Peter Sabbeth first approached the building business from an unusual vantage point: the art world. Trained in art history and practicing as a New York artist during the 1990s, Sabbeth supplemented his income by renovating Brooklyn lofts. He’d buy one, move in, and remodel to his own taste. Then he’d rent out the vastly improved unit and go on to the next apartment.
On a 1999 trip to the Hamptons to see Jackson Pollock’s studio, Sabbeth noticed a mid-century modern house for sale and couldn’t resist repeating his pattern. He purchased it and designed the renovation himself, confirming that his visual arts and loft remodeling skills translated nicely into single-family residential projects. “It was fun, casual, and stylish—modern, but not so austere that it scared people off,” he says. “We combined it with traditional furnishings to make it user-friendly.”
Word spread locally of the artist who renovated houses, and soon Sabbeth found himself spending more time designing and building than on his artwork. Many of his clients were people who had purchased his paintings, and they enjoyed his general aesthetic. “If you’re a good designer, you can design anything,” he says. “I can put a painting together, I can put an interior together—it’s all the same process for me. I think from an art perspective, from a balance perspective. I approach the design from my collective experience.”
Sabbeth still paints, often creating wall murals inside his projects. But over the past several years the artist has become a full-time designer/builder, with his own five-person company, Modern Green Home. Typically he designs projects and supervises construction, but sometimes he’ll refer clients to outside architects or collaborate with other designers. “For our staff, we look for people who can design and who also have construction experience,” he says. About a year ago, Sabbeth brought on a partner, Michael Cohen, to help with business strategy, marketing, and operations. And the Bridgehampton, N.Y.–based company currently looking for a project manager so that Sabbeth can turn his focus more fully to design.
While Modern Green Home’s portfolio contains new houses as well as renovations, the latter make up the majority of its work. True to his remodeling roots, Sabbeth enjoys the challenge of taking a dwelling that needs some TLC and making it shiny and new. “The uglier, the better,” he says. “It’s like a math problem that needs to be solved.” His first high-profile remodel was a modern addition for an 1860 Sagaponack, N.Y., house once owned by From Here to Eternity novelist James Jones. That project, a collaboration with architect Seth Howe of STUDIOHOWE Architecture, became the 2008 Idea House for Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine. Since then, Modern Green Home has steadily transformed older houses throughout the East End of Long Island. The company has stayed busy throughout the recession, thanks to the area’s ultra-high-end economy.
One of Sabbeth’s most significant projects is a 2007 new house he created for himself, working with a young Brooklyn architecture firm called sand_box. The partners at sand_box introduced him to the vast world of environmental building products and systems, and it completely changed Sabbeth’s way of thinking. “They opened my eyes to sustainable architecture,” he says. “I took it and ran.” He tried to make the house zero-energy, gaining large amounts of knowledge in the process. It’s “not even close” to net-zero, he says cheerfully, but making the effort essentially provided him with a crash course in sustainable design.
Because the house was Sabbeth’s own, he felt free to experiment. The showers are lined with cork, and a geothermal system controls the home’s temperatures. Solar panels provide supplemental energy.
This first green building experience so affected Sabbeth that he named his company accordingly. And he began to incorporate sustainable systems into most of his projects. “Almost all the houses we do have geothermal and some sort of solar panel system,” he adds. He also steers customers toward sustainable and recycled products, a task he says has grown infinitely easier since 2007, thanks to the expanded market for green building products. “We give clients sustainable options,” he says. With several projects in the works, both remodels and new construction, he'll have plenty of opportunity to do so over the next few years.