From the Ruins of a Bucks County Barn, a Modern Castle Rises
When my client brought me to her property for the first time, there wasn’t much to it.
It sat along a bucolic stretch of Meetinghouse Road, just off the beaten paths of New Hope. But the only structure there was a dilapidated barn that was years past the point of serving a purpose. Eight Bells was still a ways in the future at this point. I’d designed other barn-home renovations, but none of them were as challenging as this one appeared to be.
The walls were spotted with large holes. The roof looked like it was about to succumb to the next big storm. The floor was nonexistent. And the foundation was starting to erode in spots.
I’ve done this long enough that I can see through pretty much anything and imagine the possibility, but I was straining that day to align my client’s grand plans with the ruins that were literally crumbling in front of us. She and her husband, however, saw something in it, so I would, too. Or, at least, I’d fake it until I could.
Minimalist doesn’t mean austere
My fears about the barn were a little premature. It didn’t turn out to be in better shape than I thought or anything like that. Rather, it became a slog to reach the point when we could even do anything with it. Three years passed while all the necessary building permits and approvals were secured.
Early on, at least, the builder moved a trailer onto the property, and my client and I started meeting there regularly. During those sessions, we began filling in the details. Gradually, the look and feel of the home became something tangible. Sometimes it was just the two of us. Others, the architect joined us.
It was pretty obvious to me from my introduction to the client that we were going to be fast friends. I admired her right away. She’s kind, compassionate, and outgoing. She also has exceptional taste. In spite of what we were working with, she wanted a modern, minimalist home, one with lots of glass and steel. There was very little doubt in those early days. We started moving decisively toward that end and only gained momentum with each element.
In part because of that and also because I worked as an architect before I became an interior designer, she asked me to be a part of her meetings with the architect. It was a way of ensuring there’d be little deviation from the course we’d started to map out.
When we weren’t in the trailer, planning, we were in New York, shopping. Even though she and her husband had a home there, I found a ton of pleasure in introducing her to designers and shops all over the city, like Boffi and a Scandinavian chandelier-maker who’d just opened a gallery in Soho.
Without a deadline looming right overhead, we relaxed, for the most part, and became very meticulous about finding just the right furniture, fixtures, and fabrics.
What about the walls?
Reality set back in almost as soon as construction began. A steady stream of issues felt more like an actual stream after a week of heavy rain through much of the four years that it took to piece this modern, minimalist barn-home together. (That’s right; it was about seven years, all said and done.)
It turned out the foundation wasn’t really eroding so much as a significant part of it was missing. An engineer solved that issue with a genius and minimally-invasive idea. But that crisis was no sooner solved when another cropped up. And another.
One of our biggest headaches proved to be what to do with all the electrical conduits and HVAC ducts. The walls are fewer and farther between in a barn. And most of them are, more or less, exposed to the studs. Much as we overhauled the existing barn, we went to great lengths to ensure that we maintained much of the original integrity, restoring missing beams and limiting many of flashiest structural features to the new-construction additions.
We ultimately opted to run the conduits and the ducts along the ceiling, which gave the space a loft-like feel that played right into our modern, minimalist aesthetic. That it also created a very cool geometric pattern was icing on the proverbial cake.
A few of my favorite things
Like any designer, I couldn’t name a favorite among my projects. They’re my kids. But Meetinghouse Road, undoubtedly, will always hold a special place in my heart. The client remains a good friend. And it’s hard not to be really proud of what we accomplished with the home after investing so much time and energy in it.
Almost every corner holds a positive memory for me—though, in some cases, that memory overrides an earlier moment or two that makes me cringe—but there are a few parts that make me beam, even now, because the result so far exceeded my expectations.
The massive steel-and-glass doors at the entrance are one. They’re meant to be a modern update on the traditional barn-door design. What they ended up being is a fitting first impression for a dramatic home. The craftsman, who I’ve been working with ever since this project, also designed the steel-glass-and-wood stairwell, which became another signature feature the instant it was installed.
The ground-level floor is filled with highlights, too: the stainless-steel bar and fireplace; the uber-minimalist kitchen (which is not the home’s main kitchen); the bathroom, whose walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in little metal coins. And there’s a wall in the lounge that came to represent just how attuned the client and I became.
I wanted to highlight one of the barn’s original stone walls by bolting some thick glass panels to it. The idea came from a recent trip to Pompeii. Most of the ruins there are exhibited the same way. As it turned out, she’d visited there too and loved the idea.
To their guests, the glass wall looks like another modern, minimalist extension. But she and her husband can appreciate it as a symbol of deeper meaning, which, when you think about it, is how a home should be. Interior design plays a central role in our lives, but it can’t be expendable. There needs to be more than meets the eye.