A Natural Landscape Design in the Berkshires

September 25, 2018

A Berkshires home cozies into its hillside site with a landscape plan that looks as though it was created by Mother Nature herself.

Text by Megan Fulweiler     Photography by Matthew Cunningham


There are many kinds of gardens. Some highlight flower-filled beds and borders that don’t wane till frost. Others feature tailored boxwood hedges to bestow a Zen-like symmetry. And then there are the most awe-inspiring creations of all, the havens that partner with Mother Nature in a way that makes it almost impossible to believe she didn’t lend a hand. So seamlessly do they mesh with their surroundings, the ingenious solutions that have made them glorious often go unrecognized.

This extraordinary retreat nestled in the Berkshires in Great Barrington, Massachusetts—favorite haunt of literary notables like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne—is a prime example. Surprisingly perhaps, considering the arduous terrain, the Berkshires have a generous share of marvelous gardens (Edith Wharton’s The Mount is just one). Devised by landscape architect -Matthew Cunningham, along with project manager Ryan Wampler, this woodland paradise stands apart because, in addition to its visual appeal, it treads lightly on the environment, as does the owner’s modern abode.

The stylish 5,500-square-foot house sports a range of sustainable design features, among them sophisticated geothermal heating and cooling systems. Designed by architect Evan Mathison and constructed by The Small Building Company, the low-slung nest hugs an east-facing slope with panoramic views that change color with every season. And best of all, thanks to Cunningham and Wampler’s design, the house and grounds look right at home within the context of this beautiful, rugged setting.

That, of course, was the goal, but a slew of obstacles—everything from a steep drop-off to a thin soil depth—called for endless hours of creative thinking and planning. Due to the area’s ever-burgeoning popularity, stringent regulations are in place to alleviate environmental pressures. There are watershed protection requirements and stormwater management rules. And if that weren’t daunting enough, the Scenic Mountain Act requires mature canopy trees be registered and protected to preserve the area’s unique character. The trees are tagged, and no work is permitted within their critical root zones.

“Our initial challenge was to devise an entry strategy for the house that would blend with the topography,” Cunningham says. To that end, an unpretentious but picturesque gravel driveway, accented with rock outcroppings and rimmed with oaks, carefully loops the family in and out today. On the home’s opposite side, the vistas expand as far as the eye can see.

A series of board-formed concrete retaining walls with slopes of tough native plants, like lowbush blueberry and hay-scented fern—installed by Ingersoll Land Care—provide dramatic textured terraces that respond to the home’s horizontal forms. “The views from inside the house were as important as those outside,” says Cunningham. “We lowered the upper terrace about thirty inches to prevent the outdoor furniture from blocking the scene and to give a better sense of scale and drama.” A black and stainless-steel crib holds wood for the terrace’s fire pit. Not just utilitarian, according to Cunningham, the crib builds on the romantic Berkshire vernacular of gathering around a blazing bonfire.

A granite staircase cascades from this upper terrace to a rectangular pool set carefully in place by Aquatic Designs. The water reflects the ever-changing sky, while salvaged granite, deftly deployed by Monterey Masonry, provides handsome linear paths and additional seating areas. The weathered slabs originally began life as mundane curbing or bridge abutments, but who’d believe that now? “The granite has an earthy quality that’s expressed in a contemporary manner. The stone picks up on the pattern of the home’s red cedar siding and the standing seam metal roof,” Cunningham points out.

Pretty as it all is, the landscape is also a hardworking steward of the environment. When the heavens open, porous joints in the paths convey rain water, while custom steel and river-stone drywells collect it from the complex rooflines and gutter systems. There are also slow-release spillways directing water into the woodland. “The water is cleansed of sediment by filtering through vegetated basins,” Cunningham says.

And just listen—how quiet! To be here is to be in harmony with the mountains. Having disturbed them little, the sensitive team of experts gave the busy owners and their children an amazing gift—a peaceful refuge that keeps them closely engaged with the natural world.


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