The first time Linda and Andy Weintraub saw the meadow and woods that were to become their vibrant "homestead" in Rhinebeck, it was raining. Strewn with granite and bordered by streams, the 11 acres of raw land abutting Camp Ramapo promised them spectacular views of the Catskill Mountains and provided a setting both bucolic and close to the community. However, it wasn't just the view or location that enchanted them. Even in the gloom, they could feel the vitality of the property abounding with life.
Linda, an artist, writer, and curator of "vanguard art," focuses especially within her work on exploring the environment and materials—both natural and unnatural—that surround us. Andy, an economist, founded the Rhinebeck Center for the Performing Arts, which is near the site. This was to be the eighth home the couple had designed and built (their previous homes were in the Village of Rhinebeck and in Pennsylvania, near Temple University, Andy's employer) and they wanted it to be rural. They immediately fell in love with the property and bought it.
The couple began researching building methods—everything from straw bale to rammed earth—but nothing fit both their budget and vision of sustainability. It was Andy who first suggested steel.
Steel: not the first thing that comes to mind when envisioning a home pulsating with life, one that blends seamlessly with the rich, diverse flora and fauna that now surround it. Steel, however, is economical and efficient. It's lighter than wood, won't biodegrade, and is one of the few materials that recycles efficiently. "Much of the US steel manufactured today is recycled from discarded automobiles," Andy says.
After discovering Steel Masters, a company specializing in prefabricated industrial buildings, the couple realized steel structures could be beautiful and innovative, as well as efficient. Most steel buildings are based on traditional post-and-beam "boxes," but this company offered something different: an arch. "The arch is the strongest structural form," Andy explains. "Once it's up, you can do anything inside because you don't have to support the center."
They eventually erected three arched buildings on the property: a combined office and workshop, a garage, and their main house. With no need for additional framing, sheeting, or even roofs, each exterior shell was completed within two days and left almost no construction waste. Not wanting to ruin the interior shape of the arch, the couple opted against the usual fiberglass installation and instead found an expert in polyurethane spray insulation. They drilled a well and installed a geothermal pump to heat and cool the house. The result is a highly efficient sealed envelope; the arched ceiling encourages natural circulation and a heat-recovery ventilation system keeps the air fresh, preventing mold. It's a human habitat as comfortable and carefully designed as the habitats for the chickens, geese, and lambs on their property.
Andy estimates that the final cost of the construction was two-thirds that of the usual suburban home. Eighteen years on, their energy bills remain low and the buildings have required very little maintenance; a Gavalume (zinc and aluminum) coating keeps the steel from rusting. "If this were a conventional house," he notes, "we'd have to start thinking about a new roof and shingles. We never even worry about painting the outside."
"You don't have to be rich to build a house that's utterly sustainable," adds his wife.
Obstacles and Growth
The innovative approach the couple took in creating their home is just an example of the larger ethic that governs their property, and their lives. They've built an intricate and interdependent farmstead that allows them to be as environmentally responsible and independent as possible, but they were initially daunted by the task of turning the raw, wild land into a human habitat.
For Linda, the turning point came with the stone. She initially considered the abundance of granite on the property an obstacle, until a friend suggested she try building with it. This opened her to the potential of the rest of the property. "I began to see this land not as an artist might, which is to look at the view, but to realize that we were living in the midst of resources," she says. Each year the couple found new ways to utilize the property's resources.
Now, three gardens intermingle with habitats for pigs, ducks, geese, chickens, and lambs. The couple are able to harvest most of the protein, fruit, and vegetables they eat from the land. "I plant extra vegetables to feed the animals," explains Linda. "What the animals don't need, the plants are very happy to get. The animals are meat and also provide fertilizer. It's an example of how everything is supporting everything else; all life contributes to other forms of life." At the edges of the land, there are a fruit orchard and berry patches, as well as beehives. The couple tap the maple trees for syrup in winter and have inoculated logs so they can harvest mushrooms. Permaculture is "essentially many different kinds of growing and designing systems incubated into a holistic, complementary pattern," says Linda.
Stones from the site form the walls of a moat that allows water to flow around the buildings and enrich the soil underneath. They also make up the walls of a recessed fire pit and an amphitheater. "People are another type of life we want to welcome," Linda explains.
The home's interior is a beautiful progression of stone, water, and wood also sourced from the surrounding landscape. The entrance hall, lined with stone from the property, has a fish pond that reflects the wall-to-ceiling rectangular windows facing west. A staircase made from tree limbs leads to an open living/dining/kitchen space encompassing the entire top floor. Loftlike ceilings arch over wooden walls and floors. Sliding glass doors cut into the arch's curved sides, lead to two decks, and add light to the open space.
Downstairs, an aviary of finches makes a lively corner in an otherwise tranquil den. There's an office where Andy does consulting work. A long hallway lined with bark wallpaper and cork flooring leads to a bedroom with multiple windows, a walk-in closet, and a blue-tiled bathroom framed with branches. Throughout the house, trundle beds, couches, and loft spaces provide guest accommodations for the couple's children and grandchildren.
In September, the couple's oldest granddaughter will be married on the property. The ceremony will be held in the amphitheater. Over time, their house of steel has blended into the landscape and now sits naturally with the woods, gardens, and meadow surrounding it. "People say, 'It's so industrial,'" Linda says. "But what's really industrial? A white box, which is what most houses are, or something curved, like the hills in the area, that reflects the gold or red at sunset?"