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Unplugged

A one-room cabin in the woods pulls the cord on modern living.

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During the week, Scott Newkirk, a fashion stylist and interior designer, leads the usual hectic city life. Some days, he’s working at Coach or on John Varvatos’s spring show; other days, he’s consulting at a client’s Park Avenue apartment or mulling over plans for another house he’s building upstate.

Come spring, there is one constant on his schedule. He spends every weekend living off the grid at his 300-square-foot house in Yulan, New York. There’s no electricity or running water, no TV, no computer. There he can slow down, sleep late, and take his daily bath in the nearby brook (weather permitting).

Newkirk had been living close to the land on the property already, in a wood-frame tent, but it burned down. Not long after, he came across the 1973 classic eco-architecture book Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art, which celebrated small, handcrafted houses constructed out of recovered and scavenged materials. That got him thinking about building a house on his property with the same innocence and integrity he was reading about.

Newkirk began sketching ideas in fall 2003, after the tent fire. Although the main cabin is only fourteen feet by fourteen feet, it took two years and three different builders to complete; Newkirk had a hard time finding builders who got his idea for a simple, rough-hewn look. I finally found a talented and dependable local guy, Craig Petrasek, to complete construction with reclaimed wood, extend the deck area, and build the stone patio, he says.

The traditional post-and-beam frame of the house uses old square-head nails on the exterior siding and floor, with a few modern ones for the roof. The smaller side windows are handmade, and the glass-paneled fronts both upstairs and downstairs are standard aluminum frames clad in wood. The downstairs panels slide open, and an upstairs panel pivots. To complete the indoor-outdoor feel, there is a twelve-foot strip of window across the rear with an eye-level view of the backyard. The completed complex (including an outhouse, guest house, and outdoor shower) sits on about three acres of Newkirk’s 50-acre property. The house reminds me of every fort I built in the woods as a kid growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, he says.

Every July, Newkirk’s parents come up from Mississippi for four months and stay in a cabin he’s built for them on the property, which is also without modern amenities. I stress that, because they actually live off the grid full-time, he says. And they are 75 years old. Being able to provide them with a getaway and spend time with them is pretty precious.


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