An Escape From Brooklyn, and a ‘Couple’s Project’

For years, Paul and Nathalie Schulhof scoured the countryside north of New York, searching for a weekend house that could serve as a rural escape from their home in Brooklyn Heights. But after coming close to buying a few homes, they decided to design their own, from scratch.

“We were looking at properties where there was always something that needed to be done,” said Mr. Schulhof, 49. “And in the conversations about the work we’d have to do for one place or another, it just became apparent that we were more excited about the idea of getting a lot and building on it.”

And they were well positioned to do so. Mr. Schulhof is a partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, where he works on such large-scale, long-term projects as the Obama Presidential Center and the new U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

Although he doesn’t have many opportunities to design houses these days, creating a home for his family was appealing for a number of reasons, he said: It was a chance to design at a smaller scale and construct a building fairly quickly, as well as to bring his wife, and their daughter, Amélie, now 13, into the design process.

After shifting their search from houses to lots, they found what appeared to be the ideal property in Kent, Conn. — a vertiginous 8.5-acre expanse of overgrown forest.

“It’s the highest peak in the Kent area, at 1,400 feet,” said Dr. Schulhof, 49, a physician specializing in infectious diseases. From the top, she added, “we get to see the sunset, the Catskills in the distance and the different layers of mountains.”

The couple bought it in April 2016 for $150,000, and began making plans.

“It was a couple’s project,” Dr. Schulhof said. “We’d have dinner, and then instead of watching TV, we would sit down and work on the house.”

But after six months of effort, they decided their preliminary design was too inwardly focused.

“I wanted to have a house that was connected to the outdoors,” Dr. Schulhof explained, “and the first design was more hermetic, or more insulated from the outside.”

“Nathalie’s a good critic,” Mr. Schulhof said.

So they started over.

This time, Mr. Schulhof took the lead in designing a 2,200-square-foot house resembling a low, single-story brick building, with glass corners and sliding-glass doors, and a broad roof extending out over a covered patio on one side.

Two bedrooms, including the master suite, are on the ground floor. A second story is tucked up inside the standing-seam metal roof and contains Amélie’s bedroom, an art studio and a writing studio.

Mr. Schulhof initially designed a double-height space for a living room that would be open to the second floor, but Dr. Schulhof wanted a sense of separation, so they compromised on an enclosed light well that brings reflected sunlight into the living room without visually connecting the two levels.

“It was a bit like a three-dimensional puzzle, trying to fit it all together,” Mr. Schulhof said.

He taught Amélie how to use the 3-D modeling software SketchUp, so she could work on the design of her room, which has a windowed nook for reading.

Once the plans were set, they didn’t have to look far for a contractor. A neighbor was building a house just down the road, and when they stopped to chat, they discovered the owner was Scott Mancini, a project manager at H & Y Construction.

“We ended up hiring them, and I worked with them to figure out how to make the design work with our budget,” Mr. Schulhof said.

Specifically, they refined the design so that the whole first floor could be built with standard wood framing, without expensive structural steel, and the top floor and roof could be built from a series of asymmetrical, prefabricated roof trusses.

For the interiors, they kept the palette simple and installed white-oak flooring and an open kitchen with custom sapele wood cabinets that match the lumber used for the home’s Duratherm windows. Petersen brick from Denmark, which Mr. Schulhof selected for its texture and variation, wraps from the outside to the inside around the fireplace.

After beginning construction in September 2018, running a driveway up the hill and blasting a hole in the rocky earth for a walkout foundation, H & Y finished building the house in less than a year — just in time to hold Amélie’s bat mitzvah last August — for a total cost of about $780,000.

“We were a contractor and an architect, but now we’re just neighbors,” Mr. Schulhof said, noting that he and Mr. Mancini became friends along the way.

Now that the family has moved in, the Schulhofs spend weekends cooking, reading, painting, writing and watching the landscape change with the seasons.

But they also feel nostalgic about the process of creating a house together.

“It’s a place to relax,” Mr. Schulhof said. “But I miss doing it.”

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