Photos by Ethan Abitz unless otherwise noted
Christopher Dierig and Doug Maxwell design sleek, one-of-a-kind homes that perfectly balance aesthetics with eco-consciousness. Their Rhinebeck architecture and design firm is aptly named Upstate Modernist, and business is booming.
In 2016, New York City architect Christopher Dierig and his business-partner husband Doug Maxwell decided they’d had enough of living in Manhattan. Both had grown up on family farms and found themselves more and more drawn to the idea of reconnecting with their rural roots. A trip to South Africa sealed the deal. “We stayed at an agrarian hotel, Babylonstoren in Franschhoek, with a working farm, a winery, and a creamery. We were so inspired by the architecture and the region and we thought how wonderful it would be if we could experience the same in New York, ”says Maxwell. “The Hudson Valley was the obvious choice.”
As they searched for the just-right piece of land, Dierig and Maxwell soon narrowed their search to Rhinebeck because of the easy access to New York City, the proximity to the Catskills, and the perfect blend of country and village life. Ironically for New York City dwellers looking for a change, their search ended on Brooklyn Heights Road, a stretch of roadway that had previously been named by weekenders from the borough. The huge 200-acre property was connected to an old dairy farm. “It was way more than we wanted,” says Maxwell. Their creative solution: get a conservation easement — a voluntary legal agreement between property owners and a land trust or government entity that permanently limits land development for preservation purposes — and go from there. Once they were set with the Dutchess Land Conservancy, the duo designed four unique, site specific homes to place on the property, which became known as Brooklyn Heights Farm. The project was extremely well received locally, and they knew they were on to something. The entrepreneurs branded their new venture Upstate Modernist and began researching additional area properties for sale.
Modern, Minimal, Sustainable
Back in 2005, Dierig had founded S3 Architecture, an urban design firm. Sustainability was the focus from the get-go, in terms of design, materials, methods, and systems. Over a decade later, expanding their purview to a rural context felt very natural, according to Maxwell.
“Our overriding theme is preservation of the natural features of the land and a focus on sustainability,” says Dierig. What this means is careful, consistent emphasis on using locally obtained natural building materials, geothermal heating and cooling systems, and pre-fab and modular construction. They also actively search for opportunities to use renewable energy, such as solar and wind power.
Factoring in the land’s natural features and incorporating responsible environmental stewardship into the design process has been very rewarding. Dierig finds working with “the feel of a property” much more inspiring than designing condo buildings in the city. Plus, interacting with clients has been a joy. “Most are moving to the area for the first time and embarking on a new journey, so we feel responsible to help guide their experience,” explains Maxwell. “We like to think we make the process fun, as it should be.”
Due to their business model, scouting and choosing properties to buy is paramount. “We firmly believe that a home is best designed to a specific location and context,” says Maxwell. “So, we start first with the land, getting a sense of the natural characteristics and setting, and then place and design a residence.” Designing in the reverse cannot achieve the same result, Dierig points out. A home on a large, open piece of property with an expansive view of the countryside is a very different home than one in a wooded forest with towering trees. After the land is purchased and the home design finalized, a listing is created. “When we find the right owner, we build and deliver the home,” says Maxwell.
Each Upstate Modernist home design is fully specified down to fixtures and finishes for the sake of aesthetics. All architectural forms and finishes are intentional, which results in clean lines, precise transitions, and minimalistic detailing. “Having said that, our design ethos infuses a warmth that is driven by the location and not always present in modern architecture,” says Maxwell. The interiors blend modern luxuries with the character of natural hardwood floors, plaster or limewash walls, natural fibers, and textural porcelain tile or stone. The result is calming and subtle. They do go over all the selected finishes and share their rationale for each with the homeowner. They hope to accommodate tweaks to match individual personalities while keeping the original design vision intact. Typically very minimal changes are requested.
Once and Future
In 2020, Dierig and Maxwell decided to open an Upstate Modernist studio in Rhinebeck Village. The space serves as a materials resource library, a design work hub and a home base to meet with clients. Several homes are currently under construction and additional properties with residence designs will be made available throughout this year. “We’re continuing to focus on the Rhinebeck area and also releasing a series of homes in the Catskills,” says Maxwell. They’re beyond excited with all they have going on.
Meanwhile, they live on land that was part of the original property they purchased, in the 800-sq-ft cabin they designed and built. Dubbed the Cabana, it’s exceptionally space-efficient and cantilevers over a rock cliff. Someday it will serve as an outpost to a primary residence they hope to start building soon. “We’ve been prioritizing clients’ builds,” admits Maxwell. “But it’s been a unique and rewarding path to take.”