A barn raising

East End builders are reinterpreting traditional forms in modern style

Designer Mark Zeff’s barn-style home in East Hampton.
Designer Mark Zeff’s barn-style home in East Hampton.

Mark Zeff spent a long six months negotiating the purchase of a cottage for himself near Gardiners Bay in East Hampton before the deal fell apart in 2013.

So the owner of what was then an eponymously named design firm working on everything from luxury yachts to global branding bought land near the bay and constructed his own dream home instead.

It is not a typical Hampton’s getaway: The barn-like exterior is painted black, while the airy 6,200-square-foot interior resembles a Tribeca loft with modern conveniences.

“There are a lot of barns in the Hamptons and that was my inspiration,” said Zeff. “The house fits into the landscape nicely. It looks natural.”

Buyers apparently agree. A flood of inquiries inspired Zeff to open Black Barn, a home design and construction firm. He brought in two partners, Robert Dankner, a Manhattan real estate broker, and Jerry Lubliner, a Hamptons developer. The company builds spec homes in the style of modern barns ranging from $3.8 to $4.5 million. It is currently building two in Sag Harbor, two in Sagaponack and is also planning a home for a client in Amagansett.

Black Barn is one of several companies capitalizing on buyers’ newfound fascination with modern barns.

Modern Green Home, a long-time local builder that typically constructs modern dwellings, is constructing three modern barns and plans to start another three this summer. Easthampton-based Plum Builders, a 33-year-old firm, built its first modern barn in 2006. It has built three since then and is currently constructing two more that will cost $4.4 million apiece.

  “We started seeing interest in 2006 but then the market crashed,” said Mary Giaquinto, chairwoman of Plum. “Now we are really concentrating on modern barns.”

In fact, Plum is going so far as attempting to trademark the term “modern barn.” And with other builders and brokers jumping on the barn bandwagon, Plum is taking legal action to protect exclusive use of the name.

Earlier this year, Plum filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against Sotheby’s International Realty and one of its brokers, Beate Moore, for using “modern barn” in marketing materials. The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges trademark infringement and unfair competition. Sotheby’s responded to the ongoing litigation by saying the name was too generic to be trademarked.

There’s no universally agreed upon definition of what specifically constitutes a modern barn. But a home in this category might have a pitched roof, simple lines and large windows along with concrete or wooden plank floors. Like their namesakes, the homes feature large, open interiors.

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A loft-like interior in one of Plum Builders’ Modern Barn abodes.

A loft-like interior in one of Plum Builders’ Modern Barn abodes.

Home experts say the design’s newfound popularity reflects buyers’ frustrations with the limited options available in the East End. The selection largely consists of shingled traditional homes or enormous McMansions.

“My clients felt like if they’d seen one house they had seen them all,” said Jason Schommer, a broker at Corcoran’s Bridgehampton office who is working with a builder to construct and sell a modern barn in Water Mill. “People want something that is updated but isn’t a modern glass box.”

Modern Green president Peter Sabbeth said such homes appeal to both the nostalgic and practical sides of the 30-to 40-somethings looking for a Hamptons retreat. The homes may invoke happy memories of childhoods spent in the country while accommodating a desire for creature comforts like steam showers and swimming pools.

“We call it a transitional style,” said Sabbeth. “People want that comfortable style they grew up with but they also want something modern.”

Sabbeth is selling three such homes in Amagansett, each about 4,500 square feet with a pool and pool house. Two have an asking price of $4.5 million while the other is $6 million. The latter is in the more coveted part of town, south of the highway.

Sabbeth said that part of his homes’ appeal is the option to have it outfitted by ABC Carpets.

“This is a generation who wants everything now,” he said. The process of designing and building a home can take several years — a time frame unacceptable for most buyers. Sabbeth can build and furnish a home in six to eight months.

Architect Chris Coy specializes in custom, ultra-modern homes. Yet three of the 20 homes his firm is designing are riffs on the barn style. The first one his firm designed was just last year. “Some people come in and they just want a pitched roof. They can’t explain it — it is an emotional thing,” said Coy.   

Coy said the style is particularly appropriate in locations such as Sagaponack, known for its farms. He doesn’t expect the trend to overrun the Hamptons, noting that modern homes with glass curtain walls are still
favored by those with beachfront property.

“People want to look at those views,”
said Coy.