A Contemporary Home in Cornwall

 

Barry Halkin

 ‘‘I’ve always been something of a gypsy,” says Betty Spence. “I’ve traveled incessantly for work, living in an apartment in the city when I was not away.” A few years ago, Spence decided to put down roots in Cornwall, where she’d rented a weekend home for nearly a decade. None of the houses she looked at spoke to her, so she bought an unimproved lot and decided to build new.

Spence designed her home in collaboration with architect Alan Metcalfe, a friend with whom she worked “wonderfully well.” With the addition of a builder she trusted, “I knew I was in really good hands,” she says. Spence swears that this, her first home, will be her last. “It’s very exciting to be in a home at all, let alone one that I built,” she says. “It’s changed my life. It’s like there’s a magnet that draws me here.”

An author and expert on women in business, Spence has been president of the National Association for Female Executives since 2001. At heart, she is a gardener, cook, bird lover—and now she’s a homebody. She moved into the place she describes as her dream house in 2010.

Her passion for nature informed the home’s design in every way, according to Metcalfe, who is principal at Metcalfe Architecture & Design in Philadelphia. Says Spence: “I like open spaces and light. I love the outdoors and would be out there all the time if I could.” Metcalfe says he and his client were in sync.

“In order to do this, we needed to have a shared vision. And we did,” says Metcalfe. “I knew it was important that the house allow her to experience the outdoors any way she could. The site is very wooded, near a swamp on a rock outcropping, facing south. The house sits up against trees and opens up to a field. There are all kinds of birds that nest in the tall grass, plenty of wildlife to enjoy.” 

Geometric with boldly slanted standing seam roofs, the house and adjacent garage are sided with red cedar. An ipe deck with cable railings wraps around the main level. Because Spence was adamant about not having an attached garage, and because Metcalfe is keen on sensible transitions from the outdoors in, he arranged the two structures so that a deliberate path runs between them. “People who live in the country spend a lot of time in the car,” says the architect. “The reality is we don’t use a front door, or even a back door, but make many trips from garage to house, so we set it up in such a way that you would walk past a small garden and take in long views.”

At just over 1,900 square feet, the interior’s open plan was carefully designed to visually define separate living spaces. “We wanted a place that felt welcoming for one person,” says Metcalfe. “Betty didn’t want to feel as though she was knocking around in there. And of course the house had to work for both day and night, and in multiple seasons.”

Despite vaulted ceilings that soar from 8 feet 6 inches in the kitchen to 20 feet high in the living room, the home still feels cozy. The tongue-and-groove wood ceiling is something Spence insisted on because of its country feel.

In order to frame views at every turn, Metcalfe placed windows where they would  also bring in the best natural light. To that end, the house is constantly bathed in light that pours in from tall, vertical panes and clerestories all in a row.

While Spence has long been interested in the principles of feng shui, she says she didn’t consciously make decisions based on the ancient Chinese art of placement and balancing energy. “I have a friend who lived in China and I knew of it, but for some reason when we started work on the house it didn’t dawn on me to consider it,” she says. “And yet, it is simply amazing to me how intuitive Alan is about it. He chose colors and did things like putting a cut-out in the wall between the living room and stairs that send so much energy around.”

After she moved in, Spence asked a friend who was trained in feng shui to visit and suggest “cures” that would enhance the flow of energy throughout. “We put up a flute with red tassels near the sliders . . . it’s there to capture opportunities and keep them from going out the window,” she says. And because one should never have one’s back to the door when working at the stove, they hung wind chimes so that movement in the air would alert her to someone entering the room.

The palette is simple, lots of white to showcase Spence’s very organic artwork, including an outsize stick sculpture that hangs in the dining area. Interior walls are painted an energetic shade of marigold, while soft blue was chosen for the kitchen cabinets. 

The furnishings are simple, sculptural and modern. “Alan has a contemporary take on things and I wanted the furnishings to look like they belong here,” says Spence. “I like modern, but I’ve never had it before. I have a friend who says they would never know the same person lived in my city apartment and my country home.”

Metcalfe chose the lighting fixtures, among them whimsical white birds that appear to be flying through the air. Although the architect felt a leather sofa would work best, the client insisted on fabric (“something I could sink into”). He wanted a Scandinavian-style woodstove, but Spence opted for a practical soapstone stove that “looks great and stays warm for a long time.”

They may not have agreed on every detail, but “I want to stress how imaginative Alan is,” says Spence. “Really, he is an artist as well as an architect. You can talk with him about what you like and he makes it happen.”

Although she still travels and spends more time than she’d like in her New York apartment, Spence takes advantage of the opportunity to work from Cornwall whenever she can. “Honestly, I never want to leave,” she says. “This is, for me, a dream come true.”  

For a full gallery of Betty Spence's Cornwall home, click here.

Fundamentals of Feng Shui

The ancient Chinese art of placement — of a building, the rooms within a building, the furnishings within a room —is based on the belief that the flow of energy, or chi, can be enhanced to attract good health, prosperity and strong relationships.

Believers suggest you can make your home feel balanced and fill it with positive energy by doing the following:

  •  Be certain the path to your front door is clear of debris or obstacles, and your entryway is light and open.
  • Empty your home of clutter, in order to allow chi to flow freely.
  •  Understand the bagua, or “energy map” of your house. The bagua represents the connection between areas in your home and areas in your life. For example, it’s said that improvements to the southeast corner will bring money energy into your life.
  • Embrace fresh air and natural light. Open your windows often and acquire air-purifying plants; do what you can to bring as much natural light into your rooms as possible.
  • Make sure your home contains each of the five feng shui elements— wood, fire, earth, metal and water— or representations of them.

 

A Contemporary Home in Cornwall

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