Sustainable In South Salem
Westchester builder Sylvain Côté rights a dated upside-down contemporary, transforming it into an award-winning eco-friendly home.
Photohraphy by Phillip Ennis
Centered around the massive stone fireplace, the open floor plan of Côté’s octagonal home allows the family to be together while pursuing different activities.
Owning a “green” home was the furthest thing from his mind when Westchester builder Sylvain Côté first set his sights on a dilapidated 1980s-era house overlooking Truesdale Lake in South Salem.
It was the first and only house Côté and his wife, Tisa, looked at while house hunting. Two things about it captured the couple’s imagination: its octagonal shape, which came pretty close to the round house that Tisa had always dreamed of owning, and its idyllic lakefront location. “There was this view,” Côté says. “You can fix up a house; a view you either have or you don’t.”
Still, it took impressive vision to glimpse the potential beyond the contemporary-style home’s Mrs. Haversham-like appearance. Dubbed the “upside-down house” by its owner because all of its bedrooms were on the lower level, the house had water damage and a family of birds in residence. Overgrown landscaping and heavy window treatments virtually obscured the lake’s vista.
Côté built this corner cabinet in the main-floor powder room around an old mirrored door that he had been carrying around for years. The walls in this room and throughout the house are finished with a natural earth plaster that resembles stucco and will never need to be painted or touched up.
But Côté was haunted by the home’s possibilities, and he borrowed the blueprints from the owner to bring with him on a family vacation to the Outer Banks. Spending nearly the entire trip obsessively tweaking his plans, Côté returned with something far better than a tan: a brilliant design that required taking the house down to its foundation and rebuilding it with the original stone chimney as its interior focal point. The plan also entailed turning the house “right-side up” by adding a third level to serve as a more suitable bedroom area for a family of four.
Going green didn’t enter the picture until a neighbor’s complaints to the town zoning board delayed the project by six months. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” recalls Côté, who in the intervening time attended a seminar on green design in Austin, Texas, which enlightened him on the many benefits of green building. “I learned more in three days than I had in 20 years,” he admits. “It changed my perspective completely.”
Côté’s daughter, Laura, and niece, Dominique, do most of their studying at the large table beneath this dramatic floor-to-ceiling book shelf. The tinted glass windows not only keep energy costs down, they provide privacy, eliminating the need for window treatments.
Blending the concepts he had recently acquired with his own keen aesthetic sense, Côté designed and built a striking contemporary Craftsman-style house, which took more than two years to complete. He unveiled his 3,750-foot “baby” in the spring of 2006, and the three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house has since earned the highest possible Energy Star rating (five-and-a-half stars) and an impressive New York State Home Energy Rating System ranking of 92.8, as well as numerous awards, including Professional Remodeler magazine’s 2007 “Best of the Best” design award and Remodeling Online’s Merit Award last year. In May 2008, Côté received one the National Association of Home Builders’ esteemed National Green Building Awards (as well as his own green certification from the NAHB).
The terrace off the lower level offers a sublime view of Truesdale Lake. Like the exterior of the house, the landscaping was designed to be maintenance free. A series of low retaining walls flank both sides of the steps sloping down to the lake.
A native of Quebec, Côté spent years working as a commercial photographer in Montreal and New York City before becoming a builder, and his artistic background comes through in his attention to texture and lighting. “I feel as though my interests in building and photography complete one another,” says Côté, whose admiration for the American Craftsman movement also shaped his vision for the house.
“I had read a book by Gustav Stickley and was inspired by his focus on using materials that are structurally crucial but also aesthetically pleasing,” he explains. “I used a lot of these principles in the interior of the house.” For example, exposed beams are critical to the home’s structural integrity, but they also are a core fixture of the home’s interior design, blending form with function. The builder also embraced many of Stickley’s other beliefs—that a house should be in harmony with its landscape and make use of natural materials and natural light—all of which dovetailed nicely with Côté’s newfound earth-friendly philosophy.
“Many people mistakenly believe that green building requires a lot of sacrifices,” explains Côté, who has made green building a focus of his South Salem-based company, Absolute Remodeling Corp., which is now an Energy Star Partner. “It’s about conserving energy, true, but it’s also about the convenience of using materials that require little or no maintenance.” Côté points to the exterior of his home as a perfect example. Fashioned almost entirely of engineered PVC material, the house and deck will never need to be painted or stained (just sprayed with water annually to get rid of the spiderwebs).
While at one time the term “green design” may have conjured images of futuristic homes sporting unsightly solar panels, a lot has changed since the movement first took root. This is evidenced by the interiors of Côté’s home, which are anything but slick and ultramodern. The materials used—rich, dark wood in irregularly sized planks, wrought iron, and stone—create the opposite effect. The space feels more like a rustic ski lodge with its panoramic views of the lake and its open floor plan centered on the magnificent double-sided stone chimney.
Nearly all of the interior wood was reclaimed either from the original house or from other buildings, some of them centuries old. Each of the home’s three levels features different re-milled wood flooring: hickory on the third level, chestnut on the main floor, and pine on the lower level. Several pieces of furniture, including the dining room table, were custom-made from leftover wood flooring. (“We try to ensure that no materials go to waste,” explains Côté.) The floor is warm in more than just tone since it features radiant heating, an efficient and comfortable way to distribute heat. Guests are encouraged to remove their shoes to reduce dirt and also to experience the warmth underfoot.
The shelving behind and beneath the impressive “Le Bar A Côté” was crafted of 200-year-old reclaimed pine from New Haven, Connecticut, and remains unfinished, adding to the bar’s rustic charm. Topping the bar is a two-and-a-half-inch thick limestone counter with rock-faced edging. Côté designed the light fixture over the pool table. It can be raised or lowered using a pulley system, and its energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs are cleverly disguised by gel covers that create a warm amber glow.
It’s no accident that this builder opted for an open floor plan on both the main and lower levels. “People typically use 10 percent of their houses —the kitchen and the bedroom—90 percent of the time,” says Côté, who favors this open layout for its more efficient use of space and to encourage family togetherness. As the homeowner also is an avid cook, it’s an ideal layout for casual entertaining, something that he and his family love to do.
Separating the dining and living room areas is the formidable chimney, which in the cold weather often houses a roaring fire. French doors leading to a deck that wraps around the back of the house are flanked by a series of floor-to-ceiling windows offering gorgeous water views. The space is often bathed in sunlight, especially in the afternoon, which keeps the many plants—another nod to eco-friendly living—quite happy. The windows are manufactured of tinted glass, which greatly reduces the amount of solar heat in the summer and also keeps the sun’s harsh UV rays from fading furniture and fabrics.
In addition to a limestone-tiled steam shower, the lower level bathroom features a limestone-topped vanity rebuilt from an antique armoire that Côté found on a street curb. Since the bathroom looks out onto the terrace, the homeowner opted for block glass rather than a window for privacy.
On one side of the chimney is a study area dominated by an enormous floor-to-ceiling bookshelf fashioned from red oak. Stocked with books and mementos, the bookshelf overlooks a large study table that boasts the main floor’s only media/electronic item: a desktop computer. “I like to keep the computer in plain site for the kids to use,” Côté says. On the opposite side is the kitchen, which, with its mission-style wood cabinets, blends seamlessly with the rest of the room. The Energy Star-qualified appliances are cleverly disguised by wooden panels.
The main floor powder room features a corner cabinet built around an old mirrored door that Côté had been carrying around for years. Another element of interest—and a good demonstration of Côté’s mischievous sense of humor—is a porthole door located above the toilet. Pity the curious guest who can’t resist investigating it as it’s filled with dozens of super balls that come bouncing out when the door is opened!
Instead of bedrooms, the lower level is now the home’s entertainment center, boasting an open floor plan that, like the main floor, revolves around the tremendous stone fireplace. On this level, the chimney competes for attention with an impressive bar, behind which hangs a stained glass sign reading “Le Bar A Côté.” Along with a mounted flat-screen television, the bar features an antique hammered-copper sink, an icemaker, a Bosch dishwasher, a Perlick refrigerator, and taps dispensing beers from Captain Lawrence, a brewery based in Pleasantville. There are two large flat screens above the openings to both sides of the fireplace, one facing a large comfortable seating area and the other a pool table. It’s no surprise that the Super Bowl party the family hosts is a standing-room-only event.
In order to add the third level to the house, Côté had to extend the chimney by an additional 15 feet using stones taken from the home’s original exterior. He also built wood mantels on both sides of the chimney to camouflage the steel connecting the original to the new structure.
Since stones from the home’s original exterior were used to extend the chimney by an additional 15 feet, the wood mantel over the bed in the master bedroom has a dual purpose: it conceals the steel connecting the original to the new structure and provides a shelf for candles. Côté built the bed’s platform from leftover chestnut flooring.
Now, sunlight streams into the master bedroom, which is where the family’s five cats like to lounge in the late afternoon. (The Côtés also have two dogs, though it is hard to tell there are any pets due to the house’s Hepa filter system, which continually filters out fine particulates in the air such as dust mites and other allergens.) Healthy indoor air quality is another hallmark of green living, and fresh air is maintained through the use of two heat-recovery ventilators, which pick up stale air from the “wet rooms” (like the laundry room and bathrooms) and supply conditioned fresh air to the bedrooms and other living areas.
The house boasts a number of other energy-saving features, including an instantaneous flash water heater that provides ample hot water without the standby losses of a storage tank and four photovoltaic panels on the roof to generate electricity. The lighting in the house is a mix of low-wattage LEDs (light emitting diodes) and CFLs (compact fluorescent lights), which use a fraction of the energy of traditional iridescent bulbs, and some halogen lighting.
The Craftsman-style stair rails were a challenge for Côté. A true perfectionist, the builder made several tries before getting the details exactly right.
It’s been a little over two years since the family moved into Côté’s environmentally friendly masterpiece and started enjoying the fruits of his labor. In that time they’ve come to really appreciate the many benefits of green living, which makes its owner wonder why others haven’t yet embraced the green way of life. “Once people realize the potential benefits not just to the environment, but also to their own health and well being, there will be more interest,” says Côté. “Green building is not just a trend. It’s here to stay.”
Elizabeth Cunningham Herring, a freelance writer and editor, is a former senior editor for Avenue Magazine. She lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with her husband and two daughters.