Millbrook House


Thomas Phifer built this house outside of the small village of Millbrook, New York.

First, the house is very much a procession, and it must be explained as such to be understood.  It took me a little while studying the layout of the house for it to make sense.  The first thing one sees as they come up the driveway is the guesthouse, perched over the parking area.

From here, one walks up the stepping stones to the left of the picture and up onto a flat grassy area that connects the guest house to the glass pavilion of the main house.

from http://www.archdaily.com/79028/millbrook-house-thomas-phifer/. Guesthouse is in the foreground left, glass pavilion is in the background center.

From inside the pavilion, one travels down a flight of stairs and underground to reach the individual “cabins” (in the first picture) which house bed and bathrooms.

My first thought when I saw this was that it was some sort of contemporary take on rowhouses, which probably led to my confusion about how the entire place was linked together.  I am always a fan of using wood as a material, but the boxiness of the cabins puts me off a bit.  Having lived in an apartment where we only got light from one direction, I can say that I’m not a big fan of it, and generally prefer to have light on two sides of every room, as Christopher Alexander recommends.  The gardens of the cabins though are quite beautiful and give each person their own little green space.  Also I was more enamored with the glass front of the cabins when I thought they were rowhouses and that the front room would be some sort of public room.  When I found out they were bedrooms, I was a little disconcerted, because I would feel uncomfortable about changing and such in front of that much glass.  However, the house is on a two acre site, and considering the area, there is probably sufficient foliage to provide privacy from the nearest street or neighbor.  Phifer also has set the bedrooms on the east side of the house so that they will receive morning sunlight, something else that Alexander recommends.  It’s probably a great place to wake up and go to bed, but not great for other activities.

The grassy area above the cabins presents me personally with some big questions.  Do the residents here have kids, or do they ever plan to have kids?  The area is protected from the drop-offs near the cabins by glass guard rails, but I worry about how well they would stay intact with rambunctious children (or adults, for that matter).

The panoramic views of the glass pavilion are beautiful, and this is the great advantage of any glass house.  However, it does raise some questions.  How energy efficient are these windows?  Double-glazed windows with argon inside them can be very efficient, but the architect doesn’t state anywhere in this article that they used such elements.  Also, I always worry about roofs that are completely flat, because they don’t shed water well and have a tendency to leak.  I don’t know if the architect has taken measures to mitigate such effects, but I prefer a sloped roof, preferably with wide overhangs.

Another interesting feature I think is the wall that holds back the earth of the grassy area, as can be seen in the second picture.  The wall is faced in patinated steel panels, which blend in very well with the color of the wood and look very natural.  I understand that there are many that may feel that this aesthetic is not appropriate for a residence, but being from the Steel City, I really appreciate it and think it works very well in this context.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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