Built with recycled barn timbers and finished with rustic details, a new summer cottage embraces many centuries-old traditions of waterfront retreats
Location: Keuka Lake, NY
The week before their June 2000 wedding, the future Mrs. Sue Williams turned to her groom, Rick, and said, "That's it. I've had enough." At the time, she was standing in a 6-foot-deep trench, in the pouring rain, installing the underground conduit that one day would bring utilities to an 850-square-foot summer cottage the couple was building as a wedding present to themselves. But with the big event just days away, it was time for the bride to draw a line in the mud. "I was filthy, I had details to arrange, and I needed a manicure," says Sue, now retired from a print-production firm. So she abandoned Rick at the job site—until after the nuptials, that is.
Perhaps it was overly ambitious to schedule a major construction project and a marriage ceremony for the same summer. Still, the building was planned long before the big day. When they were first dating, Sue had taken Rick sailing on Keuka Lake, one of the quieter of upstate New York's vast Finger Lakes. And, dreaming of summer getaways together, with Rick's black Labrador, Ziggy, the couple had purchased the 5-acre plot there two years before deciding to tie the knot. "It's only an hour and twenty minutes from our home in Rochester, so we knew it would never be a hassle to get here," says Rick, who recently retired from the mining business.
The couple had originally intended to renovate the old cabin on the property, but the animal-infested structure turned out to be completely unsalvageable, right down to a crumbling drystack stone foundation. So they decided to tear it down and start over with a new house. "We wanted a cottage that looked like it had always been here, like it belongs on this lake," says Rick. That sentiment, drove all of the couple's design decisions.
The plan for the house began with a shape—a T—that was dictated by the town planning and zoning commissions, because the building had to replicate the footprint being demolished. The couple did, however, win approval for two refinements to the layout: They were allowed to expand the building by 12 square feet (the size of an old outhouse that they were razing), and they were permitted to build the house 4 feet farther from the water than the original. That meant building into a high bluff—and that the back wall would have to be a thick, windowless, concrete retaining wall—but it was worth it to gain room in the front of the property for a strip of yard between the house and lake.
To construct a residence that appeared vintage, they turned to architect Chuck Smith and project manager Dan Long, of New Energy Works. The Farmington, New York, design/build firm specializes in timber framing that creates a house frame of posts (verticals) joined to beams (horizontals), with the spaces in between filled with nonstructural walling (see "Nuts & Bolts"). The couple had seen Smith and Long's work at a friend's home and decided that timber framing would give their project just the kind of handmade, deep-rooted person- ality they were looking for. They chose antique oak posts and beams for added character.
"We salvage timbers from mid-nineteenth-century barns being torn down by developers," Smith explains. "Sue and Rick didn't want us to resaw the wood or alter it in any way." They wanted the ax-hewn, timeworn members to give the house's interior the gravitas of tradition, craftsmanship, and age.
For the exterior, the design duo took their cues from the area's centuries-old beach houses. "A lot of those charming buildings have a mixture of surfaces, textures, and shapes because they expanded over decades as the family needed more space," Smith says. He mimicked that kind of organic growth by creating a complex three-gabled roof and by filling the open corners of the house's T-shaped footprint with a timber-frame deck and screened porch—both constructed from freshly sawed lumber that had no nooks or crannies, where water could puddle and the resulting rot damage the wood.
"A lot of new construction is too big for its site, and that's why people sense that it doesn't fit," says Smith. To prevent this house from appearing overly tall, they tucked the top-floor bedroom into a loft under low eaves.
Siding the house in a variety of materials contributes to the built-over-time look. The 525-square-foot walk-out basement is clad in local fieldstone and topped by 1-inch-wide rough-sawed hemlock boards and battens (a simple system of vertical planks with smaller trim pieces covering the seams). Structural posts supporting the deck and screened porch are set in square, poured-cement bases also clad in fieldstone. And upper-level exteriors are covered in cedar clapboards.
The Williamses spent their honeymoon on Keuka Lake hard at work, serving as general contractors and tackling many of the simpler tasks alongside the New Energy Works crew. The newlyweds roughed in electrical wiring and laid the living room's wide-plank pine floor; Rick even installed interior moldings around the windows and doors. They whitewashed exposed timbers throughout the rooms to make them look older and built a rustic cedar-log porch railing.
As construction progressed, details were refined. Originally, for example, the upstairs loft bedroom was intended to have walls, but the owners decided instead on a railing that leaves the sleeping quarters open to the living area below. In fact, there's only one interior wall—around the bathroom—so the rooms seem much larger than they are. Numerous windows, khaki-painted wall tones, and cathedral ceilings add to the airy feel.
Sue's eclectic mix of antique wood furniture, refurbished junk-shop finds, and a few handcrafted pieces complete the home's casual, beachy aesthetic. All of which makes the cabin a relaxing place to summer and host parties for their closest friends and family.
The same people who celebrated the couple's wedding ceremony in gowns and tuxedos now commemorate each anniversary—and spend numerous other summer weekends—in considerably more relaxed attire: bathing suits and T-shirts.
These frequent guests know that they should feel free to help themselves to another cocktail, and that no matter how far into the water they throw a ball, Ziggy will always retrieve it. "We love it here," says Sue. "This house makes summertime really special."
Take this Home: Under-Eave Storage
Nuts & Bolts: The Heart of a Barn
Timber framing is an ancient construction method in which posts (verticals) and beams (horizontals) are joined to form the essential structure of a building. Some 73 brawny timbers hold up the Williamses' cottage—without the benefit of a single bolt or nail. Instead, they use hand-carved mortise-and-tenon joints: a projection on one member fits into a pocket in the next and is locked in place with a peg pounded through holes in them both.
This type of joinery dates to the Middle Ages and was common until the mid-1800s. That's when, thanks to innovations in machinery and railroad transportation, uniform lumber and inexpensive nails became readily available, and the stick-framing techniques still used today superseded traditional timber framing.
The Williamses' timbers—mainly hardwoods hickory, beech, and oak—were recycled from old barns. But most of his clients select remilled lumber (old timber that's freshly sawed), says architect Chuck Smith.
More conventional was the choice of prefab wall and roof panels. These SIPs (structural insulated panels) are sand-wiches of 1/2-inch oriented strand board filled with 3 1/2 inches of superinsulating foam, which are then applied to the timber frame. This pairing, Smith says, yields twice the insulation value of standard 2x6 walls insulated with fiberglass. The 25 percent increase in construction costs will be recouped over time in energy savings, he explains.
For more on timber framing, log on to the Timber Framers Guild website, tfguild.org.