This article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.
In 2021, when the New York firm Scalar Architecture began designing a 1,200-square-foot residence in Litchfield County, Conn., a boulder sat in the center of the project’s site. Surrounded on all sides by evergreen and deciduous trees, the large, moss-covered rock became a natural focal point for Scalar as the firm worked on the Forest Retreat, a cabin for a family of writers and producers seeking a quiet refuge. While Scalar developed schemes in the early planning stages, several of which relied on a more traditional porch to bridge interior and exterior space, site visits revealed the obvious: The boulder, placed squarely in the middle of the house’s potential locale, would ultimately dictate the final design.
“We had done 25 versions ... before understanding the site that well, but then going [there] locked us into this one scheme,” says Scalar principal Julio Salcedo-Fernandez, AIA. “We said, ‘We need to keep the boulder, it’s so cool,’ and then we were able to site [the house] around that.”
While area-specific considerations inform many an architectural project, the qualities of the Forest Retreat’s location played a significant role in its design. A slight slope required the firm to use piers that make the structure seemingly hover above the forest bed below, masking the gradual downward slope that gives the cabin’s interior a gentle, spiraling quality.
But the boulder remained the focal point, anchoring an exposed, interior courtyard, or impluvium, that allowed the designers to bring more sunlight into the living spaces. The feature also facilitated an easy cross breeze through the structure, accommodating local airflow patterns such as heavy winter winds from the north and northeast and a summer southwestern wind. The impluvium—framed by an inward-sloping, four-segment, recycled-steel roof—also provided an open space for rain and snow to enter the topsoil below.
“Even in a fairly minimal sort of abstract box, you can still inflect natural conditions like wind or rain, and have [the box] provide a meaningful clue to how it fits with the environment,” Salcedo-Fernandez explains.
These environmental considerations extended to the project’s accessibility and construction materials. Local regulations required minimal impact to the surrounding forest and, as a result, the property is accessible only via foot or a small utility vehicle; car parking lies 300 yards away from the house, outside the forest itself. Excluding the local recycled-aggregate-concrete pier foundations and a leaf-resistant, recycled-steel siding, the house is constructed entirely with regional Douglas fir, intended to sequester carbon, and heavily insulated with sustainable materials, including Zip panels, recycled loose-fill cellulose, and mineral wool on the floor.
The house’s moss green–painted exterior also blends thoughtfully with the surrounding maple, birch, and elm trees, simultaneously complementing its vegetative surroundings while distinguishing itself from the building’s lighter-toned, airy interior. Often washed with daylight thanks to ample large windows, light-colored wood accentuates the gradients between different rooms otherwise unobstructed by walls; a sunken living area rests a step beneath the dining room and kitchen, all of which sit under a lofted sleeping space.
Tying together the complexities of local regulations, demands for sustainability, placement of existing trees, and uneven sloped terrain, Scalar Architecture completed the Forest Retreat in 2022, creating a structure that peacefully coexists with its botanical neighbors. In time, the house seems destined to become a part of the forest itself, a hint of human intervention in the wooded space.
“[The sloping roof has] this atmospheric quality with the light or when it rains or snows,” Salcedo-Fernandez says. “Last winter, they had a lot of snow and it piled up in there, just for a few days, but those days were really magical.”
Project: Forest Retreat, Litchfield, Conn.
Architect: Julio Salcedo-Fernandez - AIA, NCARB, EU, Principal in charge; Tomás Rodríguez - Lic. Arch. Associate; Raúl Tenoira - Lic. Arch; Elda Hernández, designer; Sharon Mendoza, designer.
Interior Designer: Paul Feldsher
Mechanical Engineer: Michael Catalano,Green Guru, LLC
Structural Engineer: Zen Rill
Civil Engineer: Paul Szymanski, Arthur Howland and Associates
Construction Manager: Bill Haley, W. Haley Construction
General Contractor: Bill Haley, W. Haley Construction
Lighting Designer: Paul Feldsher
Any other consultants, with their roles: Environmental and soil scientist, Paul Szymanski, Arthur Howland and Associate
Photography: Miguel de Guzman & Rocio Romero, ©Imagen Subliminal
Size: 1,200 square feet
MATERIALS AND SOURCES
Appliances: Fisher and Paykel
Bathroom Fixtures: Kohler
Cabinets: cross laminated sheathing - bio based non formaldehyde adhesive
Ceilings: cross laminated sheathing - bio based non formaldehyde adhesive
Countertops: Natural Stone
Exterior Wall Systems: recycled steel siding, ZIP system
Fabrics and Finishes: Multiple Sources
Flooring: cross laminated sheathing - bio based non formaldehyde adhesive
Furniture: Multiple Sources – Sofa A+R
HVAC: ERV, 0.2 ACH, Heat Pump, @ 0.2 ACH
Insulation: Multiple sources – Zip system, mineral wool, recycled loose cellulose
Lighting Control Systems: Buster and Punch
Lighting: Multiple sources
Structural System: LVL - sustainable growth and non-toxic bio-glues
Walls: cross laminated sheathing - bio based non formaldehyde adhesive
Windows and Doors: Andersen