Homage to a Barn

A long lean line of interlocking spaces
Durell Godfrey

    ‘I think of it sort of as a modern barn,” John Berg said of the house on Old Stone Highway in Springs where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Desmond, and their 2-year-old son, Jules. Clad in cedar, with a metal roof, it has a full wall of glass doors in front and back that fold completely out of the way to let the breeze pass through.

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When Mr. Berg, an architect, designed the house, he turned for inspiration to a century-old barn a few miles away. He had spent six summers there, living in yurts and “painting and making movies” with friends. The land, owned by Mary Bayes Ryan, an artist, is the former site of Fireplace Lodge, a girls camp at the end of Springs Fireplace Road.
“There was a barn on the property that was this big communal space. It had a center aisle and sliding doors on either end. It’s a wonderful, very tall, open space with a hayloft. Under the hayloft there were more intimate spaces,” Mr. Berg said. He wanted a house with that same feel.
He and Ms. Desmond met in 2004 at Burning Man, an annual gathering of thousands in a Nevada desert, who camp, entertain one another, and create art installations.
“His best friend was camping with one of my best friends,” Ms. Desmond said. “I knew within 20 minutes of meeting him that I was going to be with him.” She was living in San Francisco, he was in New York, and they dated long distance for six months before she moved east to be with him. “It was pretty shortly after that. that we starting building this house,” she said. “I looked at it as symbolic of starting our life together.”
Mr. Berg had been searching for land in Springs for quite some time. When he got a call about the lot on Old Stone Highway, he looked it up on Google Earth. Within 15 minutes his mind was made up, Ms. Desmond said. “He bought the property sight unseen.”
Part of the reason he leapt at it was its size. At just over an acre and vacant except for a small, decrepit farmhouse near the road, which he didn’t think could be salvaged, it was unusual for Springs: narrow at the road, but 600 feet deep. Its long, lean shape — it’s just 87 feet wide — was a determining factor in his design.
Mr. Berg created a strand of spaces, set in a jagged line. First, one comes upon a detached garage, then a one-story children’s or guest bedroom section connected by a hallway to the main living area, which includes a high-ceilinged living and dining area, open to the kitchen. A loft-like second-floor master suite is above the kitchen. It includes an office space and sitting room, where a door leads out to a private roof deck.
The folding doors on the front and back of the living space, all with windows above them, make a part of the house “transparent,” Mr. Berg said, and give a sense that the backyard and the front are connected. Outside the kitchen doors is a covered outdoor eating area and beyond that a pool and Jacuzzi. The aspect of the design that pleases Mr. Berg most is “the experience of interlocking spaces between inside and out.”
“The layout of the house, the whole relationship of the kitchen to the living area, Jenny had tremendous influence on that,” Mr. Berg said.
“I was very insistent that the kitchen had to be the nucleus of the home, and I wanted a garden close by,” Ms. Desmond said. On one side of the house, she has a gated garden filled with flowers, lettuces, and herbs.
An old upright piano is in a corner of the living room. “It’s traveled with me wherever I’ve lived,” Ms. Desmond said. When her husband changed the design to carve out space for the piano “it was sort of a turning point in our relationship,” she said with a smile.
“Before I met John I was not a modernist,” she said. “Part of that is I didn’t realize how wonderful living in a modern space could feel. It’s incredibly freeing. . . . Now, I’ve become more of a brutal modernist than he is.”
The 2,200-square-foot house is modern, but warm. There is artwork in every room, most of it given to them by friends.
“Traditionalists like it, and they can’t figure out why,” Mr. Berg said. “That tension really makes it interesting.”
While aesthetics informed Mr. Berg’s design, energy efficiency played an important role, too. “We built the house to be as environmentally friendly as we could,” Ms. Desmond said.
The house is constructed of three basic materials: cedar, which is a highly renewable wood and is used inside and out, basic concrete block, which sells for “$1.50 off the shelf,” and the metal roof, which is gray. In time, all will weather to a similar tone and blend with the natural surroundings.
“We experimented with a bunch of fairly simple but important green building techniques,” Mr. Berg said. The walls and ceiling are structural insulated panels, commonly called SIPs panels, which are airtight. They were made in Vermont based on Mr. Berg’s blueprints. With panelized construction, houses come together quite quickly once the initial site work is done. “I think the neighbors were really freaked out and horrified,” Mr. Berg said, when the panels first arrived by truck.
In researching them, Mr. Berg found his way to Bill Chaleff, an East Hampton architect. “He was unbelievably generous with his knowledge and his time.” Mr. Chaleff, who was designing “green” houses long before the rest of the world seemed to catch on to their benefits, recommended Peter Germano of Water Mill as the builder. “He’s a real problem-solver,” Mr. Berg said. “He was a saving grace, because it’s an odd house.”
The floors are polished concrete with radiant geothermal heat, and the house is positioned for passive solar and, someday, solar panels on the roof. With all the windows and doors that open to maximize even the slightest breeze, air-conditioning is needed on only the hottest days.  
“We made ourselves sort of guinea pigs,” Mr. Berg said. Being new to the South Fork as an architect, he wanted the house to be “a billboard for what I’d like to do for people,” he said. Designing your own house and then living in it day in and day out, Mr. Berg said, “you learn a lot from your mistakes and you learn a lot from your successes. There are certain things I’d do differently and others I wouldn’t change at all. It has influenced all the other residential projects I’ve worked on out here.”
Mr. Berg, who has had his own firm, Bergdesign Architecture, since 2001, now has a home office in Springs in addition to his small office in New York, where the couple still live part time in a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village. By contrast, their house in Springs feels huge.