Sheltering Stone: A Stone Home in Upstate New York

Using rock from their property in rural upstate New York, an architect and his wife hand build a timeless stone house on a tight budget.

| May/June 2004

Houses today don’t get any more local—or enduring—than the passive solar stone dwelling that Tim and Jackie McCarthy built in a clearing among the wooded Adirondack foothills in upstate New York. For starters, the couple used almost exclusively local materials: fieldstones cleared a century ago by a farmer making room for crops, sand from their property for concrete, and white pine from just twenty miles away. They also tapped personal resources: Tim’s expertise as an architect and their own physical labor. By following age-old stone building traditions, the McCarthys created a modern home that reflects their environmentalism, love of the land, and desire not to be encumbered by a heavy mortgage.

Their house blends local geology—mostly granite—with modern architectural geometry—a vaulted living room ceiling, light-colored beams and cabinetry, and large south-facing banks of windows. These airy, contemporary elements contrast with the rustic stone walls, keeping the 1,850-square-foot house from feeling dark or cold.

In choosing to work in stone, the McCarthys were inspired by regional heritage and a tight budget. “Old-time farmers built with whatever materials were available—not to make an environmental or social statement like people do now, but because they had no choice,” says Tim. The couple’s economic situation left them little choice either; fortunately their property supplied all the free stone they needed. “Even if we’d had a large budget, we still would have built green,” Tim admits. “We didn’t want to import materials from far away because so much energy is used to create and transport them.”

Between a rock and a good place

In 1995, Tim was a cash-strapped architectural intern with a baby on the way and the yen to build something of his own design. He and Jackie briefly considered erecting a tire-filled earthship, but it required adobe clay finish, which isn’t indigenous to the Northeast. They decided instead to preserve the integrity of their twenty-two acres of rural land by building a structure that might have stood there anytime after European settlement.

Tim studied—and improved upon—the simple, inexpensive slip-form stone technique developed by Scott and Helen Nearing, contemporary homesteaders whose book Living the Good Life (Chelsea Green, 1970) describes building their stone and cement house. Slip-forms are movable wooden panels that temporarily contain rocks, which are piled between the form and the insulation. When a twenty-inch-high section of rock is in place, you pour concrete over it, allow it to dry, then slide the forms up the wall and repeat the process. Tim devised lightweight frames for the forms to move on, which enabled him to create a gracefully angled exterior wall that tapers from two-and-a-half feet at the bottom to a narrower top.

For the next two summers, the couple, their friends, and occasional hired workers gathered rocks and built the walls. “Now that my back no longer aches, it’s pleasing to know we handled each stone as it was laid into our walls,” says Jackie, an elementary school math teacher. “You pick up a stone, twist and turn it, and think about where to put it. I got to know which rocks would fit perfectly in corners, and I’d set aside especially beautiful ones to cover the fireplace.”

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