It was a steel

Photo by Deena Feinberg

So necessity is the mother of invention. At what point does idealism, based on a fresh assessment of a changed reality, kick in and stretch our idea of abode into new territory?

Andy and Linda Weintraub are seated at a sturdy table made of a revived piece of bowling-alley floor within the main loft-like living room and kitchen. Their home is on a Catskills-facing hillside outside Rhinebeck. The place is sparsely but expertly furnished and detailed.

Sticks and stones play off corrugated steel. Favorite objects lend the space instant warmth. Light spills in from banks of porch doors on either side. A bank of stepped windows at the westward-facing wall inside this curved room feels womb-like, akin to the inside of Monstro the Whale from Disney’s Pinocchio.

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Outside are rock gardens, cold-frame gardens, circular gardens, and numerous ducks, chickens and geese. The main house is a special-order quonset-hut-style structure whose fluid use of space and clear, clean sense of a measured, practical and homey interior is mirrored in two smaller such structures. One, nearby the main house, is a two-car garage. The other holds the couple’s offices.

Andy, a former professor of economics who works as a consultant to the legal industry, is also a magician. Linda writes art books and is a key academic for the rising Eco-Art movement. She originally moved to the area as director of the Edith Blum Art Center at Bard College.

The home was built a dozen years ago. The couple had been living in Rhinebeck, in an older Victorian that they used as a shell for something that fit their needs. They felt their lives needed a change. Or their changed lives needed a better setting to match their new needs.

“We had become a grandma and grandpa, and figured we had to be in the country, with room for animals and gardens,” Linda says. She and Andy wanted to better match their ecological beliefs and encapsulate their sense of creativity. Yet they wanted enough room for large family visits.

And keep their expenses to a minimum, Andy adds.

“We wanted to be integrated back into the land in as broad a way as possible,” she explains.

“This project was a real lifestyle change,” he sums up. This was the eighth home they had built together, for themselves and their changing family. But it was the first time they had started with the land.

Linda Weintraub was working with a broker to find a good piece of land in the Rhinebeck area. The broker mentioned an interesting property that was beyond their budget.

“Please, can I see it?” Linda begged her.

On a miserable day in March, leaden-skied and dripping with snow-melt, they came out to the meadow their house now sits on the edge of at the end of a long series of back roads above the renowned (and quite literal) Fork in the Road where routes 199 and 308 meet.

“We found ourselves in a significant budget crunch,” Andy recounts, explaining the beginnings of what would be a major project designed to economize their spatial needs.

The two speak about the process. They considered the cost of lumber at the time, and the loss of efficiency that occurs in re-creating wooden houses in steel. Linda started bringing back the results of daily research trips to local libraries. They settled on the materials available through a company called Steelmaster, which offered steel framed buildings made from recycled cars, costing under $15,000 a structure.

At the time, Andy says, no one was using these buildings for residential uses. Andy worked with engineers in the company’s Virginia headquarters on all the buyers’ requirements, from window and door openings to floor joists and electrical and heating needs.

The Weintraubs first built their office building, which they lived in for three years before committing to the other two structures. They assembled materials: redwood floors in scrap pieces, polyurethane molding on the inner steel, covered with spray concrete to stiffen and insulate the walls, bendable Aspenite and other organic elements for finishes.

They decided they wanted a geothermal heating system. A heat-retention ventilation system for the main house circulates fresh air constantly, lending a palpable buoyancy to match the soaring interior heights and cornerless sense of seamless light. They planned loft spaces and nooks and crannies that would keep them a one-bedroom home with the space to sleep an extended family with three kids, their kids, and everyone’s friends.

The result was an aesthetic couple’s home without wallspace for art, with a sense of something fresh and new that would make any subsequent return to a traditional home space anticlimactic.

 

Linda and Andy describe time they had spent in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where they worked their way through several old Pennsylvania-Dutch stone houses and barns, expanding them to fit their needs at each stage. They had created silo-like towers for bedrooms and play areas, and large, soaring spaces for entertaining and communal creativity.

Always, the two explain, they had done what they could on the cheap, working alongside the contractors they could find who would bring their practical dreams to life, scrounging materials and figuring out what could be done to best maximize space.

“We were learning through experience,” Linda says. “We never had any money.”

With eyes to a treasured chandelier hung here, and a sideboard there, it’s hard to imagine such a story. In the sparsely arranged and carefully selected setting, however, one can sense a life of choices, all acknowledged and given their due. One senses echoes of the back-to-earth ideals of early the 1970s building and crafts movements. But there’s also a refreshing openness to newer opportunities and styles. The shared sensibility is geared toward the support of creative thought. It’s a home for salons but also for great family gatherings.

Andy describes how cave-like and cozy their first nights in this strange home were. Linda speaks about how it made every other place they visited seem wasteful. And it got them both thinking about how we’ve gotten so stuck with the idea of colonial homebuilding, squared walls, and such antiquated ideas.

“I started a recent lecture by commenting on how I lived in a home without walls or ceiling,” she said. “Best of all, it all makes perfect environmental sense.” No maintenance or biodegradibility quotient is needed in such a structure. It will last.

Andy points out how it just didn’t make economic sense to go solar, especially with what he called the “ethical considerations” of using others’ tax dollars in the form of grants and incentives to do so.

The buildings arrived on a single truck. The buckets of bolts needed to put the things together took up more mass than the building parts themselves. “Four or five days and it was up,” Linda says.

The main cost was for laying slabs, bringing in electricity and plumbing, and finishing. “We have this enduring fascination with stone buildings,” Andy says. “And yet you have to wonder whether those same builders wouldn’t be using steel if they could today.”

Newer designs are less familiar. “It was hard getting this through the planning boards, and financing was complicated,” Andy says. “But it always is with something different.”

Linda speaks of the life filled with art she’s lived since inhabiting her wall-less, ceiling-less home. She practically beams with the freshness of the space that surrounds her, inside and out.

The place cost $75 a square foot to complete. It costs $325 a month for heat and power, including all electricity for the three structures. Combined with the couple’s gardens, raising of several sheep for meat purposes each year, keeping of chickens and building of a pond system for raising fish, the Weintraubs seem to have actually realized most of their sustainability dreams.

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