Handy retiree builds chic Connecticut sanctuary

After 23 years of marriage, Tom Morton wanted a change. He didn’t just want to downsize from the 3,000-square-foot house that he had shared with his ex-wife in Sharon, Conn. — he wanted to rethink his possessions and day-to-day existence.

“I decided I was going to look at my life differently,” he says. “I didn’t want to have any burdens.”

He found a 6-acre property not far from where he was already living in Sharon, a quaint Litchfield County town in the state’s northwest corner, near the New York border.

The ceiling of Morton’s house rises to 14 feet, with windows on one side for privacy because the other side faces a main road.
The ceiling of Morton’s house rises to 14 feet, with windows on one side for privacy because the other side faces a main road.Randy OÕRourke

Morton then worked with his friend of 25 years, architect Hicks Stone, to draw up plans for a simple, modern structure with only what he needed: 1,000 square feet, with a living room and kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom.

“Tom is a single man, and he wanted to live simply,” says Stone, who is the son of celebrated midcentury modern architect Edward Durell Stone. “This home is ideally suited for him.”

In her new book, “Downsize: Living Large In a Small House,” author Sheri Koones featured the house as an exemplary model.

“Some people build more space just in case,” says Koones. “But Tom built a house for what he needs.” In fact, Stone’s original layout had an extra bedroom and bathroom that Morton nixed. “It’s really cozy, and I really like that it’s low- maintenance,” adds Koones.

In keeping with his desire to be burden-free, Morton, 69, didn’t want to take out a loan to finance its construction. “I’ve paid off four mortgages in my life, and I didn’t want that,” he says. He used the profit from selling his bigger house — it sold the first day he put it on the market, in the middle of winter, to an all-cash buyer — and stuck to a strict budget. Morton had built the old house, so to keep costs down, he decided to construct this house himself, too.

“I knew I would have challenges finding a builder that would give me quality in my price range,” he says. He partnered with Bernie Plonski, a 70-year-old builder who had been in the trade for more than five decades. “Bernie could cut a tree down, make lumber and build something,” says Morton, who became an apprentice of sorts to Plonski over the year-long process. He jokes, “We called ourselves the AARP construction company.”

Morton spent a large part of his career in the home decor retail industry, so he put his professional eye to work on the interior. “I wanted the house to have a personality,” he says. “I like to mix everything, from industrial to modern to contemporary.”

Morton (center) built his house with friend Hicks Stone (left) and neighbor Bernie Plonski (right).

Morton (center) built his house with friend Hicks Stone (left) and neighbor Bernie Plonski (right).
Annie Wermiel/NY Post

Stone is a passive house-certified architect, and they built the home using these guidelines. Passive house is a rigorous standard for energy efficiency that reduces a building’s energy needs by focusing on superior insulation. “It’s a surprisingly simple technology,” says Stone. “You use more insulation, which is the least expensive part [of a building]. You use tape, which is not expensive. You use high-performance windows.”

They imported triple-paned ones from Lithuania and air-sealed the house with mineral wool insulation and some spray foam. The home sits on a frost-protected, insulated cement slab, and it’s constructed of cedar with a metal roof. Inside, the sloped ceiling rises to 14 feet, which gives the effect of a larger house. Tall west-facing windows overlook the woods and allow for ample daylight and views of the moon. “It’s quite beautiful at night,” says Morton.

Morton’s house has concrete floors and African mahogany trim, which gives even the mud room a refined air.
Morton’s house has concrete floors and African mahogany trim, which gives even the mud room a refined air.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

There are bare concrete floors and stark white walls, leading Stone to describe it as a “a New York City loft in the country.” Natural materials add warmth. The back wall, kept windowless for hanging art (and to avoid a view of the street), is clad with lumber milled from a pine tree that had to be cut down to build the house. African mahogany was used for the trim. “It’s the little things like that that make the house feel different,” says Morton.

The kitchen is sparse, with the refrigerator and convection oven tucked away in a separate utility room. Plonski made the wooden countertops and cabinets on site. A vintage zinc sink and salvaged chestnut shelving add crafty contrast to the contemporary design. “I didn’t have to worry about what anyone else wants,” says Morton. “I have no intention of ever selling this house.”

The bathroom was designed with aging in place in mind. It has a barrier-free subway tile shower with a French drain system so one could easily enter it in a wheelchair. “It sounds depressing,” says Morton, “but it makes sense.”

The bedroom is filled with cherished items, such as sleek vases by designer Paola Navone.
The bedroom is filled with cherished items, such as sleek vases by designer Paola Navone.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

Plonski made a few custom pieces, including a coffee table made from a lindenwood tree they cut down, but most of the furnishings are pieces that Morton chose to keep after editing down his possessions from the bigger house. He told Koones that the purging process “felt like a cleansing experience in preparation for a new life that required less baggage.”

The small driveway means less snow removal, and a natural landscape means no grass to cut. Off the back, there’s a flagstone deck protected by the roof overhang. A short path leads to a 175-square-foot shed that mirrors the shape of the main house. Set between pine trees, it offers Morton a place to keep two small vintage cars and his tools.

Morton has lived in the home for about 18 months now and couldn’t be happier. “After all the hard work, I finally felt like I was free,” he says. “And that I have a house that, unless a tree falls on it, would be there for the next 20 years and not require anything.”

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