This unusual custom retreat for a spiritual couple from New York City began as a request for a simple cabin in the woods. The couple was familiar with the rural Glen Spey area, about two hours outside of the city, after years of coming to a Buddhist temple there and spending much time in its community. Their initial search for a site was broad, however, and their goals for its program were small. But, as residential professionals know well, the beginnings of a project offer just a hint at the path it might take.
Studio MM, a 10-year-old firm led by Marica McKeel, AIA, has built a practice of making its clients’ second home dreams come true. Its buildings are modern, modest, and muscular. Their straightforward solidity anchor them in their wooded settings, providing orderly refuge within nature’s haphazard bounty.
The firm is also highly collaborative with its clients, which helps make the somewhat mysterious process of residential architecture less intimidating and more accessible. All this attracted the clients to Marica’s work and led to a journey as compelling as the ultimate destination. “They realized we were a young firm—eager and excited,” she says. Indeed, the 10-year mark is often when a talented firm begins to get the more sizable commissions (and healthier budgets) that unleash creativity.
This journey took the clients, architect, and builder from the notion of a small cabin in the woods somewhere to a stone-clad quartet of linked pavilions on 115 acres, just a short, meditative walk to the Glen Spey temple.
One can’t help but wonder if some divine force guided them all to this fortuitous site. It was, after all, not for sale. “Somehow my client managed to contact the owner by email,” Marica recalls. “The property had been left to her and she didn’t want it, so she agreed to let him buy it.” The wooded parcel comprises a meandering creek that suggested the siting for the house, but there was yet another obstacle to its ideal location.
“We all agreed that we wanted the house on the western side of the property and that it would be best to enter from the south,” says the architect. “But there was a problem with the access, and we thought we’d have to enter from the north.”
Somehow, the client fixed this problem, too, and secured access to their preferred entry point. Says Marica, “He just solved the issue.”
The Four Pavilions
With the macro problems resolved, it came time to develop the program and tweak the home’s exact siting and orientation. “Our clients are very well traveled and they had rented a ton of places,” she says. “They were extremely involved in the placement of the house. They walked every inch of the 115 acres, and I’d meet them out there and traipse through the snow with them. They were up on ladders with compasses all through the process. We spent an entire day just siting the orientation to the temple.
“They wanted total privacy and a view of that creek. Part of the year, it’s underground but you can still see the mist rising from it, and in the summer it’s greener there. You can hear the water sometimes, but it was less about the water than about how nature is transformed by it. They wanted to see the sun coming down through the trees, and they wanted the interior spaces to be very bright and filled with natural light. That led us to a lot of windows.”
Although the program had blossomed from the small cabin idea, it was still a fairly compact plan—a main bedroom suite, an open living area, a meditation room, a guest suite that could double as a home office, and a one-car garage. Total square footage was just a tad over 2,400.
Because the house is in service to the owners’ spiritual goals, the architect used the process of meditation as inspiration. “Meditation has a series of corridors to it, so we brought that into the concept. We developed three scheme options for them, and we went through each one and considered how they would live in it.”
The clients ended up picking the most radical scheme, their program pulled apart into separate floating pavilions connected by a corridor, with the main orientation to the temple and creek. “They wanted the house to be elevated, while preserving the topography of the site,” she adds. “Above all else, they wanted a feeling of tranquility.”
The meditation pavilion aligns with the temple but does not focus on it directly. Instead, at the far end of the room, windows are pushed to the perimeter in a frame around the Buddha figure and a series of thangkas, or inspirational paintings. The physicality of nature is sidelined in this space, in favor of internal exploration. Sliding doors can close it off fully from the rest of the house.
In contrast, the main living spaces and bedrooms are glassy pavilions immersed in targeted views of nature and the creek and bathed in natural illumination. Eastern light dominates the terminus of the rooms, but because the pavilions spread apart like a fan, they allow southern exposures as well. The windows—a mix of operable and fixed units—extend beyond the ceiling plane to conceal hardware for window coverings.
The owners’ request for a low-maintenance house drove the selections of stone on the exterior and the predominantly concrete floors (there are wood floors in the meditation room and main bedroom).
To achieve their floating appearance, the pavilions cantilever off the foundation walls, so those concrete floors become structure. “We had a great builder, but he was certainly stressed,” Marica recalls. “The floors had rebar and radiant and had to be done in a single pour resulting in a finished surface. And for the cantilevers, we had to figure out how to build formwork and structure and then take that formwork up. So we built the ground up to support them and then dug them out again when they were done.”
Masons culled much of the stone for the exterior cladding from the site, and cut and chiseled the odd-sized pieces to fit. “It was amazing to watch—they are true artisans. It’s a very thick stone veneer hung on big steel angles with a rainscreen. There are stud walls behind it, a lot of rigid insulation, and foam between the studs.” Metal cladding sets off the stone walls, and ipe covers the garage and deck to set them apart from the main house. Trees were cleared in a small perimeter around the house, to give it breathing room from the dense forest, and along the nearly mile-long stretch of driveway.
Pulled apart into separate components, the house is nonetheless grounded and centered in its varied views of nature and her uplifting, tree-dappled sunlight. Hovering just above the forest floor, it elevates the experience of this world and offers a glimpse into other journeys yet to come.
Plans and Drawings
Glen Spey, New York
ARCHITECT: Marica McKeel, AIA, principal-in-charge; Colbi Campbell, project architect, Studio MM, New York, New York
BUILDER: Hobbs, Inc., Saddle River, New Jersey
PROJECT SIZE: 2,408 square feet
SITE SIZE: 115 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Brad Feinknopf
COOKING APPLIANCES: Gaggenau
ENGINEERED LUMBER: Weyerhaeuser Trus Joist
ENTRY DOORS: Singcore Doors
HVAC: Mitsubishi split system
KITCHEN SINK: Kohler
KITCHEN SYSTEM: Bulthaup
RADIANT HEATING: Warmboard
SLIDING DOOR: Centor Doors and Windows
TILE/TUB/BATHROOM SINKS: Porcelanosa
VENT HOOD: Best
WINDOWS: Marvin Ultimate Series