Sheltering Stone: A Stone Home in Upstate New York

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Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
With the exception of the bathroom and the mudroom/pantry, all the rooms face south with panoramic outdoor views through banks of windows that maximize the home’s passive solar effect. Though the stone gives the house a massive, solid feel, its overall scale is modest—just 1,850 square feet.

Houses today don’t get any more local–or enduring–than the passive solar stone dwelling that Tim and Jackie McCarthy built in a clearing among the wooded Adirondack foothills in upstate New York. For starters, the couple used almost exclusively local materials: fieldstones cleared a century ago by a farmer making room for crops, sand from their property for concrete, and white pine from just twenty miles away. They also tapped personal resources: Tim’s expertise as an architect and their own physical labor. By following age-old stone building traditions, the McCarthys created a modern home that reflects their environmentalism, love of the land, and desire not to be encumbered by a heavy mortgage.

Their house blends local geology–mostly granite–with modern architectural geometry–a vaulted living room ceiling, light-colored beams and cabinetry, and large south-facing banks of windows. These airy, contemporary elements contrast with the rustic stone walls, keeping the 1,850-square-foot house from feeling dark or cold.

In choosing to work in stone, the McCarthys were inspired by regional heritage and a tight budget. “Old-time farmers built with whatever materials were available–not to make an environmental or social statement like people do now, but because they had no choice,” says Tim. The couple’s economic situation left them little choice either; fortunately their property supplied all the free stone they needed. “Even if we’d had a large budget, we still would have built green,” Tim admits. “We didn’t want to import materials from far away because so much energy is used to create and transport them.”

Between a rock and a good place

In 1995, Tim was a cash-strapped architectural intern with a baby on the way and the yen to build something of his own design. He and Jackie briefly considered erecting a tire-filled earthship, but it required adobe clay finish, which isn’t indigenous to the Northeast. They decided instead to preserve the integrity of their twenty-two acres of rural land by building a structure that might have stood there anytime after European settlement.

Tim studied–and improved upon–the simple, inexpensive slip-form stone technique developed by Scott and Helen Nearing, contemporary homesteaders whose book Living the Good Life (Chelsea Green, 1970) describes building their stone and cement house. Slip-forms are movable wooden panels that temporarily contain rocks, which are piled between the form and the insulation. When a twenty-inch-high section of rock is in place, you pour concrete over it, allow it to dry, then slide the forms up the wall and repeat the process. Tim devised lightweight frames for the forms to move on, which enabled him to create a gracefully angled exterior wall that tapers from two-and-a-half feet at the bottom to a narrower top.

For the next two summers, the couple, their friends, and occasional hired workers gathered rocks and built the walls. “Now that my back no longer aches, it’s pleasing to know we handled each stone as it was laid into our walls,” says Jackie, an elementary school math teacher. “You pick up a stone, twist and turn it, and think about where to put it. I got to know which rocks would fit perfectly in corners, and I’d set aside especially beautiful ones to cover the fireplace.”

Once, while hiking in the mountains, Jackie found what she considered the perfect red stone and insisted on dragging it home. Today she doesn’t even know what happened to it. “I segregated it out and warned Tim not to use my special rocks for anything else,” she recalls. “But it took so long for us to build the walls that I lost track. I’m sure it was pilfered, because when Tim had just so much cement left, he would grab rocks from my pile to save the time of going out to the field to gather and clean new ones.”

After two summers of weekend work, the masonry was finally accomplished. Tim estimates the two-and-a-half-foot-thick, insulated, double stone walls cost less than $3,000. “By using local materials and your own labor, the cost of building walls can be very low,” he says. “The rock was free, the sand for concrete was free, so aside from buying portland cement, we had few expenses.” He even managed to acquire free stress skin insulation from a local maker who had discarded mis-sized panels. “We’d bring a case of beer as a gift, gather some oddball panels, and stuff them in the walls,” he says. “Because they’re covered in rock, their mismatched thicknesses don’t show.”

It took another year to install the beams, roof, windows, and floors and to complete the inside work. Finishing touches such as the masonry fireplace and bread oven took even longer than that. At that point, the McCarthys had enough equity in the house to take out a small loan for the final work. Until then, however, their home was completely mortgage free. “If the green building revolution is going to work, it has to become accessible to the common person–not just the wealthy,” says Tim, who offers green architecture principles to his clients, many of whom are also budget conscious.

Modern stone age

None of the stereotypes about stone dwellings applies to the McCarthy house–it’s not damp, cold, musty, or dark, thanks to Tim’s use of glass and an open floor plan. The kitchen, living room, and dining room are one large area divided by the stone masonry stove, which is literally and spiritually the heart of the home for the couple and their eight-year-old daughter, Lauren. Though the spaces relate to each other, each maintains a separate identity.

The masonry heater burns wood at an ultra-high temperature for two hours, stores heat in the rock, then radiates heat for at least ten more. In the McCarthy house, it replaces the need for a furnace and works in tandem with a hot water heater to supply the radiant floor heating system. Opposite the fireplace, on the side facing the kitchen, is the bread oven–one of Tim’s Christmas gifts to Jackie, an avid baker and cook.

“Company always congregates in the kitchen–no matter what size it is,” laughs Jackie, who creates sumptuous meals featuring her homegrown organic fruits and vegetables. To keep the kitchen open and accessible, Tim designed it as a U-shaped bar that flows into the dining room. Unlike most kitchens, it has only one wall into which the refrigerator and cabinets are recessed. “While I’m cooking, I can talk with Tim if he’s in the living room or working at the built-in computer center that’s just off to the side,” says Jackie. “Lauren usually does her homework at the kitchen bar while I’m on the other side getting supper ready.”

The family loves how all the spaces relate to each other, allowing them to feel together even when they’re in “separate” rooms. “There’s such an easy, relaxed feel to our main living space, which is great for entertaining,” says Jackie. “And the flow is perfect because the bedrooms are down the hallway in the more private part of the house.” Because they too were designed with windows overlooking the deck–another family gathering spot–the bedrooms feel quiet but not isolated.

Along with the sheltered feeling innate in a stone house, there’s a sense of permanence and stability that comes only from rock. “It took a long time to build this house, but it was worth the wait,” says Jackie. “I think the farmer who originally cleared the stones from his fields a hundred years ago would be pretty pleased to see what we built using those same materials from his land.”