The Hsu House story began when Kevin Pratt, who cofounded Epiphyte Lab with fellow Cornell University professor Dana Cupková in 2009, noticed someone at his lectures who wasn’t a student. The man was Tony Hsu, who began talking with Pratt about a highly ambitious home in Danby, New York, that he had begun himself. Eventually Hsu hired Pratt and Cupková as consultants on the residential project, which features a mesmerizing façade and a sculptural thermal mass wall. 

The home’s multicolored cement-board siding creates a shimmering effect that helps the home dissolve into its surroundings. Photo: Susan and Jerry Kaye.

Hsu’s four-acre parcel of farmland was the fruit of a long search. It hadn’t been cultivated in 40 years and featured wetlands, nascent brush, and forested areas. To integrate the house with the land’s gentle southwesterly slope, which sits about 1,000 feet above Danby and a lake, Cupková and Pratt reorganized the house to tuck into the angled land, allowing for a 60-mile view from the loft of the house.

The home’s mass wall is perforated to allow daylighting to pass through it. The wall, seen along the right-hand side of the image, absorbs solar radiation and helps warm the house. Photo: Epiphyte Lab.

The home’s most striking exterior feature is its multicolored façade, though it relies on little more than cement-board siding. Pratt says the design logic behind it was to achieve a “glossy feeling [that] negates any effect of low-cost construction.” The pattern was dynamically modeled so that the colors flow from very dark on the north end of the house to very light on the south end. “The house gets the shimmering effect because of this pattern, so it doesn’t dominate the landscape,” Cupková says. “The idea was to create this effect so the large volume dissolves into the landscape via patterning.


Danby, NY

3,900 square feet


Epiphyte Lab

general contractor
Hansen Design & Construction

stair fabrication

mass wall formwork fabrication
Clearwood Custom Carpentry and Millwork

The house structure is primarily engineered timber and uses almost no steel—a feat Pratt says couldn’t have been achieved seven or eight years ago. The cast-in-place concrete heat-sink mass wall zigzags at varying thicknesses and, with its perforations, lends a sculptural element to the home, allowing for an openness that would have been impossible with the solid, monolithic quality that concrete traditionally possesses. The wall was fabricated by employeeing hybrid CNC-routing, hot-wire cutting, and hand fabrication of foam-based formwork. Other materials found in the house include gypsum board, strand-woven bamboo floors, a modified IKEA kitchen, and recycled PaperStone countertops.

heating and cooling/
With natural stack ventilation, the house doesn’t require air-conditioning, and Epiphyte was able to increase the home’s thermal-transfer rate by maximizing the heat-sink mass wall’s surface area. “[Because] a solid mass wall would have blocked light from the solarium to the kitchen, we thought about how to make the wall lacy and let light through, how to get away from the heaviness of concrete,” Cupková says. The triple-height living space benefits from having the concrete mass wall as one of its edges; this wall absorbs solar radiation, thereby reducing heating costs. The colors on the façade also take seasonal surface effects into account. During the winter the entry porch can be used without feeling cold, and in summer the family can enter through the cool south end, where the solarium unfolds onto the landscape.

systems and fixtures/
The Hsu House also incorporates rainwater harvesting, open-cell polyurethane insulation, a high-efficiency forced-air heating system, a TPO high-albedo roof, and Energy Star lighting and appliances. The architects note that the home also is able to incorporate a thermosymphonic solar-thermal system, which was originally included in the design on the residence’s south façade.