Concrete Thinking

April 30, 2012

A Vermont family trades traditional house on a fifteen-acre farm for an ultramodern hilltop home with knockout views of the Connecticut River.

Text by Lisa E. Harrison    Photography by Jim Westphalen




When it comes to wanting a change of ­surroundings, there’s a sliding scale. For some, it’s as simple as a splash of new paint. Others up the ante with a kitchen rehab or an add-on to the master suite. And then there are those who scrap it all and start fresh. New site. New build. And an entirely new aesthetic.

In the case of Loretta and David Leatherwood, the only thing their new house and old share is a Norwich, Vermont, zip code—a neighborly town of 3,800 (complete with a general store and village green) that hugs the Connecticut River and eyes Hanover, New Hampshire, across the banks.

Their previous home was a traditional farmhouse on fifteen acres. “We had horses, chickens, sheep, pigs,” says Loretta. “We’d go out and get eggs every morning.”

With their four kids approaching or in their teens, the Leatherwoods decided to switch things up. “The novelty of winter and animals wore off, and I wanted a change,” she says. “I wanted to be on the water, and I wanted to build a house that would always be in our family, so when the kids are older they can bring their families and meet together.”

Credit goes to Norwich-based architect and friend Christopher Smith for spotting the spectacular site, a knob of land perched eighty feet above the Connecticut River and boasting a 180-degree vantage.

The original vision of the project, though, was all Loretta, an art history major and creative force with a keen eye. “She said, ‘I like concrete and I like glass,’” remembers Smith. Her inspiration came in part from paging through books and magazines, where she discovered a concrete house by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. “Simple, clean lines, modern—that’s the look I wanted,” she says.

The execution, however, fell to Smith. And designing a 9,700-square-foot house entirely from concrete (he likens it to an ice cream sandwich with six inches of concrete on each side and four inches of insulation in between) requires precision and patience. Lots of both. It took ten mock-ups—eight-foot-by-eight-foot slabs of concrete stacked Stonehenge-style in the yard—to settle on the perfect finish and color. Given the sheer volume, it was critical to get the look just right: not too porous, not too drab, with a smooth, plastery feel.

While concrete is championed for being low-maintenance, dealing with it is anything but. A year of planning went into the project before the builders, Estes & Gallup, broke ground. “We had one shot to get it right,” says Smith. Every door, window, recessed light fixture and sink mount had to be finalized before the concrete was poured. And so began a massive coordination effort with electricians, plumbers and builders. “It was not easy by any means,” he says. “It was slow going, but we made it through.”

Captivated by the views and Loretta’s appeal to merge indoors and out, the clever architect decided to flip a traditional floor plan and position the main living quarters on the second floor. He pitched the idea to the Leatherwoods early on by piling them onto the bed of his pickup truck to scope out the scenery; if a four-foot elevation made a difference, imagine a whole story? They were sold.

The ground level contains the kids’ rooms, fashioned dorm-style off a central corridor. An all-glass living room occupies the center space and, to the right, sits a stairwell, half-bath, mudroom and three-car garage. A small kitchen used primarily for entertaining serves the pool and patio area. Upstairs, the master suite is stacked above the children’s quarters, and a more formal living room shares the same footprint as the family-focused one below (albeit with sixteen-foot ceilings and even more dramatic views). To the right, a stunning kitchen and dining room, with balconies jutting off both, take center stage.

In keeping with the ultramodern feel of the project, clutter was banned. “I told the kids: pack your clothes and don’t bring anything else,” says Loretta. Interior designer and good friend Cheryl Boghosian of Gilberte Interiors, whose expertise Loretta enlisted once construction was complete, credits the owner with sticking to her guns; not even a favorite chair or prized painting made the ten-mile journey from old house to new.

The overall layout is breezy and open. “You really feel like nature flows through the house,” says Boghosian. Keeping this notion in mind, the duo sought ways to delineate rooms without disrupting the fluidity. Custom-woven rugs, says the designer, were a key part of this strategy—a way to subtly ground and define spaces while adding texture.

A neutral palette of grays and whites provides a serene backdrop and doesn’t compete with the real star: the great outdoors. Given the prevalence of glass, natural light acts as a design element, too. Not only does it give the concrete a shimmery silver patina, but reflections in the house change daily based on time and season, lending a welcoming warmth to a strong space.

When it came to furnishings, Loretta went minimalist. “I chose five basic big pieces I wanted in the house,” she says. Most came from Montage in Boston, though Smith fabricated the dining room table out of ash with ebony stain. Her main motive? “I didn’t want anything to obstruct the view.”

High-backed chairs and low-hanging chandeliers were banished. And clever design elements (in the kitchen, note the white glass cabinets that reflect the outdoors, and the pull-down, see-through sun screen) were added to celebrate the natural surroundings. The only artwork was crafted by Loretta, whose studio sits on the second floor of a 1,600-square-foot outbuilding: a sculpture made of raw-silk fabric that hangs on the upstairs living room wall. Inspired by the rushing river below, the piece appropriately bridges indoors and out. Loretta admits, though, that the art is likely only temporary. After all, for this family, there’s nothing wrong with mixing things up every once in a while. •

Architecture: Christopher Smith
Interior Design:
Cheryl Boghosian, Gilberte Interiors
Estes & Gallup
Landscape design:
Keith Wagner and Jeff Hodgson, H. Keith Wagner Partnership

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