Here are some photos from a current project. The interior of the exterior walls are all gutted and exposed for new insulation and air sealing. We are not going for a deep energy retrofit here but the end result should cut the energy use significantly. This is an old house with various interventions over the years, some of which we are removing and some we are changing. This is an example of a project where I was hired to help out with some basic design services but every time I showed up on the job, more of the existing was removed and opened up. A moving target in terms of “scope of work”. At this point I am just trying to keep up with things on paper and am acting more as a consultant. I suspect when all is said and done, a lot of this isn’t going to end up on paper.
Old, very old and new framing
the Backside of the oldest fireplace now exposed.
Interesting eave detail -no rake overhang, the crown returns on the horizontal and there is a big ugly box to mount the gutter too
Front door and window detail on the main house
We visited the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art – Mass MoCA in North Adams MA today to see Xu Bing’s giant phoenix exhibit in the largest hall We come here several times a year and I usually walk around with my mouth wide open in amazement but this time I remembered to snap some photos. When I was in Architecture School, I would occasionally break into a gigantic old abandoned factory up the street from my apartment. At night, of course. It was relatively terrifying but also very peaceful. I remember lying on a parapet three stories up for half the night once just chilling out. The spaces, lit only by nearby streetlights, were beautiful. Mass MoCA is a large factory turned into a museum in such a way that much of that old factory architecture has not been lost or covered up or gentrified.
Xu Bing: Phoenix
The kids were floored
The celestory – a lovely space where there never seems to be anybody.
note the airstream – it’s part of a Steam punk exhibit “Michael Oatman: all utopias fell” and you can climb up there and go in it
They let you into the old boiler building – unsupervised – I could cut myself on rusty metal! It’s actually an exhibit – “Stephen Vitiello: All Those Vanished Engines” complete with eerie sounds from hidden speakers that use some of the old empty rusting tanks as reverberation chambers.
Excellent detailing with raw steel – one of my favorite materials
A river runs through it.
The old building is not at all lost or buried as so often happens.
One of my favorite spaces at Mass MoCA is this tall narrow in-between space.
And the cafeteria actually has really good food and not too expensive – a toasted bagel was less than 1$
Process is a moving target. It changes based upon so many variables, not the least of which is the client. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all my past work and how, to some extent each project represents where I was at that point in time but mostly, every project represents the client much more than myself in terms of philosophy, aesthetics, etc. Many decisions are made in every project that are, perhaps, guided be me but are not what I would have done if given Carte Blanche. I regret some of these decisions but it is important to remember that they were not my decisions any more than the project was “my project” If a project strays too far from what I want to be associated with, (it’s ugly) it doesn’t show up in my portfolio. There are plenty of those out there. Sometimes you see it coming and sometimes not. Every now and then you get a client who really wants to listen to what you have to say and is interested in your philosophy but mostly, you just have to sneak that in when nobody’s looking.
Please go to the link above and vote for the Fern House.
I’ve gotten myself into a battle on Fine Homebuilding’s website with three other finalists for a $100 gift certificate to the Taunton Store. All 4 will be published but at the moment, I am losing out to a “Cat Ranch”. How embarrassing. This from twitter:
@RobertSwinburne I'd love to take a nap there! But the cat ranch is a hangout for cats, posted on the Internet. Unfair fight.
I had another comment recently from a builder who wants to build a house that breathes. I started to reply in an email and then decided to put it hereon the blog instead.
What we are doing nowadays in the world of high performance homes is based on studying hundreds of thousands of houses built in the last half century that have failed (which includes the majority of 70′s and 80′s super-insulated and passive solar homes in the northeast) and applying those lessons to building a durable house nowadays. Houses from before that time period that failed for one reason or another are mostly gone and many of those that remain are simple piggy banks for big oil. We put our money in and the oil companies take it out. Simple. (usually, I like simple but…) For the past few decades, builders in the northeast have been living in a vacuum while the northern Europeans and Canadians paid much more attention to how houses fail, learning from them and adapting. Now the conversation is opening up again and we are taking a seat at the table.
I have lived in houses that breath my whole life. It sucks. Aside from the part where you have to give your money to someone else just to not freeze to death in the winter, there is the comfort aspect of things. Houses I have lived in have never been all that comfortable whether in terms of temperature or moisture levels or even wiping mildew off the window sills. Now, with two children, I worry about the air quality and mold issues inherent in my house that breathes. I would rather be able to seal up the house in the winter and be confident that I was breathing fresh Vermont air all the time than have to step outside for a breath of fresh air or open up the doors and windows if I screw up on getting the woodstove going. Six months out of the year, I would still have the choice to open the windows and turn off the HRV.
We do seem to have more summer moisture and humidity problems than we used to but we also have access to more durable and proven materials and building methods. Some builders and architects are taking advantage of this but most are building the same way they did 20 years ago despite all the failures. A house that breathes and has little or no insulation is a barn and If you want to heat it, that means coming to terms with giving your money away. Jesse Thompson says “People breath air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be any different?” If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.
There are a range of options for doing this from exhaust only bathroom fans and range hoods (simple and cheap but where does the makeup air come from in a very tight house?) to a full-on Heat Recovery Ventilation System or HRV. These are also fairly simple and effective although significantly more expensive but have the added advantages of recovering much of the heat from the outgoing air as well as providing fresh incoming air exactly where you want it. For more information just type “HRV” or “house ventilation” into the search box on Green Building Advisor and start reading.
Is there any more melancholy sound than crickets out in the field? Reminding me of what must become of this pile of wood…very soon.
Being a relatively not well-to-do architect, I live in a poorly insulated house that I heat with wood. I also do not have a tractor to move wood around. I have a little cart. no gas or electric log splitter. It’s good training for cross country skiing.
This time of year for me is a strange combination of nostalgia, worry and melancholia. The summer has been nice – I’ve mostly spent it working out in my barn rather than at the office where I’ll be when the weather really turns cooler. I’ve been eating massive amounts of blackberries.
The weather is wonderful. The sun is intense, the shadows cool and the birds are silent as they fatten up for their migrations. Fall definitely comes on August 1st nowadays. we swim very little in August. the water is getting too cold. I spend a lot of time out in my woods every day always walking the dog and often running trails. I am constantly stunned and amazed by the 49 acres we have here in Vermont. The sense of stewardship is powerful. When we moved here in 2000, one of the first things I did was create a network of trails. I need to be in the woods and on those trails nearly every day. Not just near the woods or looking at the woods or driving by woods but actually out there in the trees. It helps me think. Or not think. This sense of the land really influences my thinking about living and creating a home in the woods of New England. I am far from having a portfolio of work that really reflects my own personal philosophies and sensibilities. As an architect, I do work for other people and it has to reflect them more than me and I realize that few people can feel as passionate about the land as I do.
Designing a Super-insulated wall with good drying potential and good air sealing is easy. But the Devil is in the windows. With passive house level construction we want the window to be recessed toward the middle of the opening and the middle of the adjacent insulation layer. This is about thermal bridging and heat loss. An advantage that I’ve found is that it can potentially simplify the flashing which is certainly a welcome idea. Window and door installation has become increasingly complex over the past decade especially with exterior foam details. (I try to stay away from that) What I’m looking at in this sketch is how flashing for siding can be decoupled from flashing for the window to a great extent. Does the siding even need flashing anymore? Depends on how you do the siding. With some Rain screen siding details, perhaps not! Windows are now coming with really nice integrated sill flashing – you specify the depth when you order. This makes for a much more integrated and seamless system which should have long term durability advantages over what we have been doing up until now. What is missing from this drawing is an exterior layer of rock wool insulation to keep the sheathing warm (not rigid foam !) A more expensive detail and this may be less important when using cellulose than fiberglass insulation but is a detail I would certainly do on my own home. The other option is to use more of a Larsen truss system similar to what Chris Corson is doing in Maine with no exterior sheathing. It is A tough sell around here to leave the insulation protected only by a weather barrier such as Mento plus. The conversation on building science is terribly interesting and seems to be resolving itself towards simplicity as we gain knowledge and experience about what works and what doesn’t and develop products and materials based on our increasing knowledge base. Of course, 93% of builders and architects aren’t really paying much attention.
1.If your house is adequately insulated there should be little temperature differential between the ceiling and the floor. 2. Adequately differs from code. Remember, a house built to code is the worst house you can legally build. 3. If you choose not to build an Energy Star certified home please give your poor starving architect the $2k that you obviously have to spare. 4. Does anybody with any real knowledge of building use fiberglass batts anymore? probably not anyone who reads this. 5. Air sealing folks! do it correctly!- not 6 mil poly vapor barrier – that was the 90′s We are SO over that. There are some great products and great information is available. Check out 475 supply and Green Building Advisor. 6. Why do people want to build a super-insulated house and then put a full on radiant floor heating system in? – see #3 above about where to send all that extra money. 7. Why do people want to build a new house that looks old? I think it’s just a phase this country is in. I see signs that the retro-anachronistic architecture phase is fading. 8. But I do it anyway – gotta feed the family. 9. Bright side – the science of how to build correctly is settling out in favor of simplicity. That is what draws me to the Passive house approach. 10. Why do people have SO MUCH STUFF? 11. How did it happen that I’m going to my 20th year architecture school reunion tomorrow?
(would make a good bumper sticker for me except that nobody would get it.)
In rural northern New England – the only local I can really speak authoritatively about – there is a dichotomy of class. It may not reflect income or race but it is something I grew up with. The local kids worked in the kitchens and grounds of the summer camps where the “rich kids” came to play for the summer. It is interesting to read “Maine Home and Design” as an architect who has some connection to the world of art and leisure depicted in those homes as well as a connection to the “other” Maine to whom the magazine is totally irrelevant.
I find the dichotomy affects my own work as well as the clients I have worked with. The typical client with a more middle or upper class suburban background (most of my friends and clients) was raised in a largish home on a largish lot where each kid had his or her own bedroom, there were multiple bathrooms, a garage, a family room – standard stuff to most people. Growing up in rural Maine, however, I had friends who lived in un-insulated homes with no plumbing, 12′ wide mobile homes etc. For many, the ideal was one of those new 1200 s.f. Modular homes built up in West Paris. Lots of families included multiple generations and semi-temporary guests all under one roof in a big old farmhouse.
After many years of clients coming to Vermont to build a new home and life who find the idea of not having a master bedroom suite, a T/B ratio =/> 1 (toilet to butt ratio) or a garage to house their cars incomprehensible, (Real Vermonters don’t have garages?) I find myself questioning what is important to me and the type of projects I can really get my emotions into. My job requires a fair amount of understanding where someone is coming from and what their frame of reference is. Certainly, most people bring their past with them to the table along with what they see on the internet and in magazines. But when I get a client who with similar (old fashioned?) sensibilities and more of a “slow living” attitude and perspective or at least, a willingness to question their values, it is refreshing.
In designing with a set of priorities to reflect this attitude I think about more seasonal living with the idea of hunkering down close to the woodstove during the colder months, cooking lots of fabulous meals and hosting smaller gatherings of friends and family. In the warmer months, life can expand outward with larger parties in the barn, screened porches become additional living space and sleeping quarters. In my own family’s case, the 900 square feet of wood stove heated living space expands to include a screened in porch where we play and eat meals, the barn where I have a desk set up to work and where we have parties and guests have a comfy bed. Plus there is always the fern house and lots of room for tenting in the meadow. Sometimes it is good to tour old houses or even just spend some time in old Sears catalog home books to see what used to be important to people and think about how we say we want to live with a more critical eye and a different perspective.
This is a schematic design for a local project I’m working on where I am doing master planning up front. See this post. After meeting with Gary MaCarthur to look at the whole site and master plan in terms of solar potential – the owners may, at least initially be “off the grid” – it was clear that the best locations for the house and barn were not so great for photovoltaics. Gary, like many other folks who design and install PV, like a clean simple installation, Ideally on the steeply pitched roof of a shed where the equipment can be housed. “a Power House”. I knew the owners wanted to be able to spend weekends on the site year round and be comfortable and we had discussed building the barn first and finishing off the upstairs. Not a great solution unless you are prepared to build a fairly expensive barn as opposed to a pole barn for equipment and animals. Gary, upon listening to the master plan, long term build-out goals, suggested a cottage instead which could eventually become a guest house but in the meantime would serve as compact living quarters, the power house and storage for a tractor and whatever things get left here on a more permanent basis initially. being relatively small, a cottage could fit nicely into the overall site plan in a location ideal for photovoltaic panels.
As usual lately, I’m trying for the holy grail on this one and I hope the clients like the ideas. Holy Grail =
Passive house priciples of low energy use, durable design and good building science
local materials wherever possible and minimal environmental impact of materials
Logical construction methods – nothing complicated or fancy
Simple modern design – Scandinavian-ish?
Clues from tradition but not a slave to it. – No Anachronism – use what works and eliminate frippery
Texture and light and air
Shadow and light.
Intimately tied to the land.
Seasonally adaptive and responsive
Low maintenance – no or minimal exterior paint, stain , varnish – weathering materials and durable materials
Emotionally uplifting space
Proportion and grace.
Specifically to this project the long design seems to work best in terms of what we want to do with the site, the available roof for solar, the idea of layering, keeping the roof sheltering and low at the eave, build part now/part later if needed to get power set up, the gardeners cottage / gatehouse idea, overall simplicity, steep roof (Gary says to max winter gains) etc. I was also looking at cladding materials in more of a fabric sense with varying degrees of transparency which seems very Japanese and works very well for how I design wall systems.
Here are some photos from a recent project. This is an addition to a huge old barn which had a fairly recent Timberpeg addition to it. I did some work with the addition plus a larger new addition in a Greek Revival style with wrapping porches to create a more cohesive whole (and add a bunch of space) The addition is framed with double stud walls and super-insulated. Windows are triple glazed double hung. Fiber cement siding over rainscreen.
I love competitions like this and I’m spreading the word as I know many architects and students read this blog. I’m doing some cut and paste here – hope they don’t mind.
Welcome! Thank you for your interest in the Suburban Sustainable Design Competition.
This competition is a project of a team of sustainability-minded organizers and designers in partnership with The Sustainability Project.
In the spring and summer of 2013, we are holding two competitions for the redesign of a suburban residential property in Keene, New Hampshire:
1. Sustainable Home Renovation Design
2. Suburban Backyard Homestead Design
The property is a one-acre site near downtown Keene. The house is gutted and has been uninhabited for several years. The yard is mostly lawn at this time and has a lot of sunny southern exposure.
We believe that the property has the potential to serve as a great model for sustainable suburban design, including backyard food production and capturing renewable resources, in Keene and the northeast. The property’s current transitional state and its situation in the context of a city and region with rapidly growing interest in sustainability make it a particularly rich site for experimentation. Because so many Americans live in suburban properties and sustainable suburban options are still in such early stages of entering the mainstream, we are very excited to have the opportunity to bring attention to sustainable suburban design through holding a design competition and sharing the entries with the community.
Designs will be showcased in an open house and community celebration on Saturday, October 5. Stay tuned for details!
A new book from Gestalten in Germany contains a full page spread of my barn and one page on the fern house. The page after my barn is a lovely cabin by Kundig, a big name architect who will probably win the Pritzker some day. (just sayin)
The book is available from Gestalten or Amazon (order it from your local independent bookstore!) and contains many very amazing projects – highly recommended
I recently got to tour the Brooks House in Brattleboro which burned a few years ago. A group of local investors is working to re-build and restore the Brooks House and I tagged along on a tour given to some potential contractors. Mostly insulation and roofing folks. Here are a few shots that most local folks wouldn’t otherwise get to see. (Being on the roof was awesome!) Most of the interior spaces will be jsut white sheetrock when all is said and done so it was cool to see the bones of the place. The Mole’s Eye was rather gross. Throughout the tour I got to be the proverbial “fly on the wall” and I was disappointed with the improvisational approach to insulation, air sealing and energy. One contractor said “well, cellulose is a good air seal”. (!) What a contrast to the thoroughness that Coldham and Hartman Architects put into the Union Crossing Project – I went to a presentation on that project earlier this year and came away rather thoroughly impressed.
It’s not often I get to do this. I am usually called in when it is too late to have much input into overall site design on a rural project. I am a scholar of historic farm and homestead planning and I am always acutely aware of the relationships between the various elements of the site whether natural, man-made, Solar, weather, history (stone walls and old roads, etc – very important in New England) and the buildings that are located to be a part of the landscape (or not as is often the case) Design often starts with floor plans but is so much richer in the long run when the site is considered with as much rigor and intensity as the floor plans. How a home “lives” is very much a function of how the land outside the walls of the house “lives” from the point outside the front door to the yards to the property lines to the town, region, state…
Perry Road House for sale – see April 11 blog post on Vermont Architect.
Note: it is unfinished – Folks moving on in search of greener pastures
4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, super insulated, all on 70 acres with 2000′ of Green River frontage on one edge of property and a brook with over 100′ of cascading waterfalls in the middle, perfect for micro-hydro system. Heated it with 3.5 cords of wood and the sun. Old foundations on property. Nice sunrise view down the valley.
I often need to spend minimal time – 10 to 20 hours at my hourly rate – to do a simple master planning/feasibility study to explore what can be done to an existing house and if it’s worth it. This process includes measuring existing conditions as much as is needed, photos, a thorough initial client meeting, thinking, sketching, some schematic design, modeling, more thinking, writing lists and generally trying to pare down the simplest solution to the client’s goals. The result is a .pdf file which attempts to get all this down in a clear format which can be given to a builder for feedback and a VERY rough costing on the various parts and options. I have been assured by other architects that I am ridiculously fast at this in terms of total time spent. Projects often don’t progress past this stage as clients realize that it would cost more to achieve what they want than they are able to spend. Or the project gets pared down at this early stage. It is a very useful exercise in saving money by spending some on the architect up front. It seems to be a good graphic way to quickly get a handle on the whole project without committing much in terms of $ from the client or time from me. Here are some examples of three recent projects.
Some friends recently announced that they were going to leave the Brattleboro area in search of a better life.
The list is:
1. A Waldorf school for their kid to be able to go to through high school.
2. Better job prospects
3. An easier place to grow old in – perhaps this means less dirt roads, closer to town…
4. Closer to some long term friends for more regular visits.
5. They are tired of living in an unfinished house.
Then my wife said she would be willing to move for the right reasons too – specifically a great, high paying job (for me). This sent me into a few days of introspection and soul searching. I had to re-evaluate my own values by themselves and in relation to my family. I have always felt an incredibly strong connection to land and place. If I plant a tree, I have a need to watch it grow for the rest of my life. Fine – I can accept that this is unusual. I also have a strong need to be in the woods pretty much every day. I would have a hard time being the sort who goes camping on weekends to get my outside time and even day hikes in the mountains have little allure. I need the outdoors much more integrated in my daily routine. I think if I were living in an urban or suburban area for any length of time I would feel very constrained.
1. School – Brattleboro does have some excellent options for schools. Charlotte got a good start at Neighborhood Schoolhouse and Alden will too in a few years. The big crisis came when it was time for Charlotte to start kindergarten. Our ideal choice would probably be the Grammar School in Putney, http://youtu.be/Yk49lac7EPU an excellent private school whose “philosophies” most closely align with our own. Financially it was not in the cards. With a number of educators in the immediate family we are rather progressive in our education ideals. We also would rather not have our kids attend a school with only like-minded students and parents. Perspective is a very important aspect to social development. She will have a number of excellent teachers to get to know over the years and the advantage of a small school is that she is already getting to know them – she has a great rapport with her future 7th/8th grade teacher. She will get to know a wide variety of classmates and their families – Perspective! Our ideal is that our kids’ elementary experience provides them with the social tools to easily handle the pressures of attending a larger public high school, and life in general, and come out on top. Our local public elementary school has been trash-talked by a number of friends and neighbors so we were a bit leery of sending Charlotte there but realized that all the nay-sayers were speaking from very little or very limited experience. This didn’t sit right with us and we are currently glad we decided to form our own opinion. The school is fairly small – my daughter’s kindergarten has 5 kids – and the size has definite advantages in terms of addressing individual students’ and parents’ needs. The school is also a community in itself and very tied to the local community – a community integrated education is also very important to us. The main issues we have with our local elementary school are the sheer amount of driving time and gasoline used in our cars to get there there every day, (see #2 below) and not enough time spent outdoors (probably the same as at any public school). It is also very important for our kids to take advantage of community opportunities in the arts and Brattleboro is certainly a top notch community with it’s dizzying array of opportunity in this regard. Brattleboro is a very kid-centric community.
New England Center for Circus Arts Brattleboro Music Center Vermont Jazz Center New England Youth Theater Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center Brattleboro School of Dance River Gallery School of Art
Plus the high school has an excellent cross country ski team!
2. Job prospects – It is hard around here to earn a living for sure. The average household income in my town is under 30k. People say “but the quality of life and and fewer expenses and blah blah blah ..” however, automobiles cost the same – and where I live all-wheel or 4 wheel drive is needed part of the year. Which means a more expensive car with worse gas mileage.
And fewer opportunities to accomplish the daily activities on a bicycle. There are fewer cost savings to living in the country than many people seem to think. In terms of my own job prospects, I could possibly work in a larger firm in a more urban environment and perhaps I would even love the job but the likelihood of a paycheck big enough to make it worth it is very unlikely. Working for myself is definitely stressful and most years is quite un-sustainable but I’m an optimist and always seem to think that things will turn around soon. Very soon. (stressful on family) Other Job Prospects:
3. Growing old. – I’m hoping to gradually make our estate into a place we could hole up in for weeks at a time. I do have 30+ years before I really need to think along these lines. A lot could happen in 30 years. The North Atlantic Gyre could cease due to melting polar ice and then all bets are off.
4. Friends. – A very personal one. Kid-less friends always complain that when their friends have kids they have no more time available for visiting. Certainly true, however having kids suddenly opens up a whole new world of potential friends. You get out what you put out for sure. My wife is much more social than I and would love to see dozens of her best friends every day for coffee.
I, however, am an old-codger-in-the-making and am perfectly happy to mutter around the house and grounds for days at a time without seeing anybody. Working on my woodpile.
5. House – I feel this one. – We live in a small house and I realize that our “standard of living” would be unacceptable for most middle-class people in America, at least for the past thirty years or so. I do have great plans for addressing this but…see #2 plus reference this older post