Every May, artist Amanda McCauley and her husband, Thom Higgins, a retired director of television commercials, travel north from Los Angeles to Lopez Island, off the coast of Washington State. Geographically and spiritually, the drive is a long wind-down—from busy highways to narrow roads to a ferry ride across the foggy Puget Sound. There are acres of lush green land, a dirt road hugged by cedars, and, finally, their destination: The Barn, where they stay until fall.
Erected in a 7-acre forest, the 6,000-square-foot space—a giant one-bedroom with moveable gallery walls—embodies the ethos of an island known as a mecca for sustainability. It sits at an angle meant to create a passive solar environment: Vaulted doors and trifold windows are situated to capture maximum sunlight. Construction is under way, too, for a rain-catchment system that will collect up to 30,000 gallons from the roof. It’s all part of the grand scheme for the house.
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“The idea was to bring the outside in,” says McCauley, a Southern-born 48-year-old with infectious good humor. The cedar-plank walls that line the vast interior, enclosing her art table, the massive fireplace, and the couple’s novel bedroom—an airy tent erected in a loft—are from the surrounding forest. The granite for the fireplace surround and the floor (which has energy-efficient radiant heat) was collected on the property. It’s all the doing of more than 30 local craftsmen, each with different expertise: loggers, haulers, carpenters, stonemasons, welders, and landscapers. “Every square inch is filled with extraordinary work that each person takes tremendous pride in,” says David Smith, an island carpenter who helped build the house. “We have passion for what we do, and it shows.”
Higgins, athletic and outdoorsy, had chosen Lopez for a second home after his brother worked on an environmental study of the cleanest places on earth and the island topped the list. The couple met there a decade ago at a New Year’s Eve party that Higgins threw when the building was still a shell. Together, they turned it into a home.
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Higgins, 69, designed the lighting system, cribbing from his former work. With one central panel, he can illuminate and dim every fixture. The lighting was a challenge with 60-foot ceilings. When the couple spotted giant orange domes at a Camper store, they ordered them for the kitchen. “It gives the space a bit of drama,” McCauley says. Though the lights lend an industrial vibe, nature comes into play there, too. A cutting board slides to reveal hidden composting bins. “It all goes back into the earth,” Higgins says.
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That earth supports a healthy forest. The smell of fresh wood—and peaceful walks along the many paths that lead to the house—is integral to life here. The couple also heat their space with fallen cedars. “The trees are what make this whole place,” says Higgins. “Nothing goes to waste.”
It’s not just wood they forage; the forest provides art supplies, too. “Our art was born on the island, using the native flowers and organic materials,” McCauley says. Dried and pressed, those petals and leaves get collaged into whimsical likenesses of owls, morels, and trees. Higgins sets them in recycled-cardboard frames he makes by hand.
"Our art was born on the island, using the native flowers and organic materials," says McCauley.
Eventually, the two move walls and transform the barn into an art gallery where they welcome the public for the annual Lopez Island Studio Tour. Hundreds pass through, ogling the house and admiring the art. Higgins and McCauley celebrate afterward, hosting locals for a post-tour potluck. Such suppers are a Lopez tradition. The menu tells you why: grass-fed lamb, fresh-caught salmon, island oysters wrapped in bacon from pigs raised down the road, berries collected by hand. “And it all comes from the island,” says Higgins.
At summer’s end, they’re loath to leave. But they’re confident the house will be in good shape when they return: Made of steel, the large-scale entry and exterior side doors are flung open when the couple is home, and they seal firmly shut otherwise. The winters are so harsh, the interior needs this protection from the elements. “When we close the place up,” McCauley laughs, “it’s secured like a giant tomb.” Until the next season when Higgins and McCauley return, and the house springs back to life.
Amanda McCauley and Thom Higgins designed their home to merge with the forest around them—and to reflect an understanding that a few modern touches can help.
The window in the kitchen, a double-height expanse of glass, lets the sun pour in and reveals the woods. To help brighten the interior on gray days, factory-sized dome lights hang over the island, adding a contemporary touch to the rustic setting.
McCauley’s collecting excursions along the water and in the woods often end in the poured-concrete potting area tucked behind the house. Here, she can lay out her finds.Foraging is a meditative act for her. “Days go by and I don’t see anyone else but Thom,” says McCauley. “It is the kind of quiet we don’t have in our city life.”
Salvage also plays a role in the barn’s design. A vintage fire door from a New York City loft, for instance, has found a second life as a portal that slides away to reveal the home’s single bathroom.
Despite the kitchen’s sleek Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances, on most nights the couple cook outside in an open pit fueled by fallen trees, which they also shape into planks for grilling Pacific salmon. Virtually all the food on Lopez Island is local, whether foraged, grown, fished, or hunted. “There is always something to eat here that amazes me,” says McCauley.