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Agricultural Reserve Sprouts Tiny House

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 15:20
Front entrance to the house, with the katsera tree at left

Even though New York State says new houses have to measure at least 800 square feet and existing ones being renovated must be at least 600 square feet, Matias Whitmore and his companion, Nikki Seelbach, have one that comes in at only 575 square feet.

Charlie Whitmore, Mr. Whitmore’s father, had bought roughly eight acres on Spring Close Highway four years ago, where a small cottage once housed a stable hand who worked for Pheasant Run, a riding academy, and, according to neighbors, a taxi company’s employees once squatted. 

Most of the acreage is zoned for agriculture and the legally pre-existing small house is on a 1.2-acre lot, which feels much larger because it is surrounded by such a big piece of property. It is where the couple wanted to live.

Although the South Fork is famous (or infamous as the case may be) for overwrought McMansions, they were finally able, after a three-month effort, to get the permit to go ahead with renovation of a tiny house.

As a landscape architect, Ms. Seelbach made the plans herself; no architect was needed to stamp the drawings. However, it took a lot of time to move forward because the record of approval of the existing septic system by the Suffolk Department of Health Services seemed to be misplaced. The couple was able to move forward after legally maneuvering to obtain the record. The next hurdle was meeting the energy code.

The Home Energy Rating System is, the industry standard by which energy efficiency is measured. It is also the nationally recognized system for inspecting and calculating energy performance. “A HERS rating evaluates your house on energy use per square foot,” said Ms. Seelbach.

As it turned out, it appeared the energy use per square foot was too high, so the couple had to put spray foam insulation in the walls and ceiling, radiant heat under the floorboards, LED fixtures, and insulate the exterior sheathing, in addition to buying what are called Energy Star appliances. 

At one point the energy use had become overefficient and they had to put a fan in the bathroom ceiling and cut an extra window for ventilation.

There is a Navien tankless hot water heater (a chaud faux in France) that also supplies the radiant heat — obviating the use of a furnace or HVAC system — which is concealed cleverly behind the wall separating the bedroom from the bathroom. It was tricky, Mr. Whitmore and Ms. Seelbach said, placing both the narrow vertical shelf space on the bedroom side and the shelf in the shower on the bathroom side without compromising placement of the heater.

Open plan was the way to go and they made a dining table themselves from “live-edge” wood given them by a cousin, which came from the trunk of a tree (they think it is local white oak) that was cut in slabs or planks. Mr. Whitmore’s cousin had cut and dried the slab and they planed and sanded it with four different grades of sandpaper. They used epoxy to fill the cracks. Wood scraps from a bigger house, from one of Mr. Whitmore’s friends, were used for the floor.

The furniture is a combination of antiques and Ikea along with estate sales. Ms. Seelbach owned a narrow chest of drawers from Ikea that fits perfectly in the bedroom at the right end of an open closet. They built the bed themselves with lots of storage underneath. The headboard is a hand-carved folding screen from India that Ms. Seelbach bought at a consignment shop in Millbrook, N.Y. She and her mother go on lots of shopping forays and she said they find amazing things.

The whole experience, starting in November 2017 with their moving into the house in mid-May 2018,  “has really made us conscious of how many things we own and how much we really need. We try to reuse as much stuff as we can.”

An extra element of serendipity is an organic vegetable garden, 30 by 60 feet, which they have planted in raised beds.  The garden is just east of a katsera tree that had gotten too big and so Matias Whitmore and Ms. Seelbach’s father dug it out and replanted it near their cottage. They also built a chicken coop.

Given the size of agricultural reserve, the couple plan to grow vegetables not only for themselves but also for the 35 employees — 6 women and 29 men — at Charlie Whitmore’s firm, Charlie & Sons, which focuses on landscape design and installation. 

Ms. Seelbach, who grew up on what she calls an unofficial farm, with a large vegetable garden, chickens, and 500 Christmas trees in Rhinebeck, N.Y., asked the employees what they wanted her to grow: The answer was beets, spinach, squash, cucumbers, green beans, shishito and other peppers, tomatoes, herbs, tiny watermelons, and all sorts of berries.

How’s that for a slice of heaven?

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