House of Glass: Beechwoods House

Text | Photographs Erin Vanderberg


Around 1980, architect Michael Chojnicki moved east from his native Ohio, settled in Inwood, NY and took a job at a Manhattan architecture firm, RKT&B. Like many New Yorkers before him, he discovered the Catskills, and the course of his life was forever altered.

His first weekend home was an old farmhouse outside of  Barryville, NY, where he spent the better part of the ‘80s. When he was ready to relocate to the area fulltime, Chojnicki set his sights on a patch of farmland in the Beechwoods area, just above the Villa Roma resort outside Callicoon, NY. With an investor, he purchased 60 acres divided into eight lots of around seven acres each, and set about  building his home on one of these lots. In 1990, Chojnicki moved into the Beechwoods House, a structure of his own design that incorporates green principles ahead of its time, representing Chojnicki’s long-practiced sustainable design aesthetic. The contemporary home is built into a hillside with glass along the entire southern face. He and his family have been appreciating the views ever since.

“What’s wondful about this house,” said Chojnicki, “is that you experience the entire day, all day long, no matter what kind of day it is. It’s really nice to have that attachment with the outside even when you have to work inside.”

On the level

There is nothing dark about the Beechwoods House. In addition to all the glass and the many skylights, Chojnicki designed the floor plan to be open throughout. In nearly every room of the house, there is a way to loop back around into another room, a feature Chojnicki says is very popular with youngsters. “Kids love this house,” he said. “No dead ends!”

On the basement level, where the house is bermed into the hillside, two bedrooms, an atrium and the office open directly to the outside. Only one bathroom and a storage area are closed off from the light. A second bathroom downstairs has a special built-in skylight bumped out to allow for sunlight. The bathroom also has a unique deep tile tub tucked behind a stone fireplace.

On the main floor, the living and dining areas extend the length of the house, opening onto a wraparound deck. The kitchen sits behind a living area, its southern wall a window through the living room. On the north side, a large bluestone foyer with a sky-lit garden area greets
visitors from front and side entrances. A laundry area and bathroom occupy the center of the house, a hallway tunneling through, so that every walkway leads to another room.

Up a narrow staircase is the master bedroom, that Chojnicki calls the “aerie.” Indeed, the turret-style room offers a bird’s eye, 360-degree view, opening out onto a rooftop deck lined with thick rubber rollout roofing and crafted with built-in drainage. On many summer nights, Chojnicki can be found outside there, sleeping on an air mattress under the stars.

Dollars and sense

Constructed over 20 years ago, there are no solar panels, no geothermal wells and no wind turbines at the Beechwoods House. Yet through passive solar design, radiant heat flooring and energy conservation, Chojnicki’s family uses about 350-400 kilowatt hours of electricity per month for their 3,800-square-foot home that includes his architectural office. An average monthly electric bill at the Beechwoods House is just $45. A “passive” design utilizes natural advantages. It pays off in spades at Chojnicki’s house. The abundance of windows makes the flicking of light switches a nighttime-only activity. The substantial amounts of concrete and stone in the walls and floors act as a thermal mass to retain heat during the day and emanate it back in the cooler hours of the evening. The bermed basement design takes advantage of the earth’s consistent temperature of about 56 degrees to add warmth to the house. Finally, pocket doors allow heat zoning in an otherwise open floor plan. The potential for a summer greenhouse effect is averted through the open floor plan, leading up to the bedroom aerie that exhausts the hot air. Adding to these energy-efficient design elements are very conscious energy conservation efforts by Chojnicki and his family. They reduce phantom energy loads by use of power strips, compact fluorescent light bulbs and thermal curtains.

Incorporating possibility

Chojnicki’s business, MJ Chojnicki, Architect, P.C. (www.thebeechwoodshouse.com, 845/887-4181) has been in steady demand for designs that are remarkably open, yet cozy and livable, structures that play to the strengths of their surroundings and utilize passive sources of energy. “I’m a strong believer when I practice architecture in thinking about possibilities for both the present and future, and I incorporate a way of making these possibilities easily implemented down the road.”

Over his 25-year career, Chojnicki has completed about 250 design projects, including new design, additions, barn conversions and renovations. The mainstay of Chojnicki’s work is residential, including last winter’s featured Our Country Home: the Wesley Barn in Forestburgh, NY. Commercial examples of his design can be seen at The Fat Lady Cafe in Kauneonga Lake, NY and the Wurtsboro Shopping Plaza in Wurtsboro, NY, to name just a few. He has continued to earn certifications in sustainable design and alternative energy, and has taught the subject at BOCES.

Now, Chojnicki is setting his sights on evolving his practice as a sustainable design consultant by assisting clients in understanding the various renewable energy options: what they do, how they work and what their true costs are. “You don’t want to put every single sustainable design idea, principle and technology—geothermal, passive solar, solar voltaic, wind turbines—into your house. You must study, assess and determine the most efficient way to suit your particular situation,” said Chojnicki.

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Michael Chojnicki’s
Three A’s of Sustainability
• Attitude: Realization of and     commitment to being more energy conscious
• Awareness: Understanding your built environment through education
• Action: Implementing the knowledge gained into practice and becoming involved

Local Resources:
Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Design (SASD):  www.sasdonline.org or
845/482-4764
Sustainable Energy and Education Development Support (SEEDS):
www.seeds.blogspot.com or
570/224-0052
Sullivan County BOCES Adult Education Program:
www.scboces.org or
845/791-4070
Community Action Commission to Help the Economy (C.A.C.H.E.):  http://www.sullivancountycache.org/energyservices.htm or
845/292-5821.

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