The Gilded Box

By Tuesday, May 19, 2015 Permalink 0

Nature and modern design come together when the architectural team at Austin Patterson Disston creates a unique getaway within the wetlands.

When is a box not just a box? That was the question posed recently by McKee (Mac) Patterson, partner at the architectural firm of Austin Patterson Disston.

In this case, the “box” was actually a rectangular-shaped home that was purchased by his clients in Pound Ridge, NY. The space, originally built in the 1960s, overlooked a pond that was part of the area’s environmentally protected wetlands.

The homeowners, a family with school-aged children looking for a quiet weekend retreat, wanted to keep the home’s distinctive modern feel but make the space welcoming enough to invite family and friends over for a swim or barbecue.


It seemed like the perfect property, yet it presented some challenges when the time came to renovate the structure. The clients were looking to completely rebuild the home, but due to existing town regulations, they were not permitted to do so.

Environmental Challenges “We did have a lot of limitations with this project, yet it was completely understandable given the location,” Mac explained. “The pond was so clean, immaculate; there was no algae growth. So the town was really cautious about maintaining that.”

Although they were largely forbidden to make any significant changes to the landscape, Mac and his team were given permission to selectively clear the area. Doing so allowed them to maintain the older trees while cutting back the many seedlings that had overtaken the space.

Once the land was cleared, they were able to take inventory of the property. The structure itself was still incredibly sturdy, but it was badly in need of an update due to years of neglect. Both the siding and windows needed to be replaced. Nearby was an abandoned tennis court and dilapidated shack. And due to the condition of the subsoil, there was no visible garage or parking area.


Raising the Roof Yet, with all of the seemingly glaring problems, the odd shape of the home was seen as the biggest issue. “Aesthetically, it looked like a giant white box,” Mac said. “So I decided to make into an ornamental box.”

One unique design feature of the space was that the first-floor ceiling was originally only eight feet high. Meanwhile, the basement boasted a 12-foot ceiling, making for an odd dynamic in terms of laying out the renovation.

To help address this, Mac decided to take the unusual step of lowering the first floor. Doing so provided some much-needed overhead in the main living areas. Plus, there was still plenty of space below to create a playroom for the children once the work was completed. The attic was then opened up to allow the family to benefit from the fantastic views of the pond. Dormers were added to the roof, while strategically placed windows of various sizes lit up the space in a playful manner. The team even managed to add a gigantic screened-in porch and a separate family room off the back of the house without increasing the footprint

Because the home’s total dimensions were non-traditional, the team created a galley-style kitchen that ran the length of the space. One end covered the butler’s pantry, while the other covered the attached living space and dining areas.

Spodek_06Spodek_07Mac made sure to use contemporary building materials such as bamboo, metal and glass whenever possible to give the space a more modern façade. However, he utilized wood (in floorings, furnishings and cabinetry) as a way to add depth and personality to the home. “In my mind,” he explained, “the more you mix those elements—the wood surfaces and stone surfaces—the more warmth you get out of it, so it’s not just a monotone box. The wood goes a long way towards softening that up.”

Nowhere in the home is this design theory more evident than within the master bathroom, where the solid wood cabinetry plays a prominent role alongside the porcelain and sterling-steel fixtures.

“Adding the wood makes the master bathroom feel like a modern space,” said Mac, “yet it also helps to blend naturally with the surroundings, to bring an almost earthy element to it.”

The Steel Sash With all the changes, it was perhaps the addition of the steel sash that commanded the most attention once the renovations were complete. The structure, which created a grid-like pattern for the entire home, was largely inspired by the designs commonly seen on prewar buildings in New York City.

Spodek_17“I always think something can be modern as long as it has textures that feel comfortable,” explained Mac. “It’s part of why we used the steel sash with the frosted windows. The sash is frosted, so the sunlight gets diffused as it is coming through. You can see a room beyond it, but you can’t see everything, so it made the box a little more spacious. It was a great way to warm the space without making it feel too industrial.”

All the interior changes served to meet the clients’ goal of creating extra space without it seeming too overly fussy. “The clients wanted it to feel like an open plan, but not look like one,” said Mac. “So they didn’t necessarily want the kitchen to be totally connected to the dining area or the living room. That’s when the partition came in handy.”

Beyond the Box Along with the work on the main home, the architects had to tackle the issue of driving up to the garage area. Because of the marshy wetlands surrounding the property, approaching vehicles could descend into the landscape itself. Ultimately, Mac cleverly resolved this problem by installing a buried driveway leading to the nearby garage.

“We basically utilized these little cups that held topsoil, but were strong enough to sustain the load of a car or lightweight truck,” he said. “This way, you can drive across the lawn and not sink in and damage it. The nice thing is that when you look from the house, all you see is green as opposed to driveway.”

Team members removed the abandoned tennis court and shack, allowing them to clear away some poor subsoil and other materials in the process. The couple wanted a separate swimming pool area, but it had to be located a certain distance from the pond to maintain the water’s ecological balance. So Mac placed the pool in the cleared area along with a new pool house/guest house.

Finally, a special garage building was added that would not only provide storage for cars and summer gear, but also house a barbecue area just above, on the roof. This layout gives visitors a chance to take in some of the property’s most scenic views. It also allowed the design team to build up the house without disturbing the wetlands that the homeowners had come to cherish.

Pound Ridge Bath

The project took about a year to complete, during which time the original family of four expanded to include a baby daughter. This development gave the architects an added incentive to create a memorable space that would serve as the family’s respite from their fast-paced life in New York City.

“What we felt was really important was adding texture and color. And, that it was the clients’ house—the thing they were looking forward to. They couldn’t wait for Friday nights when they could come up,” Mac concluded with a laugh. “And I know it’s been successful because periodically I hear back from them.” Which means that the earlier riddle about the box had turned into a long-lasting solution.



Architect: Austin Patterson Disston Architects Southport Office 376 Pequot Avenue PO Box 61 Southport CT 06890 203.255.4031

Quogue Office 44 Quogue Street PO Box 1707 Quogue NY 11959 631.653.1481

Interior Designer: KA Design Group Ken Alpert 595 Madison Avenue 8th Floor New York, NY 10022 212.223.0314

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