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

  • With the exception of the bathroom and the mudroom/pantry, all the rooms face south with panoramic outdoor views through banks of windows that maximize the home’s passive solar effect. Though the stone gives the house a massive, solid feel, its overall scale is modest—just 1,850 square feet.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • Glass corners and deep eaves belie the Frank Lloyd Wright influence in Tim McCarthy’s work.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • The McCarthys have family roots in upstate New York: Tim grew up on a nearby dairy farm, and Jackie was raised in Montreal and at her parents’ summer home in upstate New York. The couple bought twenty-two acres of rural land because of its seclusion and south-facing orientation.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • The living room, with its soaring vaulted ceiling, invites light and outdoor views into the McCarthy home. “We chose white pine finished with linseed oil for the beams and floor to offset so much masonry,” Tim says. To tie into the home’s rusticity and accentuate the wood’s knotty nature, he copied an antique, wide-plank style of floorboard. The inexpensive wood was cut and milled just twenty miles away.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • Lauren soaks up the sun’s warmth in her parent’s bedroom. “Living in a stone house feels cozy and safe, even though people think it would be cold,” her mother explains. “With so much glass and the passive solar, it’s bright and warm inside. In summer it’s so cool that visitors ask whether we have air conditioning.”
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • In the prairie-style dining room, the family enjoys a bounty of organic greens grown in the garden and Jackie’s homemade baked goods.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • The open kitchen encourages family togetherness. Lauren often does her homework at the U-shaped counter while Jackie cooks.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • Tim, Jackie, and Lauren McCarthy with dogs Nip and Tuck. “We like setting an example for Lauren and letting her know there are other choices besides wall-to-wall carpeting held down by toxic glue,” says Jackie.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • This zen sitting area invites comfort and relaxation.
    Photo By Laurie E. Dickson
  • Glass corners and deep eaves belie the Frank Lloyd Wright influence in Tim McCarthy’s work.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford

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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