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The High-Performance Home, Part 3: The Rainscreen

Rona Easton and Lonn Combs of EASTON+COMBS, the award-winning architectural office based in New Marlborough, Mass. have allowed Rural Intelligence to look over their shoulders (and those of their client) throughout the construction process of a high-performance home going up right now. This is the second installment of eight (or so — this is construction, after all) in a series that is giving us a lens into the building of an energy efficient house in Egremont, Mass.

The exterior wrap is on and the house is closed in.

By Rona Easton and Lonn Combs

The site has been quiet this month, but the exterior plywood and the smart building membrane, or wrap, are in place (holes in the wrap to be cut later for windows), closing in the building and allowing interior framing to proceed.  We are looking forward to the upcoming delivery and installation of the triple-glazed windows.

Interior work can begin.

The exterior metal wall finish will be attached to the battens (the long strips of wood on the roof and soon the walls) which create a gap, or cavity, between the smart membrane and the finish, creating what is known as a rainscreen system — a key, passive environmental system that mediates between the exterior climatic conditions and the exterior wall.

Mockup built to study wall assembly.

The image at left shows a full-scale mockup we built to study the roof eaves at the corner of the building. The continuous, horizontal ventilation gap where the wall meets the roof is small, only half of an inch, but it is enough to allow air movement and small enough to minimize bulk water entering the cavity.

The complications, and maintenance, of gutters and roof overhangs are avoided because the system passively manages water rather than trying at all costs to repel it, much to our client’s liking. “I’ve found the experience of maintaining a house extremely frustrating, and wanted my new house to be very low-maintenance,” she told us. “I don’t want to have to find someone to clean my gutters ever again!”

As with the entire exterior wall assembly, the rainscreen system is another example of what we like to call an essentialist approach to design, where simplicity and practicality align perfectly not only with a beautiful aesthetic but also a finely tuned and efficient functionality.

 

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Posted by Lisa Green on 11/28/16 at 02:04 PM • Permalink

NWCT Kitchen Tour Expands To Include Food At Every Stop

By Shawn Hartley Hancock

The organizers of the popular kitchen tour in Northwest Connecticut have evolved their event, now in its 14th year, from an architectural OMG (who doesn’t like to walk through a gorgeous kitchen, or two, or six?), into a veritable moveable feast. Wise and down-to-earth tour organizers, by offering gourmet nibbles at every stop – think the snap of a radish or the rich aroma of a butternut squash soup – remind us of the original purpose of the kitchen, not as a place to gloat about fancy appliances or expensive cabinets, but as a place to prepare and enjoy food with family and friends. 

Upcoming on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the tour features a wonderfully diverse group of kitchens in the towns of Kent, Sharon and Lakeville, including a thoughtfully updated 1930s cottage kitchen, a restored 1810 Colonial with its original butler’s pantry, and even the grange kitchen of Hotchkiss School’s Fairfield Farm, complete with breathtaking views. The kitchen tour is a benefit for the Housatonic Musical Theatre Society, whose production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” is scheduled for next March.

Ticketholders will be greeted with delicious examples of great cooking, baking and preserving at every kitchen, as well as special demonstrations by local chefs and area food producers, thanks to the efforts of Deborah Nugent, the tour’s food chair for the last four years. “Deb networks with lots of area restaurants and caterers to arrange for donated gourmet nibbles at each kitchen,” says event co-chair Laurie Wadsworth. The group started adding food to the tour four years ago. “It was a pretty low-key effort initially, started by parent volunteers,” says Wadsworth. “But it’s Deb who has upped the ante.” It’s no joke that the nametag Wadsworth writes out for Nugent is “Foodie Extraordinaire.” 

The variety and inventiveness of the gourmet offerings seems to improve every year, if that’s even possible. On Saturday, homeowner Bill Littauer, whose kitchen is on the tour, will bake various breads and croissant throughout the day (ahhh, the aroma!), pairing his fresh-from-the-oven samples with organic fruit jams from Adamah Organic Farms. (Adamah will also make its dilly beans and pickles available for sampling and purchase.) At the Hotchkiss Fairfield Farm kitchen, members of the Hotchkiss Apiery Society will demonstrate how to make lip-balm from noon to 2 p.m. 

In addition to gourmet cheeses from Bull’s Bridge Inn and sandwich wraps from La Bonne’s, the Falls Village Inn will offer its grilled saucy shrimp, chef Susan Wolfe-Hill will make her vegetarian nori rolls, and Gifford’s will feature a new dish: chili-seared filet of beef on crostini with horseradish sour cream.

Favorites like The Marketplace Café’s chicken satay and the Villager Restaurant’s chicken wrapped in bacon with sweet and sour sauce join new dishes from Jam Food Shop (chicken chili), and Fife ‘n Drum (roasted cauliflower and sunchoke bisque). Dressings and marinades will be available for sampling from Krazy for Kazu, and Kent Coffee & Chocolate Company will offer a selection of chocolates and chocolate-covered fruit. 

Door prizes include contributions from the Inn at 34 in Hudson, NY, Millbrook Winery, Salisbury Pharmacy, Harney & Sons Tea, Salisbury Wines, Stateline Liquors, artist Colleen McGuire, the Pink Cloud Gallery, Jolie Maison and North Elm Home.

Local businesses sponsoring the kitchen tour and the March musical production include Belter Builders, Best & Cavallaro Real Estate, Churchill Building Company, Elyse Harney Real Estate, Herrington’s, Lindell Fuels, Inc., Mountainside, Northeast Radiology, Salisbury Bank, Sharon Hospital, Torrington Savings Bank, and William Perotti & Sons, Inc.

So now, you can come as hungry for tasty nibbles as you are for ideas and inspiration.

2016 Kitchen Tour to benefit Housatonic Musical Theatre Society
Saturday, Nov. 5, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Tickets, $40, available online in advance, as well as on tour day, and at the Salisbury Pharmacy, Kent Apothecary, and the Sharon Pharmacy. Tickets are also available at any of the kitchens on the tour.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 11/01/16 at 10:11 AM • Permalink

The High-Performance Home, Part 2: The Smart Wall

Rona Easton and Lonn Combs of EASTON+COMBS, the award-winning architectural office based in New Marlborough, Mass. have allowed Rural Intelligence to look over their shoulders (and those of their client) throughout the construction process of a high-performance home going up right now. This is the second installment of eight (or so — this is construction, after all) in a series that is giving us a lens into the building of an energy efficient house in Egremont, Mass.

Framing is going up fast.

By Rona Easton and Lonn Combs

“As I get older, I’m trying to simplify things,” our client has said, and that sentiment informs everything we do as architects. As the house framing quickly goes up, our focus turns to walls and the challenge of this mantra of simplicity within the complexities of construction.

Walls are a lot more complicated than you may think. Of course, they provide shelter and enclosure, but now they do a whole lot more and so they’ve had to step up their game and get really smart. As mediators between the outside environment and our heavily controlled interiors, walls need to multitask like never before, while also being aware of what is required of them in different seasons and climates, and being able to behave accordingly.

The rules of the game changed even further with the advent of airtight, heavily insulated buildings designed to stop the escape of energy. With thicker insulation, moisture moves through more slowly and the air tightness closes down the escape routes. Controlling moisture and preventing mold buildup is the fundamental challenge of our new, high-performance walls.

Mockup built to study wall assembly.

In the Egremont house, the exterior walls are over 16” thick, comprised of several important layers. It is hygroscopic, meaning that any moisture that gets in will be controlled and dispelled. You can think of it as a modern hiking or skiing jacket — it insulates and protects from rain while also breathing and allowing moisture to escape. It does this through several well-considered layers: thick insulation between the 12” vertical joists, smart membranes (high-tech membranes that know which way the moisture wants to move and know when it should be blocked or allowed to pass), and a ventilation space between the wall sheathing and exterior finish.

With such a thick wall, and so many layers performing different, essential functions, the I-joist structural system brings simplicity where there would otherwise be even more layers, most typically a double stud system which is essentially a typical timber framed exterior wall built twice, one outside the other.


Left: Garage/studio building. Right: Interior of the studio.

The I-joist system is also very builder and engineer friendly. Jason Smith of Frame to Finish, the sub-contractor to our GC, Little Deer Construction, loves this wall. With considerable expertise in traditional and advanced framing, he was thrilled with the ease and speed of erection, and the straightness and stability of the frame. There was no need for him to provide the usual temporary bracing to prevent the frame from buckling. Our structural engineer, Chad Lindberg of Taconic Engineering, loves the structural efficiency of the I-joists as wall studs, and the creative solutions this allows him. 


Framing is up in the main house and trusses were erected in less than two hours.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/24/16 at 09:40 AM • Permalink

The High-Performance Home, Step By Step, Part 1

Rendering of exterior view of house from the north, with the main house on the right and the garage/studio on the left.

Judging by the number of clicks we get on our Real Estate pages each week, it’s pretty obvious that many (do we dare say most?) of us in the Rural Intelligence region actively engage in what some call real estate porn. So when EASTON+COMBS, the award-winning architectural office based in New Marlborough, Mass. told us about a project they’ve started working on, we had a thought: Could we look over their shoulders (and those of their client) throughout the construction process? Rona Easton and Lonn Combs, with the permission of their client, said yes. This is the first installment of eight (or so — this is construction, after all) in a series that will give us a window — and door, and much more — into the building of a high-performance house in Egremont, Mass.

By Rona Easton and Lonn Combs

Lonn Combs and Rona Easton.

Our client, formerly of NYC and now living in Sheffield, desired a “house that would not use fossil fuels, and would be resilient in a variety of scenarios.” After extensively researching the housing market in the region, she made the decision to build rather than buy a home with those qualifications. There were few listings for high-performance homes that provide comfort, durability and low annual energy costs. The ones that exist don’t come on the market very often: for good reason, those homeowners don’t want to sell their prized properties.

So we’ve worked with the homeowner to design a resilient, low-impact and modest home that’s efficient in all aspects — spatial, materials, energy use — and at the same time responds to the natural beauty of our rural landscape with a simple aesthetic vision. In this first installment, we’re introducing the project and its performance goals; future articles will follow the house through construction to show how those goals are being met.

Floor plan: condensed interior cores of utility space and bathrooms allow a loft-like layout of main living spaces.

The site in Egremont has all of the quintessential qualities of the region — quiet and beautiful, wooded, with perennial streams and dramatic rock outcrops. We designed the house to work with the undulating terrain, locating the one-story main house at the highest part of the site, and connecting it by a bridge to a two-story building at a lower grade elevation, which houses a first-floor garage and a second-floor studio.  By working with the landscape, and following its lead, the house is at ease with the site, bridging the connection between the living spaces and natural environment. It also allowed us to avoid expensive and destructive site work.

Modestly sized at 1,800 square feet, the main house has two bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a large living space and kitchen, and a small basement.

Over the last two years, our firm has focused on super energy efficiency and cost-effective construction approaches, and the exterior envelope of this house is a perfect example of that. We increased the insulation to levels far above building code requirements, and detailed the wall assembly so that air leaks are practically eliminated. This minimizes the heating and cooling loads to the extent that there’s no need for a furnace and large heating/cooling equipment. Thus, there’s no reliance on fossil fuels. (And much to our client’s delight, the basement space has been liberated for other uses.) The small air source heat pump heating and cooling system is electrically operated, and solar panels will further reduce electricity costs — potentially to zero. In fact, a small woodburning stove will easily heat the entire house, even during the winter’s coldest months!

Left: The condensed interior cores also keep electrical and plumbing infrastructure out of the exterior walls. Above: The main living space, with a high-performing exterior envelope, includes triple glazing to maintain comfort throughout the winter.



We are excited to take Rural Intelligence readers along with us as we shepherd the house through construction. To start, here is a brief look at the current construction status of the insulated foundation walls, and insulation below the slabs (the blue boards in the photos).

A view of the insulation on the interior face of the foundation walls.

The insulation around the exterior wall, projecting above the slab insulation, will provide a thermal break that will keep the slab warmer and further diminish heat loss.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/22/16 at 04:35 PM • Permalink

Fine Home Source 2016 Adds Fashion To The Mix

An elegant country pool house by Crisp Architects.

By Jamie Larson

For nine years, the Fine Home Source has been the premier home show in our region. Conceived and hosted by Crisp Architects in Millbrook, New York, the exhibition presents everything from fabrics and furniture to lawn tractors and home security systems. But what makes FHS stand alone is that every single thing is the highest possible quality.

This year’s Fine Home Source Show on Saturday, Sept. 24 will feature more than 50 vendors at the Millbrook Bandshell from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Design by RG Couture.

Every year there is something new to see at FHS, especially this year with the inclusion of the FineFashion Show, headlined by designer Rowena Gill of RG Couture, who just happens to be based out of Millbrook. Crisp gives credit to his executive assistant Annette Santacroce for the idea, and though the addition broadens the scope of the event, it fits seamlessly because the designs and construction are, like everything else, of the highest caliber.

“It’s hard to overstate the fashion show,” James Crisp says. “It’s totally different than anything we’ve done.”

Joining RG Couture on the runway will be J.McLaughlin, Orvis, Punch and Alicia Adams Alpaca. Scalamandre Fabrics, known for its textures and patterns, is another addition to the show.

Room outfitted in Scalamandre Fabrics.

There will also be food offered from local purveyors, the music of jazz pianist Larry Ham and activities to occupy the kids. After its walk on the runway, Orvis will be out in the field teaching fly fishing techniques.

In an example of the show’s interesting juxtapositions, Crisp went right from speaking about fashion to Kalamazoo Outdoor Kitchens. In the market for a wine cellar? Stop by Signature Wine Cellars’ booth. You can talk to the people from Crisp about a new pool house.

If you’re not in the market for a whole new property there are slightly smaller items at the FHS, from furniture, fencing, windows and doors to florists, vineyards, electronics and a painter who specializes in portraits of dogs.

Gate by Ian Schwandt.

One of the event’s smaller vendors that Crisp likes to suggest people visit is Telescopes of Vermont. The company makes sculptural but functional garden telescopes perfect for evening star gazing.

The event has also become an excellent place for regional woodworkers to get out of the studio and flaunt their skills. Of course, there is excellent furniture on display but there are also fence and gate builders doing some intriguing work. Crisp points out the originality of Ian J. Schwandt in particular.

“It’s completely different from your average home show,” Crisp says.

Indeed — this one is even fashion forward.

Fine Home Source presented by Crisp Architects
Saturday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Millbrook Bandshell
3327 Franklin Ave., Millbrook, NY

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 09/18/16 at 01:59 PM • Permalink

House And Barn Preservation Expo: Advice From The Experts

Resources at last year’s expo: interior finishes, walls and floor coverings; how to reuse old barn wood; roofing slates; early hand-forged and machine-forged hardware. Photo: Historic Red Hook.

By Lisa Green

Congratulations. You’ve just bought an old house or barn. Or maybe you’re ready to tackle some badly needed restoration of your vintage home or turn your barn into living quarters. Now what?

Our best advice: get yourself to Red Hook, New York on Sunday for “It’s All About Place!”—a free expo of hands-on demonstrations and resource information for old house and barn enthusiasts. The Town of Red Hook and Historic Red Hook, a preservation society, are hosting the event at the circa 1760 Elmendorph Inn from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Experts in the fields of restoration architecture as well as artisans, historians, town planners and landscape designers will be on hand to answer your questions about sustainable preservation, restoration and adaptive re-use of period houses and barns. This your chance to speak to plumbers who specialize in old houses, ask questions about historic plaster work, or get information on the dry but necessary issue of town zoning.

It’s sort of like Antiques Roadshow, says Emily Majer, a preservation carpenter by trade and a member of Historic Red Hook. “People arrive, check in, and then they’ll be pointed in the right direction for whatever help they need.” Bring your photos for “show and tell” with the experts, watch a blacksmithing demonstration, enjoy the live music and food. A local couple will present an account of their own meticulously recorded restoration of an 18th-century Red Hook property. Another session focuses on the incentive programs available for owners of historic homes.

The Elmendorph Inn, 1976, and after renovation in 2015.

The event should be of interest even to those who don’t plan to put in any sweat equity on their homes. Researchers will be available to give you advice on how to piece together your home’s backstory.

You don’t have to be a Red Hook resident to benefit, stresses Majer. “This is a community-building tool,” she says. “Particularly for those new to an area, finding out the history of your house gives you an instant connection to where you live.”

“It’s All About Place!” 2016 House and Barn Preservation Exposition
Sunday, June 19, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Elmendorph Inn
7562 North Broadway, Red Hook, NY
(845) 759-8181

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/06/16 at 11:43 AM • Permalink

GreenBuilt Insulates Homes From Harm…With Hemp

By Jamie Larson

Hemp — genetically distinct from its sister plant, marijuana — has long been used for paper, textiles and organic body care. But now GreenBuilt, a Columbia County company, is using hemp plants to create an eco-friendly and startlingly efficient building material called Hempcrete. The versatile material, unfortunately, has endured a century of bad press because marijuana has some controversial chemical characteristics that, among other things, render journalists incapable of writing about hemp without littering their articles with played-out pot puns and weedy wordplay. (For proof check out GreenBuilt’s previous press coverage.)

So we will contain ourselves as we introduce you to GreenBuilt’s founder and CEO James Savage, a serious man who left a successful career on Wall Street to work full time promoting Hempcrete’s virtues. Chiefly, Hempcrete is a highly effective and renewable insulation and building material that is nontoxic, and mold and climate resistant. Made from mixing the heart of hemp stalks with lime, Hempcrete yields a high amount of material relative to the acreage used to farm it.

Savage left finance behind after witnessing the unhealthy living conditions endured by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

“I was successful on Wall Street for 20 years,” says Savage, now a resident of Stuyvesant, New York. “It was the way I made my living but it didn’t feed my soul. After Katrina happened I was stunned with the way people had to live. Then, after the earthquake in Haiti, I looked to see what I could do. I saw hemp as a way to build healthy and sustainable housing.”

First, Savage partnered with an African organization in Mali to build both hemp homes and an agricultural industry around the product. This important work ended abruptly due to disruption caused by a government coup. But Savage returned home with vital knowledge of the materials and processes, which, while new to Americans, has been used for some time across Europe with impressive results. European studies have stated Hempcrete remains efficient beyond 100 years. 

“It’s as good as fiberglass but also vapor permeable, so water doesn’t build up,” Savage says of Hempcrete, which needs a breathable envelope like masonry, wood, plaster or hemp stucco walls rather than vinyl or drywall (and the reason it makes sense for the renovation of our region’s older homes). “It just goes right into the walls and you finish with plaster.”

Hempcrete, Savage says, is also great for those concerned about being carbon neutral. As the material ages, he says, the lime creates carbon, which hardens the material over time and keeps it from settling and creating drafty gaps the way conventional insulation can. Yet another benefit stated by GreenBuilt is that the material manages air quality and humidity.

GreenBuilt is also currently raising funds through a Kickstarter to build a Tiny+ modular hemp home as a model for all the product can do. The site is also another pretty comprehensive resource for those looking for more information.

Savage says the largest growth market for Hempcrete is as primary construction material for passive, eco-friendly new construction but believes insulation, renovation and retrofits will be the busiest sector in the Northeast. Currently, the installation process is labor intensive and seven to eight percent more expensive than conventional materials, but Savage says he hopes that within the next year GreenBuilt will be able to open a factory (preferably in Hudson) to create Hempcrete panels that will cut down both installation time and price. Regardless, Savage says, Hempcrete pays for itself over time in energy efficiency costs.

Savage takes all the marijuana jokes he hears on a regular basis in stride because his square background and earnest businesslike approach is changing perceptions and also because public opinion on both strains of cannabis has become more favorable in recent years.

“I’m not a cannabis person. I approach this as a sustainable material,” he says. “I’ve spoken at events where someone will say, ‘Cannabis is god.’ No, it’s not. It’s a useful plant.”

The most persistent joke he hears is, “Well, at least if your house burns down you can stand outside and breath it in.” Savage’s dry response is that Hempcrete is actually extremely fire resistant, so your home would be less likely to burn down at all.

With the veil of misconception lowering, Savage believes more people will be open to his producet’s benefits. He placed it in a number of drafty walls of his own home, built in the 1850s. Shortly after major renovations, a plumbing disaster sent water streaming through walls and ceilings. While he had to replace an entire ceiling built with conventional materials, he says mold inspectors were stunned to find that the hemp walls were dry and healthy, having “healed themselves,” and needed only cosmetic plaster touchups.

Savage is bullish on GreenBuilt’s potential in the region and says there is access to enough raw material for jobs of any size. And if there’s any left over materials on the job site, you can throw it on the garden as mulch.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 05/02/16 at 01:00 PM • Permalink

The Connecticut Plant Whisperers Share Design Secrets

By Sarah Parker Young

Photo by Audra M. Viehland

Gardeners might think that they are the caretakers of their plants, but there’s another way to look at it. In some native languages, writes author Robin Wall Kimmerer, the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.” Two women in the Rural Intelligence region, Stacey Matthews and Audra M. Viehland, combine their green thumbs with an artistic aesthetic that incorporates nature into interior design. These plants, now works of art, become caretakers of sorts. Who’s not happier surrounded by objects of beauty?

Viehland, a New Preston-based interior designer originally from the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, creates terrariums that are masterpieces of nature. Her new venture, Copper Fern Terrariums, creates vignettes with plants, organic material, minerals and found objects such as turquoise, brass buttons and even a toy cat. Whether wandering in a greenhouse or shopping in a flea market, she’ll pick up whatever she finds visually striking.

“I recently found a ceramic salt shaker shaped like a cactus and put it with an aloe vera plant because I liked the humor behind it,” she says, “I don’t know if my customer found it funny, but I definitely thought I was being clever.”

One of the designer’s favorite plants for terrariums is the Tillandsia Cyanea because it produces purple blooms on its pink quills. Viehland is partial to jewel tones because of the way they’re presented in nature; she also favors plants that contrast in color, such as the Siam Aurora Aglaonema (also called the red Chinese evergreen).

Unlike other home design features, there’s almost no place in the house that couldn’t benefit from these decorative indoor plants. Viehland [photo, left] advises her clients to consider the sunlight exposure in the home. All plants, even mosses, need some amount of light, so it’s important to know that a succulent terrarium, for instance, will need bright, indirect light while a terrarium composed of mostly ferns won’t need so much.

For Viehland, creating the terrariums is very much like working through a design exercise, one with instant gratification. She considers the elements and principles of design — specifically color, texture, balance, contrast and harmony — when she creates each piece. As she says, human beings have an innate need to be in contact with nature, so bringing some of that indoors is an automatic interiors upgrade.

Stacey Matthews, co-principal of The Matthews Group Real Estate in Washington, Conn., is to indoor plants what Rachel Zoe is to celebrities; the premier stylist. Succulents are among her favorite things and there is always a variety of them on her kitchen table. Matthews will group them together in pots of different types, filling in the blank spots with moss, shiny rocks, or by tucking in an air plant. 

The color palette of plants make it easy to meld a terrarium with room design, she says. “Year-round houseplants are only green and green goes with everything. But I’m always tempted by something bright at the garden store.” With this in mind, she buys forced hydrangea in the early spring to put on her kitchen counters. (The Garden in Woodbury is her go-to store and has a great selection of these starting in early March.)

Like Viehland, Matthews [photo, right] believes that you experience the most joy by bringing plants and the narrative of nature into the rooms you use every day. Her final recommendation: invest in quality containers. That’s as important as choosing the plants because a good quality container can last for decades.

In the county that proudly hosts Trade Secrets, it’s no surprise that there is a plethora of resources to help novices get started on an indoor garden. Matthews points to Pergola Home in New Preston as the ultimate plant store. 

“Be sure to consult with the owner, David Whitman, about what type of conditions you have and where you’ll put the plant,” she says. “He is a plant whisperer himself!”

Copper Fern Terrariums
Email Audra M. Viehland at
copperfernterrariums@gmail.com

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/23/16 at 06:22 PM • Permalink

Hudson Sculptor John T. Unger Creates Great Bowls Of Fire

By Jamie Larson

If there’s one thing that’s been noticeably absent this season, it’s the sound of people kvetching about the cold. But freezing temps are inevitable, and when they arrive, there’s warmth and beauty to be had in one of sculptor John T. Unger’s firebowls — firepits hand cut from recycled steel.

A lineup of Unger’s greatest hits await the cold behind his quiet home and less quiet metalworking studio in Hudson, NY. A firebowl with the original flame design sits beside one shaped with curling waves. There is also a collection of seemingly simpler geometrically cut firebowls, more architectural and elemental.

Although he originally only intended to make one, over the past decade Unger has made close to 1,800 firebowls for clients in all 50 states and 16 countries. He’s designed works for high-end hotels, restaurants, even a castle in the Hamptons. His bowls have been featured in The New York Times, and on HGTV and the DIY Network.

“The meaning is encoded in the material,” he says. “The genesis of this whole project started while looking for materials in a scrap yard and I saw them cutting the ends off propane tanks.”

Unger is an interesting mix of practical tradesman and unfettered creative. His technique, which involves skillfully cutting into the rusted ends of propane tanks with a plasma torch, has given him the freedom to indulge his inspiration. He doesn’t seem to feel burdened by the big pile of as-yet-uncut tank ends in front of his shop. If he feels like it, he’ll go work on something else, like the new totem-like light fixtures he’s begun making, or his music or the massive mosaic he’s working on in his indoor studio.

That six-by-four-foot work is made of thousands of tiny pieces of marble and depicts the musculature of the human body in the style of a pre-photography medical reference drawing. The intricacy is daunting, the form is beautiful, and the craftsmanship is impeccable. There’s an artist’s touch to it that makes it mesmerizing yet approachable, as if it could just as easily hang in the finest museum as it could be used as an absurdly extravagant kitchen backsplash.

And, indeed, Unger intends to make 12 of these large mosaics for a future museum show. The scale and design of his ambitions feel like a mixture of artist and inventor.

“I grew up making stuff,” says Unger, who spent much of his youth in the woods of northern Michigan. “I had little supervision and a lot of power tools. I was inspired by nature in a deep way I wasn’t aware of for a long time. You can tell that that knowledge is so ingrained in the work.”

But it’s the firebowls that have captured the public’s attention, and for good reason. Customers can order one of the many designs on Unger’s website, or commission their own. Prices range from $800-$3,000. Each comes with a “Dynasty Guarantee,” meaning it will last many lifetimes says Unger, who has managed, through a soft touch on rough materials, to create vessels that mesmerize. And warm, when you need some heat.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 12/14/15 at 02:34 PM • Permalink

Holiday Spirit Grows At Flower Blossom Farm’s Wreath Parties

By Lisa Green

“I eat, sleep and breathe flowers,” says Kim Thomas, flitting around her studio like a bee pollinating blossoms. “But I’m not a florist. I’m a flower farmer who does custom designs.”

Not just custom, though. The chief flower fairy at Flower Blossom Farm in Ghent, New York, who has more energy than the sun, wants to share what joy flowers bring with the community. Which is why she started her wreath-making (and other décor) parties last year. You’re invited to join in the floral festivities this holiday season.

But first, a little background, because Thomas doesn’t just grow a few roses and tie them with twine. She and her husband, Karl Thomas, a landscape designer, worked by day at Karl’s business, Ghent Landscape, but lived on former dairy farmland that was waiting to be cultivated. Five years ago, the couple began to grow Asiatic lilies for their landscape clients, and a year later began to sell lilies at the end of their driveway. Every year, they added to their planting beds. Two years ago, with ever more flower varieties on hand, Kim started her wedding business. Now she farms 87 varieties of annuals, quadrupling her flower output within the five years.

Sample wreath.

Floral Blossom Farm is bustling, offering everything from full-service design to “buckets of blooms” for those who want to walk the fields and choose their flowers. Thomas juggles a thriving wedding and event business. She decorates homes and exteriors for the holidays — Al Roker and Deborah Roberts are clients — and in the summer runs a flower CSA. She’s planning to add even more varieties this spring, and if you’re a bride with a specific flower request, she’ll plant it for you if there’s enough time. (See: energy, amount of.)

But for someone who practically proselytizes flowers, it’s really much more fun for her to have those parties, whether they’re bridal groups DYI-ing it for a wedding or private groups that just want to have fun with floral arranging.

“A lot of my repeat customers come for the food,” Thomas admits. Along with the greenery, ribbons, wire, baubles and glue gun (all supplied, with much of the natural elements foraged from the farm), she brings in holiday nibbles and beverages from local caterers and bakers. It’s a community thing, she says, which extends to her mission to procure anything she can’t grow herself (like flowers in the winter) from other local businesses.

The community aspect is also palpable at the parties. Guests gather around the long tables in her aromatic studio (transformed from a barn to a spacious, custom workshop and showroom by her husband) as Thomas confers with each participant, offering instruction and ideas. By the end of the evening, it’s a festive show-and-tell session, and all the wreaths (and decorated boxwood topiaries or holiday centerpieces, for which there are separate parties), are beautiful because, says Thomas, it’s whatever makes you happy. “Flowers are happy!” she practically sings.

The parties are just $65 per person, and Kim opens up the “shop,” offering a ten-percent discount on ready-made wreaths, boxwood trees, centerpieces, mailbox covers, swags, kissing balls and chocolate gift baskets (chocolate courtesy of The Chocolate Moose in Chatham). For hostess gifts, she suggests. Or trimming for your tree and fireplace mantel.

Ribbons ready for wreaths.

Speaking of festive accessorizing, what does the master floral artist do for her own holiday decor in the couple’s farmhouse a stone’s throw from the studio?

“Oh, I don’t have time to decorate,” she says. “I’m a wreathmaker with no wreath.”

Holiday wreath, boxwood and centerpiece workshop parties at Flower Blossom Farm
See website for dates and to reserve a space.
967 County Rt. 9, Ghent, NY
(518) 567-9266

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Posted by Lisa Green on 11/07/15 at 08:34 PM • Permalink