PIPESTEM (AP) — “It was more like a joke. ‘What if we built a house that was all windows?’”
Nick Olson had only known Lilah Horwitz for a few days before he bought her a plane ticket from New York to West Virginia to see his family’s property in rural Summers County in the summer of 2011.
As the two watched a sunset from a hilltop on the property one summer night, the idea for the glass house was born.
Olson and Horwitz built their summer home on the hilltop in 2012 with mostly recycled or reused materials. The house is made almost entirely of wood and nails recycled from a barn they tore down. The home’s signature 16-foot-tall glass wall is made of a patchwork of windows they purchased and found on a road trip with a U-Haul truck.
Altogether, the house only set the couple back about $500.
“You’re definitely closer to nature, your surroundings, the weather, the light throughout the day,” said Olson, 28, a photographer from Milwaukee. “The idea started with the idea of watching sunsets up here on the hill. We came up here before there was a structure and would just sit up here and watch the sunsets. It started with that idea of building a structure where you could sit inside and view the whole sunset.”
Olson had spent every summer of his childhood at a house on the property; his great-grandparents were traveling sawyers who settled down and built a house on the property around the turn of the 20th century.
Horwitz, 24, met Olson in an artists’ residency program in Pennsylvania in 2011. She was a West Coast transplant attending Parsons School of Design in lower Manhattan. She has a small line of clothing that she makes and designs herself for some stores in New York City.
For about a year after they met, the glass house never came to fruition. “We’re both artists, so we go from job to job and move from place to place,” Nick explained.
But in June 2012, an opportunity arrived for Olson and Horwitz to build their dream home.
“There came a time when we were in a position we didn’t have anything going on, so we left our jobs and said ‘Let’s just do it,’ and did it,” Horwitz said.
Construction started on the home in July 2012. The first three weeks or so of construction was spent disassembling a cattle barn on the property. The wood, tin roof and even the nails from the old barn were painstakingly disassembled and carried across the property, where they would be pieced back together for the new structure.
“Taking boards off one at a time and pounding the nails out, stacking them and moving them up here . It took quite a while in the beginning just to reclaim all the materials and get them ready to use again,” Olson said.
Though both Olson and Horwitz had done sculptures before, neither had ever taken on a structure on this scale. They went to the library, looked up construction techniques and combined it with their vision for its shape and form to make it happen.
Olson said it was “pretty easy” to build most of the house, which he said has a shed-like construction. The biggest issue they faced was getting the windows to fit together correctly, and hoisting them up into place.
“It was really like building a puzzle or sculpture than building a regular wall. That was probably the most fun part of it, the puzzle aspect of it,” Olson said.
Construction wrapped up in November 2012. The final addition to the house was a wood stove to help keep warm on cold nights.
The sun rises behind the structure and sets in front. Throughout the day, the lighting and temperature inside the home fluctuate with the angle of the sun.
Horwitz said the cross-breeze through the house’s door and windows generally keeps the home comfortable during the summer months. As the sun sets over the picturesque skyline in front, its rays reach the back walls and heat up the building; once the sun descends behind the distant hills, the temperature drops with it and the landscape transforms yet again as the stars come out.
“Being and living in the building, it definitely is a whole experience about light throughout the day and the night, from watching how the light changes from the morning to right before sunset, when the sun comes in at a certain angle and it lights up all the old wood,” Olson said. “It almost looks like it’s on fire.
“Even at night you get moonlight and see how that moves across the sky. You can see from the fireflies in the field all the way to the stars when it’s clear at night. It’s really this whole experience of light and space. It’s totally different from living in a standard house where you’ve got drywall and a couple of windows.”
Building and living in the glass house has brought the young couple closer together over the years. The two placed every board, beat every nail and made every decision during the construction of the home; now, Olson and Horwitz come to West Virginia to enjoy it whenever they can.
“It sounds really silly, but we hadn’t known each other for that long,” Horwitz said. “I guess we knew each other pretty well, but it’s a great way to get to know someone — just go out in the woods and try to build something bigger than yourself.”
“We’ve done some traveling before we started building the house, but building a home together and making all the decisions for it, you learn a lot about each other,” Olson said.
Their home has received attention nationally on home and design blogs for its simple, open design and sustainability. Being in a remote area, they thought nobody other than friends and family would ever know about it. It began to gain notoriety after Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, two of Olson’s grad school friends, visited his house and featured it as part of their web documentary series, Half Cut Tea.
“We never really thought anyone would see it when we built it,” Horwitz said. “It’s kind of funny that now it’s everywhere.”
Right now, they are spending a month at the glass house. They are in the process of building a deck behind the house to make an outdoor kitchen, so they can cook meals and make coffee.
The couple has some more ideas for the place, such as treehouses, boardwalks and “more things to come” — and Olson has even started work on a log cabin on the property that will be suitable for year-round living, but Horwitz jokes “that’s in the 10-year plan.”
For now, the couple is looking forward to spending the rest of the month in their “dream home.”
“It’s super beautiful to be so connected to the land around you. You’re kind of forced to be,” Horwitz said. “You’re really in it and you’re really experiencing it and you don’t get to close yourself off from the outside world like you can in most structures.”