Floating Above: Princeton Architect Michael Farewell Designs a Striking Home in Bucks County, PA.
Photo Courtesy of Michael Chiarella
By Anne Levin
During the week, David and Pam Anderson live in a house on the grounds of Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut, where David is pastor. Since the house doesn’t belong to them, the couple don’t have to do much in the way of maintenance.
But from most Thursdays through Saturdays and whenever they can get away, the Andersons can be found doing the things that homeowners do at the house they built in a valley in Springtown, in Bucks County, Pa. “This house has become our pleasure,” says David Anderson. “We work on the land, we chop wood, we mow the lawn. We baby it.”
Designed by Princeton-based architect Michael Farewell, the house is nestled in a valley, cut through by a stream that runs to the Delaware River. It has evolved in phases. First was the 2,800-square-foot living space. The core is a kitchen for Pam, a serious cook who is the author of several cookbooks. Just above the kitchen is an open room that started as a writing studio for David, but has changed purposes from time to time.
The second phase of the project was the addition of a garage, with bedrooms on top, connected to the main house by a spacious outdoor pavilion. Phase three is supposed to be a writing studio separate from the house, but that may or may not happen. As the couple and their family have lived in the house, other priorities and ideas have come up along the way
The Andersons and Farewell are friends who have known each other since 2001, when David was pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church in Solebury, Pa., and Farewell designed a new building when the original burned down.
“They loved Bucks County and wanted to come back after moving to Darien,” says Farewell. ”They were looking for some land to build a small weekend house that they’d perhaps retire to someday. I went with them and walked the site they had found. It was densely treed and rocky, and very special.”
Pam Anderson remembers the site as “raw land, kind of jungly. There wasn’t even a path.” Her husband adds, “It was a beautiful piece of land with a stream running through it—way overgrown, but you knew that with that stream, it was going to be beautiful.”
The couple looked at properties nearby before making their decision. “They had these grand vistas, and we realized that if we bought something like that, we’d have to put something grand on it, which we didn’t want to do,” said Pam. David adds, “We chose this because we knew we could chuck a house in there that wouldn’t have to be a grand manor. Up the side of a little embankment, you feel like you’re in a treehouse.”
Photo Courtesy of Michael Chiarella
For Farewell, it was the topography of the 11-acre property that dictated the design. “Every site has a kind of twist or fold to it,” he says. “Some have a unique condition that is more or less evident when you approach it. A lot of the work we do has been based on this idea of discovering what this feature might be, and making it more evident.”
Taking the setting—“a transitional valley with a cleft to the ridge and then a broad plain that stretches to the river,” Farewell says, “there was this idea of a vertical cut, made of two planes of masonry and then the horizontal stretch of the valley beyond. So the building starts with a vertical space and transforms to a horizontal, almost like a bow tie that twists. And that’s the essential idea—taking the twist and making it a one-room house with a kitchen and writing studio at the center. It heightens the landscape and the topography within the mass of the building.”
Materials, too, flowed from the landscape. “When we first went, it was a very rainy day, and it felt like it could be something out of Noah’s Ark,” says Farewell. “There was this idea of a ship-like house that touches the earth lightly. It was kind of intriguing. It translated into a house that floats above the land in a way, with a deck that goes all the way around it.” The copper, fish-scale sheathing is a “hull-like form that twists and turns over the volume,” he continues. “It will, over time, weather to a kind of gray-green patina.”
David Anderson admits that on paper, he and his wife couldn’t visualize all of Farewell’s concept. “But we were very much led by his vision,” he says. “When we chose this design, I couldn’t tell what the front wall was, exactly, until Michael twisted some paper to torque and show me how it kind of curled down. In some ways, I didn’t get it. But I trusted that it would be kind of remarkable in some way.”
The house is on an east/west axis. The sun comes into the kitchen in the morning, and over the course of the day, swings around to the west. “The light is allowed to infiltrate the house in unexpected ways,” says Farewell. “It splashes over the walls and floors.”
The Andersons knew they wanted the kitchen to be the focus of the house. “Food has been my life,” says Pam, who has been cooking as long as she can remember. She was executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and with her two daughters, has the food blog threemanycooks.com.
A space next to the kitchen that was originally intended as a downstairs bedroom has become an elaborate bar. And the outdoor pavilion serves as yet another food-focused area; the scene of many outdoor meals. “We had no idea of the impact the deck was going to have on our lives,” says David. “It’s another huge room, essentially another dining and living room with a hot tub. The center of everything used to be the fireplace inside, and now we have this whole space outdoors that is open to us.”
“The bar area is kind of a case for living in a house and not doing something up front, but rather living there and letting it tell you what it wants to be,” Pam says. “It was the same with the loft above the kitchen. It was supposed to be a TV room at one point, but might turn into a meditation room. Now, we know to just let it sit and keep checking on it, and see what it turns into.”
The house, and its setting, are striking. “For the look, it was very reasonable,” says David. “We’re not your typical people who build houses like this.”
But the project continues to evolve. Pam has plans for the deck at the far end of the house, an area where the family often has lunch. “We want to do an infinity pool down there at some point, which will give it a purpose,” she said. “And of course, I want to build a pizza house someday.”
The fact that the couple and the architect are friends added to their trust in his concept. “Working with a friend can be a great thing,” says Farewell. “You know the clients as interesting people, and it’s a chance to really connect and give expression to that. They were extremely hands-on, engaged clients. We had lots of conversations and shared ideas about how to do different things. It has been a real collaborative effort.”