No place like home

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

A landscape accustomed to unusual, eye-catching architecture — think yurts in Grog Kill, or Clarence Schmidt’s twice-built, twice-burned, foil-wrapped masterpiece atop Ohayo Mountain — will soon welcome an addition to the genre, as a soaring, steeple-topped house rises on a wooded hillside off Wittenberg Road.

Tyrone Featherly, a Nantucket-based designer and builder, is crafting the distinctive dwelling for a Brooklyn couple, Burke Heffner and Veronica Varlow, whose previous house on the site, a one-story cottage, met the fate of Schmidt’s mirrored creations when it was destroyed in a fire last spring.

In its place, Featherly, working alone so far, is building a house that integrates his own dreams as a designer with Heffner and Varlow’s imagination as homeowners. In an impromptu interview at the site on February 13 and a follow-up phone conversation the next day, the builder, who himself plans to settle in Woodstock, described what’s going up on the level portion of a steeply sloping, four-acre plot at 996 Wittenberg Road.


The stacked-block foundation is in place and framing is well under way. Locally milled pine is the material of choice for the exterior siding. When finished — in May, if all goes as planned — the two-story house will contain about 1400 square feet of space. The main features downstairs are a kitchen, a dining room, a guest bedroom, a bathroom, an office area, and a living room with a sunken wood stove encircled by a built-in bench seat. A spacious master bedroom and bathroom occupy the second floor.

So far, so normal. In most other respects, however, this house won’t look much like anything else with walls and a roof.

For starters there’s the roofing material, a high-density, waterproof foam that is sprayed into place. The energy-efficient foam will also be deployed more typically, as insulation for the walls as well as for the roof, which should soon be finished. Featherly originally put the foam to innovative use when he installed it 16 years ago in a house he built for himself on Nantucket. Through his friendship with Varlow’s father, a fellow resident of the island, he was offered the Woodstock-area commission.


High ceilings

Back on Wittenberg Road, the interior ceiling beneath the roof will resemble the inside of a circus tent, with the foam securing a canvas draped over cables. The effect seems eminently suitable for Varlow, a k a The Danger Dame, a singer, dancer, and burlesque performer, and Heffner, a gaffer, or lighting technician, who works on television and theater productions, according to Featherly. The couple have owned the property for about six years, he added.

The ceilings are high: 12 feet on the first floor, from 9 to 16 feet on the second. “You can get a lot of volume in a small footprint with high ceilings,” said Featherly, who described his approach to building as holistic and sculptural. “I do the foundation, framing, and windows according to a design idea for the whole house.” For the current project Heffner developed the original concept and produced a sketch, whereupon Featherly set to work on drafts. Heffner plans to install the wiring and take care of interior details once Featherly’s exterior work is done.

Following the couple’s instruction, the house is aligned along a central north-south axis. The structure’s two forward-facing walls are pitched outward from bottom to top. The resulting diagonal where the walls meet not only creates a towerlike effect, but also may enhance structural integrity, Featherly noted.

At its highest point the tower’s crowning steeple, or spire, is set 45 feet above ground level. The spire is octagonal, with five of its sides awaiting windows and the frame to be clad in cedar. All four walls ascend to the spire’s pinnacle, from which cables will descend. Inside, the steeple will accessible via a ship’s ladder. If the ceiling canvas evokes a circus tent, the steeple and the house’s windows — narrow, vertical-oriented rectangles, with inset panes and a distinctive trim at the top — bring to mind a church.

Fourteen wide wooden steps carry a visitor from the driveway to a deck that wraps around the front-facing walls and is sheltered by the overhanging roof. The front entrance is round — a portal, as Featherly calls it. A custom-built double door will fill the space.

“This is a design that I’ve wanted to do for a while,” said Featherly. “It’s a new technique: a frame with a tubular steel structure, covered with a membrane and then tied together with foam.” Thanks to Heffner and Varlow, the builder got a chance to sculpt his vision. Asked how he would describe this style of dwelling, he replied, simply, “dream house.”++


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