This philosophy guided her in the purchase of her home a dozen years ago in more ways than one. “Back then, if you were leaving the metropolis, Orange County was the place to go for value,” she says. “And I chose this particular house because of the combination of energy efficiency and low maintenance.”
The timber-frame raised ranch sits on a hill at the end of a dead-end street, within easy walking distance of Cornwall’s business district, yet quite private and snuggled in a nicely-maintained woodlot. The immediate exterior is graced by a garden created by Katie Goodspeed (goodspeedandcompany.com) that features, among other low-maintenance and xerigraphic plants, a selection of Mediterranean cacti. “You wouldn’t think they’d be happy here, but they are,” muses Lavin. “They flower beautifully.” A natural stone retaining wall lines the parking area; flagstone steps and porch lead one into the light and spacious interior.
“I tried a bunch of color schemes, but I kept returning to the natural,” says Lavin. “It didn’t fight with the landscape.” It would indeed be a shame to do that, as a wall of windows looks west across the Hudson Valley. Exposed pine beams are, she believes, “probably from New Hampshire, where the builders were from.
“I’m the third owner of this house—it was built around ’88 or ’89—and I think I’ve been restoring a lot of the original features,” she says. “The second owner took the woodstove out; I’ve put it back—all those stones are from the backyard. She closed off the ducts—I opened them back up. The previous two owners were organized and thoughtful enough that I have a nice accordion file with all the information from the original construction.”
In her experimentation with color, which continues in the smaller rooms of the upstairs loft, Lavin uses exclusively nontoxic paint. “There’s a company in New Mexico called BioShield that makes these—they come in chalk form and you have to mix it yourself. Now there’s a new no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint from Lowe’s that I’m experimenting with.”
The house was originally constructed by Northern Energy Homes of New England, a company that seems to no longer exist. “I’ve hunted for information on them, and they seem to be gone,” says Lavin. “But they were ahead of their time.” The Styrofoam-panel insulation is R-38 (“The super-insulated home concept, and doesn’t emit fumes,” Lavin notes). Heat is provided by passive solar combined with a Vermont Castings woodstove fitted with a catalytic converter, and circulated through extensive ductwork with a heat pump (Vermontcastings.com).
“Some people don’t think heat pumps are suited to this kind of climate, with the hard winters, but this one works fine,” says Lavin. “I think it’s because of the excellent planning of the air flow. There’s open air circulation from the basement on up to the loft.” Beneath one semicircular opening, Lavin has installed a box fan to help move things along. “In the summer it brings the cool air up nicely, and I just reverse it for winter.”
The neutral tones, open floor plan, expanse of windows, and sparse but clever accents all work together to create a relaxing and graceful space. On the coffee table rests a hunk of mastodon tusk; in a repurposed medical cabinet is an array of sparkling rocks and crystals. A handful of vintage signs offer a clue to a chapter of Lavin’s life: “I used to be an antiques person, but I try to keep collectibles to a minimum—they can take over your life,” she says. “I’m still really big on used furniture. I’m a believer in recycling in every sense.”
Indeed, very little in this house is unnecessary or redundant. The philosophy would seem to be that objects must pull their weight in both utility and pleasure provided. A slab of Indian granite that forms part of the U-shaped kitchen counter (the rest is butcher block) sparkles enticingly with chips of garnet and ruby. A few large paintings of Hudson River views add a watery element to the visuals. They are, Lavin explains, painted by her friend Kevin Kearns (kevinkearns.org). “He shows in the city and stuff. I feel lucky to have him for a neighbor.”
One suspects Lavin’s neighbors would say the same of her.