came a well. John and Sharon spent each weekend of this five-year period living on the property and working side by side with subcontractors and carpenters.

After a few weekends in a tent, they cleaned out a plywood hunting camp about 100 yards from the house site, which was on the property when they purchased it. They used a wood stove, but had no running water or electricity. 

After two years they “upgraded” to a camper (which Sharon thought was like a luxury apartment by that point), and then for the last year, they rented an apartment in the nearby town occupied by a carpentry crew they imported from New York City during the week, and by John and Sharon on weekends.

 Model by Ian Weiss

 Model by Ian Weiss

The design of this house was so unusual, and the concept of incorporating the rock so foreign to many workers on the project, that out of necessity John had a model built to help everyone visualize what they were going for. He got his share of funny questions from a variety of workers new to the project, and not able to process what they were seeing:

“Did your carpenters read the plans wrong?”

“Are you going to pour the foundation and then move the rock?”

“Did you pour the foundation and then install the rock?”

Speaking of foundation concerns, they definitely presented themselves. The design called for two separate foundations, one 15 feet above the other and each sitting on rock. To make matters even more challenging, each foundation site had an active stream running through it. Waterproofing was indeed an issue.

 John's rock house
John applies a liquid waterproofing membrane to the foundation and the bottom of the boulder.

The foundation plan called for initial excavation around the rock.  The channels were then backfilled with gravel and filter fabric. A concrete slab was poured and coated with a liquid-applied waterproofing membrane from Karnak Corp. The membrane was also applied about 2 inches up onto the rock. Radiant heat was installed and then a 4-inch topping slab poured. John is happy to report that there has never been an interior moisture issue.

 John's rock house
 John installing copper cladding to the exterior of the house.

The exterior of the house is faced in stone and copper cladding.  After a project of this magnitude, John and Sharon were not interested in high-maintenance materials. The walkway from the driveway to the front door is New York City subway grating. It spans above the rock from 0 inches to 6 feet. “The snow just falls through,” remarked John. “I never have to shovel.”

 John's rock house

 Photo by Andy Bly

The treads of these stairs are actually joists from a building that was being renovated on John’s block in Manhattan.  “There was a 40-foot dumpster on the street and I paid the carting company $400 to drive the whole dumpster upstate.  Great score.”

John and Sharon tried very hard to utilize eco-friendly mechanical systems. A geothermal option for heating and cooling didn’t prove to be very practical. “The wind was too sporadic and solar required the removal of the shade trees,” so in the eleventh hour, they decided to go with propane which already provided the temporary heat for the construction project.

It didn’t make sense to remove shade trees in order to collect solar power, to then run air conditioning, to provide cooling that they barely needed in the first place. The house is air conditioned but because the shade trees are so effective, it’s only used three or four times a year.

 John's rock house

 Photo: Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

 John on the lowest of the five levels.

Another interesting feature of this unique house was the installation of an interior light well; 3-1/2’ x 7’, and located next to the master bedroom. “It actually snows inside the house.”

 John's rock house

 Photo by Andy Bly

 The exterior of the house.

Sadly, John’s “pop” passed away a few years before he and Sharon even found the site, never getting to see the culmination of a dream born on that father-and-son walk in the woods so many years ago.

View a gallery of building progress photos here.


   

Tagged categories: Architecture; Building design; Cladding; Concrete slab waterproofing; Copper; Design; Engineers; Environmentally friendly; Liquid-applied coatings; Modernist architecture; Residential; Waterproofing

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/31/2011, 7:32 AM)

Really neat approach - and I'm glad they talked about moisture and using low-maintenance materials.


Comment from John Fauth, (5/6/2013, 9:03 AM)

There are some really powerful stories within that house. It's a terrific creation on its own, but made all the more enjoyable by what it represents.


Comment from ELIZABETH FRENCHMAN, (10/4/2013, 11:02 AM)

LOVE this story and the house. If you have to do new construction in the woods, this is the way to do it. Good point about the shade trees vs solar power. Thank you.


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