Earth Tones: Phinney Design Group Builds with Nature in Mind

October 04, 2018 5 min read

Earth Tones: Phinney Design Group Builds with Nature in Mind

Nestled in the pines on the west side of Lake George, is a retreat-like dwelling where Japanese influence and Adirondack style meet. Among the most striking elements about the upstate New York lake house is its unassuming nature. Despite being of new construction, it breathes and blends into the surroundings as if it has quite simply, always existed.   

In addition to its intimate position within the landscape, the home’s exterior intentionally features a combination of locally-milled Douglas fir timbers, eastern white bark on cedar planks and poplar bark shakes. The eye-catching stonework is New Baltimore Stone, resourcefully quarried from a nearby spot. 

This remarkable attention to detail and commitment to sustainability is the signature style of Phinney Design Group, a multi-disciplinary architecture, interior design and green building consulting firm based in Saratoga Springs, NY. Founded in 2002 by principal architect Michael Phinney, the firm has since won numerous accolades for its focus on environmentally-responsible construction, particularly the ability to integrate modern structures within natural spaces.

“Our reputation is built on being creative and innovative, but, above all, we are known for being a conscious design firm,” says Tess Palma-Martinez, Marketing Coordinator at Phinney Design Group (PDG). “Conscious not only relates to sustainability, but also in the way we collaborate and listen carefully to the wants and needs of our clients.”

 PDG’s portfolio is a balance of commercial, institutional and high-end residential projects, each expressed through a thoughtful combination of execution, details, materials, methods and experience. We asked Tess about PDG’s whole approach to building design.

 How does PDG define sustainable design, and how important is it to your clients?

Sustainable design is sensitive to the environment and makes a conscious choice to impact or interrupt the natural surroundings as little as possible. It may include using renewable resources or reducing waste, but fundamentally, it’s about the connection between people and nature. Our clients are passionate about this and come to us knowing that sustainable design is our expertise. We’re known for using modern techniques of building into the landscape so that the natural environment assists with the passivity of the structure.

That’s an interesting word. What do you mean by the “passivity” of the structure?

Passivity just means that it doesn’t interrupt the surrounding environment and is sustainable to some degree. Take, for example, a custom-designed lakefront home. The air flow off the lake helps the home take advantage of the natural cooling effect, which in turn means less energy needs to be consumed. Instead of air conditioning, Mother Nature does the work.

Do you believe that form follows function?

Absolutely, and that’s the beauty of design. It’s not enough for a design to be aesthetically pleasing, it must be functional. It’s all the difference between being well-informed versus taking a shot in the dark – if you don’t understand the purpose of the design, you won’t be able to create something meaningful or valuable. When you truly understand how something works, you can really start to push the creative boundaries and explore.

What role does color choice play in the design process?

When meeting with clients, color is usually discussed at the initial phase of a project. It’s part of interpreting the client’s vision because color often helps to articulate their personal style. While it doesn’t play a major role in the overall construction, which can be a one, two or three-year process, color is usually not finalized until closer to the end of the project. And that’s a good thing.

How so?

When it comes to color, we think it’s better to be flexible and even open to surprises, because you never know how decisions will unfold or might change along the way. Recently, one of our designers had a project in which they envisioned using a very dark, forest-green color. Initially, the client resisted but ended up trusting the designer’s instinct. In the end, the client was blown away by how impactful an unexpected accent color can be.

Can you discuss a recent project that PDG is particularly proud to have worked on?

One project that’s receiving quite a bit of attention and won a number of awards is the Yaddo Artist Studios (Yaddo is a retreat located on an 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs and is designed to nurture the creative process.) We designed and provided construction management services on five new studios available for year-round use. Among the challenges we had was positioning them on the estate grounds so that they would be close to amenities and yet secluded enough so that the artists can work without interruption. We also wanted them to be modern while still being suited for a historic site. One unique element is the movable walls in each space, so the studio can adapt to the artist’s needs depending on their medium. Recently, an artist who used one of the studios told us she wants an exact replica built on her property at home. She doesn’t want to change a single thing about it, so that’s pretty amazing.


See more photos of Yaddo Artist Studios at:

What influence does Saratoga Springs have on your firm?

Interestingly, Saratoga is known for its natural mineral springs, which are said to be healing waters. I think part of that carries through into our designs, which bring together elements that are uplifting, inspiring, and most of all, natural. Our owner Michael Phinney is from Glens Falls and I know that being situated in the woods and surrounded by nature has definitely had an influence on much of his award-winning work. While most of our projects are based and inspired by living and working in upstate New York, we are certainly not limited to staying within state lines. 

Your office is a unique space that really reflects PDG’s design values. What can you tell us about it?

First of all, it’s located in a sustainable green building in Saratoga’s historic Dublin neighborhood, and secondly – it so beautiful that it doesn’t really feel like an office, it’s more of a relaxed, communal space. Although it is an open floor plan, we have individual work areas, and that allows for greater interaction among the team and encourages the sharing of ideas and creative thinking. Whenever we bring guests and clients in to that type of collaborative environment, they immediately pick up on the positive flow of energy.

Later this year, we will be opening a second office in downtown Troy, which is about 40 minutes away from Saratoga Springs. Troy was once a thriving metropolis that fell on hard times but is now slowly re-establishing itself economically and culturally. Being part of the city’s growth is important to us and speaks to the value we place on making connections. The new office will be distinct in that it is designed as a storefront with street-level access, giving it a neighborly appeal and building a bridge to being part of the community. 

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