House, Interrupted

In 2006, Philipp Tschofen and Carmen Wiederin, of the Vienna-based atelier Propeller Z, found an opportunity too weird to pass up. Thirty miles north of the city, a landowner wanted to sell a three-quarter-acre orchard and farmhouse for the price of a car. “We said, ‘Exactly what kind of car do you have in mind?’ ” Tschofen laughs. One worth $25,000, it turned out. The architects forked over the money and found themselves with a piece of countryside and a dilapidated 200-year-old building.

The old farmhouse—a traditional U shape with the living space separated from the barn and stable by a courtyard—tucks into sloping terrain. The architects had a limited budget to make the most of their purchase, but they wanted to take advantage of the beautiful southern view that the half-buried original structure neglected. Tschofen and Wiederin designed what they call an “open eye”—a new, elevated kitchen and living room behind a wall of glass, framed by thick aluminum—to capture the vista, only removing one corner of the original roof to make way for it. Using readily available materials, the architects made the addition both cheap and energy efficient. Best of all, it disturbs the preexisting structure as little as it disturbs the neighbors. “From the street, nobody can actually see what I’ve done to the place,’” Tschofen says. “I have to invite them in to hear, ‘Wow!’”

Completed in April, the new building keeps a literal distance—roughly an inch—from the old, making it impossible to pass between the two without experiencing a brief taste of the great outdoors. “That’s an important part of the design,” Tschofen says. “You are always under some kind of roof, but there is no internal connection. It’s a country house. Go outside as much as you can.”

Save for installing the prefab panels (which went up in two days), Tschofen did all the work himself. The internal cladding, the furniture, and the facade are his budget-minded experiments. “We don’t really know how our materials will stand the test of time,” he says. “Our aluminum, for example, is very cheap, very soft metal. It doesn’t have coating; it scratches and stains. A client would complain, but we like it.”

The addition’s floor is rough concrete, one wall is made of felt, and the others are marine plywood. “It’s straightforward,” Tschofen says. “We had a budget of about 70,000 euros for everything, so we couldn’t afford things like air-conditioning or complex shading systems.” The old farmhouse’s thick mud walls are its sole defense against summertime heat. But in the winter, the addition needs almost no heating; its southern glazing and recycled-newspaper insulation absorb the low winter sun, and the lightweight structure heats up quickly. “You always have a choice: a winter building and a summer building,” Tschofen says. “That’s also a kind of experiment—not having to use an entire space at once, choosing your surroundings based on seasonal strengths and weaknesses.”

The firewood stacked on the north facade can pick up where the sun leaves off in winter, fueling the brick stove indoors. It’s also the new structure’s way of saying, “I come in peace.” Tschofen says, “There’s a wood stack behind every building here, and we wanted to connect to the context without necessarily having a pitched roof or something. I tried to make a new building that didn’t compromise in its modernity but still fit in. And I didn’t want to tear down an old building either—rather to add to it, to keep it alive.”

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