Harmonious Living: The Keoppen barn in the Beechwoods
Text | Photographs: Erin Vanderberg
As a kid growing up in western New York, Mark Keoppen developed an affinity for barns. Come summer, he would spend his days with his neighbor, an old timer named Howard Taft, who made his living working the land with a few dairy cows and a few horses. Mark would sometimes drive into town with Mr. Taft in his half-ton pickup to make milk deliveries, but more often he would keep him company while he worked in the barn or just hang out in the quiet hay mow. “Barns are sanctuaries to me,” says Mark. “[In the 1800s], they spent money on barns first and houses second. You could always tell the success of a farm by the size and the detail that they put in the barn, because that was their life. Without a decent barn, who were you? “These building are tremendous, and an important piece of history,” says Mark. Now, Mark and his wife, Wendy Townsend, are putting the finishing touches on their barn-cum-modern home, nearly 12 years after they first cleared the home site.
Their new home is the “ultimate green building,” says Mark. The barn is completely recycled, for one, and all the additional wood in the structure came from within 50 miles of the home. It’s built for passive solar with a glazed southeast face to allow warm sunlight in, and with thermal mass inside to store the heat. It’s super-insulated with Foilflex lining the exterior walls and roof. A modern LP boiler currently charges the radiant heat system in conjunction with a brick-lined water heater, but Mark and Wendy will soon circumvent the need for it with the addition of an outdoor computerized wood gasifier that will bypass the LP system and speak directly to the boiler. Regarding the radiant heat, Mark has built up the ground floor in such a way that he’s augmented heat transmission (without revealing the exact procedure, “thermal mass” and “surface contact” are big hints). The basement is passive geothermal, remaining at a steady 45 degrees. And when New York State affords solar incentives for residences, they’ll add an array for their electricity. Also, they’ll bring nothing in that would emit volative organic compounds (VOCs) and all of the wood finishes, floor and wall, are low to no-VOC.
While the couple has been constructing their new home, formerly a Diehl family barn near Jeffersonville, NY, they’ve been living in another barn structure on their land, formerly a DePasquale family barn from Beach Lake, PA. There, Mark and Wendy coexist harmoniously with seven members of the Cyclura genus: two Cuban iguanas (Che and Luna) and five rhinoceros iguanas (Sebastian, Emo, Ava, Mina and Oliver). While Mark specializes in the art of construction with his company, Toad Hollow Barn Restoration (barnsandhomes.com), Wendy is a writer, and her first two works take their inspiration from her pets.
The first book was co-written with a veterinarian. “Iguanas: A Guide to their Biology and Captive Care” was inspired simply because there was not enough to read about lizards. After spending 40 years caring for and rescuing iguanas, Wendy was an authority on the subject. She later attended Vermont College and received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults. Her second book, “Lizard Love,” published by Front Street Books in 2008, is a YA novel about a girl who is transplanted to Manhattan and finds comfort in the people and animals at a reptile store. Her third published book, “The Sundown Rule,” will be released this summer. She is at work on a third novel and her first picture book is in the hands of the illustrator Lindsay Barrett George.
The iguanas were a major consideration during the construction process and, when the economy improves, an addition will be built in their honor: a glass vivarium on the western side of the barn. “It will be nice to walk into an area where you can pull up a chair and watch them do what they do,” says Wendy. She grows several beds of greens around the property to feed the animals—nasturtiums, collards, arugula, turnip and mustard greens.
When it comes to family meals, the kitchen is a central feature of the house. “In both our barns, the stove was the first item that came in the door,” says Wendy. As Mark puts it, “We hate wimpy flames.” The French range in the new barn, a La Cornue, was scored online at a huge discount as the last of that color and trim kit—exactly the combination they desired. The price fell within $10 dollars of Mark’s tax return that year. “We counted that as destiny,” Wendy says. It goes without saying that Mark and Wendy are into food. Mark jokes about his library as the place where he will keep his one book, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Mark and Wendy have always appreciated barns for their openness, and minimalism drives their aesthetic. “I’ve always imagined putting up a barn and having nothing in it,” says Mark. “But since you can’t live in a space like that, the next best thing was to have a design that no matter where you are in the structure, there is a visual path through the building at every angle—and yet, you feel held. You’re in an open space, yet it’s defined.”
Scouring New York City streets and barn rehabs in the Delaware Valley, Mark and Wendy have collected certain items that are finding new purpose in the structure. Perhaps the most cleverly adapted objects are the 10 three-foot-by-six-foot greenhouse panels that now constitute the upstairs walls. Mark had a few to choose from, so he refinished the best frames with the cleanest glass. Other items of note: an eight-and-a-half-foot-by-three-and-a-half-foot door salvaged from one of Wendy’s childhood apartments is now the interior basement door; an inheritance of black walnut from Mark’s gunsmith uncle will become the winter entrance on the north side of the house; and a weathered porch column has been transformed into the legs of the kitchen island. Other unusual features include other doors and knobs, an industrial sink and a musical window frame. A little luck adds to the aesthetic, too. The maple that was logged for the home site turned out to be tiger maple, valued for its resemblance to the tiger’s eye gemstone.
In tune with the land
The pair enjoy a special harmony with their 22 acres of land and wildlife. Mark has envisioned himself in this place since he first started visiting in the late 1960s, and Wendy happily moved here when they met. They keep some old dead trees (called “snags”) for bug food and bird habitat; they feed the songbirds, crows and a pair of turkeys who make the bird feeder a stop on their daily route; and tend to small gardens here and there. A pond near the house, surrounded by Siberian irises, supports the frogs and toads that lend their name to the road (and Mark’s business) and provide a little bit of night music for summer cookouts.
Wendy and Mark hope fervently that life in western Sullivan County will stay as it is now, pristine, simple and unspoiled. “We have a commitment to this place and I’ve never imagined myself anywhere else,” says Mark.