The RLW Cabin: energy efficient, minimalist style
Text | photographs: Barbara Winfield
Tucked into the rich forested area of Barryville, NY sits a modern rectangular structure: The RLW Cabin. This newly constructed, eco-sensitive 2,300-square-foot cabin is the brainchild of owners Larry Cohn and RJ Millard.
A little over six years ago, Cohn, an architect, and Millard decided they needed to offset their hectic urban life with a country home. On a plane a few months later, Cohn picked up a paper napkin and drew a simple rectangular house on a sloped piece of property. The sketch, inspired by a loft-style lodge where they had stayed recently in Shohola, PA, was the first step in the RLW Cabin design process.
With the sketch in mind, Cohn and Millard began the search for a building site. After some looking, they found the ideal lot for sale on Mapes Road in the town of Barryville.
After completing the design, Cohn and Millard began putting together a “dream team” to help bring their vision to life. Hector Muñoz-Baras of V.Baras Architects in Glen Spey, NY, which specializes in modern solar home design, became the architect of record and began to work with them on construction drawings. Muñoz-Baras urged the couple to have the new structure follow the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified model of energy efficiency. Other team members included Jim Akt of Jim Akt Excavating in Barryville, NY and builder John Lust of Lust Woodworks in Glen Spey, NY, who is well educated in LEED standards. Sara Emerick and Maureen Mahle of Steven Winter & Associates of New York City also provided LEED consulting.
In addition to meeting the complex LEEDS criteria, Cohn considered the difference between an air-tight house that would keep in the heat and air conditioning, or one with natural ventilation. Air tightening causes humidity that may lead to mold-growth and dust mite infestation, a leading cause in respiratory problems. “Although energy conservation was a major factor, I was also very concerned with creating a healthy atmosphere,” says Cohn. To ensure this, an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) was installed to provide fresh air while minimizing heat loss in the winter months.
‘Platform and cave’
“We didn’t want the design of the house to compete with the natural beauty of the surrounding trees and landscape, so the structure is a simple bold form that sits within that setting rather than blending in,” says Cohn. “That being said, the deep brown—almost black—color of the pine tree bark in the rain was actually the inspiration to stain the exterior wood siding a dark shade. The bright red door was a simple way-finding device, and introduces the idea of punches of color within a monochrome pallet.
“While I am a committed Modernist architect, I do not believe in living in a glass box,” says Cohn. “The house design is taken from a combination of the primitive ideas of ‘platform and cave.’ The home is a viewing platform set among the trees to look out into the wilderness through the large glass openings on the south facade, but at the same time, the more solid walls on the opposite side give the feeling of enclosure and security, as though one were in a cave.”
Handsome and smart
The large deck makes the small house footprint seem much larger. Its area is loosely divided into two sections by the large concrete form that continues from the inside of the house. On the living room side, in season, are deck chairs and, on occasion, the dining room table (which rolls) for dining al fresco. On the other side, the outdoor shower sits partially obscured from the public, but with an open view of the trees. Neither bathroom uses tile; instead the upstairs shower is covered in back-painted glass and the shower downstairs in zinc sheets. Both shower basins are slop sinks in pre-cast concrete.
The house is not only handsome; it has brains, too. In winter, the sun is at a low angle in the sky and shines deep into the house interior. The exposed concrete absorbs heat to help keep the house warm at night. In summer, with the sun higher in the sky, the roof overhang protects the interior space from overheating, which allows the house to function without air conditioning. The house is sited so the longer wall sits on an east-west axis with windows facing nearly due south, which allows for the use of passive solar energy use. In addition, the cabin uses a radiant hot water system in the floor.
Reuse and reclaim
Throughout the building process, the couple used as many reclaimed materials as they could. “We also used left over materials that would normally be thrown out,” says Cohn. Some of the recycled items used were:
- Old fire doors salvaged from a New York City building reused as bedroom doors.
- Reclaimed barn lumber used to clad the fireplace wall, and to construct the bed in the master bedroom.
- Antique table legs for the dining room table.
- The family room bar, an original ‘70s Scandinavian design, found on the street in New York.
“Living in a small apartment in New York City, we did not have any furniture or art pieces to move to the house,” says Cohn. “We had to start from scratch, and on a budget.” They started with the lighting. The round glass ball pendant over the dining table was discovered at a furniture and lighting fair in New York City. The couple began collecting rugs. “The big black shag in the living room is from a carpet vendor in Marrakech,” says Cohn.” The cow hide in the master bedroom is from a trip to South Africa to visit Larry’s grandmother.” These and other rugs help with sound absorption given the large concrete areas in the home. Oversized comforters were added for warmth, and green plants in colorful pots to “bring some green inside.”
As the house neared completion, Millard searched for art pieces. Their first piece, an oversized painting on billboard canvas by surfer artist Pat Conlon, set the tone for the house. The piece, “Vive,” leans casually against the wall in the living room to create a laid-back feel. Most of the other pieces were found at art fairs and include a tiny Japanese graphite image that hangs next to the fireplace, and a monochrome photomontage placed over a Modernist-style chrome and velvet rocking chair to serve as a focal point. Finally, the inside mural was hand-painted by Brian Gilmartin who, with Mark Chamberlain, painted the interiors in the house.
Designed with an open floor plan that visually connects the living room with the kitchen and dining area, the interior has the elegance of streamlined—yet intimate—space. Cohn and Millard carved out a chic, cohesive sitting area by limiting the major elements to a palette of pale gray mixed with black and charcoal gray. This same color palette is carried throughout the house with each room featuring one area of primary color. Each bright spot injects a sense of fun into the neutral palette; the result is a feeling of cheerful modernism.
Clean lines and contemporary furnishings make this small home seem expansive. The RLW Cabin demonstrates that eco-friendly design doesn’t have to compromise on style; it’s a perfect example of how saving energy can be a beautiful thing. For more photos, visit huisworkshop.com.