The farm was inspiring, in part because of what wasn’t there anymore. Roxanne Sherbeck and Jon Jackson bought a 19-acre property near Charlottesville in 2010, and as they got to know it, they started to realize that it was dotted with the decomposing stumps and logs of oak trees. The absence of those trees—or the presence of their remains—supplied the name for their farm: Ghost Oaks.
The couple are architects who recently retired from practice in Pittsburgh. When they first bought Ghost Oaks, they thought they’d turn the original farmhouse into a guest house and build their own residence a bit down the hill, on the site of a horse stable whose exterior siding was decaying from the ground up.
But when the time came to start designing, they decided to renovate the old house for themselves, while making a guest apartment and studio out of the existing stable. “This view is too good to give to horses,” says Sherbeck. And the stable, she and Jackson felt, was worth saving.
With 14 stalls on either side of a center aisle, its metal roof was supported by pressure-treated columns, and it featured rough-sawn planking on the stalls. Sherbeck saw it as a chance to try out a few ideas she’d been mulling for a long while.
For one thing, the stable had more square footage than the guest apartment would require. “I had an idea to make an energy-efficient ‘keep’”—as in a castle’s fortified inner sanctum—“inside the outer envelope,” she says.
The scheme that developed has the guest apartment sitting more or less in the center of the building’s footprint, surrounded on four sides by transitional spaces that buffer it from the exterior walls. Translucent sliding barn doors, fabricated by contractor Lithic Construction, can close off the keep in very hot or cold weather, but much of the year, the barn doors can stay open so that the apartment enjoys maximum spaciousness.
The notion of a “keep” dovetailed nicely with another longtime desire of Sherbeck’s: “I’ve always wanted to do a polycarbonate exterior.” Polycarbonate is a clear synthetic resin that’s fire resistant, strong and insulating, and won’t yellow over time. In this case, it also allows sunlight to pour into the building, and offers a poetic connection to the oak trees that aren’t there: These are the walls that partially disappear. “It’s a little like a Japanese house, with paper screens,” says Jackson.
Sherbeck points out that traditional barn construction involves spacing the exterior siding boards a bit to allow some light and airflow. “It’s really a screen wall,” she says. Partly in homage, she designed a screen composed of vertical and diagonal cedar boards, tucked against the outside of the polycarbonate on the southwestern wall. “It’s a functional sun screen,” says Jackson—and the design loosely mimics the branching pattern of trees.
The building, then, has walls that are partly opaque but mostly transparent, allowing daylight to enter but also creating an enchanting effect at night, when light leaks out from within.
“The whole idea was to do something rustic, not perfect,” says Jackson. “It has this sense of being settled in the landscape.” Salvaged materials from the original stable helped preserve this feeling—barn door hardware for the sliding apartment doors, cedar for the sun screen and the rough-sawn wood that once enclosed the stables, now put to work as siding for the central apartment portion of the building. “We lightly sanded it,” says Jackson—“not to obliterate the original saw marks but just pull them up.”
The apartment itself is a simple space with white-stained plywood floors, soapstone counters on the Ikea kitchen cabinets and industrial-style lighting. “I bought the fans from an agricultural supply company,” says Sherbeck.
A small front porch and a big back porch sandwich the indoor space, and the kitchen has a serving window opening into the studio, which the couple envisions doing double duty as an event space. Mostly it’ll serve as Sherbeck’s art studio, making this a kind of “rural loft,” as Jackson puts it—living space and creative space under one roof.
If there is a big party in here, guests may get to eat off a table built from very local wood: an ancient oak tree near the farmhouse, killed by lightning after the couple bought the property and then sawn into 2″ thick, 20″-wide planks. “That’s another ghost oak,” Sherbeck says.