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This Catskills House Is Cool, Affordable, and Off the Grid

An interview with architect Marc Thorpe on building a cool house powered by the sun.

The Fremont House.
Heatmap Illustration/Marco Petrini, Getty Images

Architect and Industrial designer Marc Thorpe runs a multi-disciplinary studio in New York. His innovative approach to architecture, branding and furniture design for clients including Under Armour, Moroso and Ligne Roset is rooted in the belief in an architecture of responsibility. His original designs aim to be sustainable and affordable. He recently collaborated with Stage Six (who scale social enterprise) and affordable housing social enterprise group, Échale International on a sustainable and ecologically responsible housing development in Uganda. Each home, constructed of soil bricks, has its own water tower to collect rainwater in case of drought.

I spoke with Marc about Fremont House, he and his wife’s concept home built to showcase how off-grid living can be both stylish and affordable. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your general architecture approach/design?

Our approach is straightforward, simple, and legible. In the case of the several homes I’ve built upstate, it’s really been more about just trying to bring some degree of taste and sophistication to the language of architecture upstate using local vernacular. But at the same time, I’m approaching it utilizing renewable technology. The short of it is to keep everything tight and local, integrate renewable tech, and push for that 100% win/win.

Fremont houseMarco Petrini

How did you achieve this at the Fremont House?

We wanted to test out the solar concept along with the rectilinearity of the house. How can we keep the house as passive as possible so it doesn’t lose heat and cooling?

To start, we made the entire house solar-powered. It is not tied to the grid out of the gate. So, a zero dollar energy bill. The panels are all on the roof and are designed to accommodate southern exposure. The solar powers everything — lights, internet, appliances.

We all focused on the rectilinearity of the house, which is a passive move. We used platonic forms as a square, with 90 degree angles which make for an easier opportunity to lock it up and not lose cool. It’s also naturally cross-ventilated. There is no AC in the house whatsoever.

It’s heated with a wood burning stove and an energy efficient dyson heater inside the utility room which provides heat for piping and is always maintained at 55 degrees.

In winter, we make a fire, and because it’s square, the house doesn’t lose energy. It’s easier to heat than a house with different angles. Also the house has very few windows, so we are not losing heat that way.

Fremont houseMarco Petrini

How did you adapt the design for different seasons? Doesn’t it get boiling hot in summer?

Summer doesn’t get boiling hot here. The house is between Roscoe and Callicoon, New York, near Lake Tana. The area stays cool and rarely gets above 80 degrees. The cross ventilation allows the heat to move through the house naturally, it rises and goes straight out the window.

It’s also possible, if you need it, to put in an electric heat pump and a mini-split would provide AC.

Your Habitable score shows … wow, you barely have any climate risk! Not even for heat! Were you aware of that when you built here?

I didn’t know this when we were building, but I always knew the climate was super moderate here. There is lots of rain, lots of sun. It’s sort of a perfect place and also gets a lot of snow.

What decisions did you take to build the Catskill House for its environment?

We mostly had to work around hot and cold.

Also the roof panels are black and the roof is black so it retains heat. And when there is snowfall on it, the black has a faster heat coefficient to warm the snow so it melts quicker. The roof also is on an angle so the snow will fall right off — a natural cleaning too.

Marco Petrini

What would you have done differently now that you are living in it?

We finished Fremont House at the end of last year. So as of December 1, it will have been one full year.

Lessons learned? Its’ a two-story. In the future, we will build a one story. There’s just an ease of access to the roof when you need to get up there. Cleaning windows on the second level is a pain.

Otherwise, everything works perfectly. In the dead of winter, the house can heat up from freezing to 70 within a few hours. It has a small footprint, only 1,000 square feet (500 up and 500 downstairs) so a fire warms the whole house.

For the next house we do in North Branch that we are building to sell, we will execute a lot of these lessons. We will use the same approach and build according to the same concepts.

What are your three top takeaways for people who want to live off grid

1. Just take the position of being autonomous. Understand that you don’t need to rely on the system, on the grid. You don’t need to rely on anything. You can take responsibility for yourself and do it on your own.

2. You don’t need to sacrifice design to have a sustainable home. There’s a stigma around some of this stuff that is unjustified. It’s possible to have a well-designed home that is fully functioning without the powers pushing fossil fuels as the only solution.

3. There are so many opportunities to get off the grid: solar, geothermal, and other technologies. It’s worth the effort.


Ann Marie Gardner

Ann Marie Gardner is an award-winning editor and entrepreneur. She writes about design and climate and just launched Habitable, a newsletter and tool to assess your home's risk from climate change. You can read it here: Read More

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