GateKeepers Cottage

By | affordable modern, Passive House, projects, super insulated, working with an architect | 6 Comments

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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 =
Competitive cost
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.

plan section for guest house - power house - gatekeepers cottage - gardeners cottage

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 is the initial sketch from my sketchbook:

Southern Vermont Classic Addition – new photos

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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.

Modern Greek Revival farmhouse addition in Newfane Vermont
Modern Greek Revival farmhouse addition in Newfane Vermont- older addition by others is to the right
Modern Greek Revival farmhouse addition in Newfane Vermont
Modern Greek Revival farmhouse addition in Newfane Vermont
Modern Greek Revival farmhouse addition in Newfane Vermont
href=””>between their bedrooms

Pre-Design as an initial feasibility study

By | business, projects, working with an architect | 3 Comments

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.

Schematic for Studio over garage and mudroom addition

By | projects, super insulated, working with an architect | 3 Comments

Some images from the model. Of course I don’t think the clients can afford it but it’s a good starting point. This is a one car garage with a studio space above it, a rear yard screen porch and a mudroom connecting all these. We can treat the addition as a separate unit from the existing house itself by building it to passive house standards and heating it (and cooling it) with a simple mini split heat pump. or we could ignore the cooling aspect and use a very small amount of electric heat.

Stratton House Progress Report for January 2013

By | affordable modern, projects, super insulated | 2 Comments

I visited the Stratton Project the other day to see how things were progressing. Flooring is going down (locally milled white oak) and plaster is going up. I’m very happy about the decision to plaster the walls on the main floor. The whole house inside and out is turning out to be a very tactile thing. The (experimental) rough hemlock siding on the exterior will weather to a soft grey and has the appearance of fabric, the plaster has just enough texture to do wonderful things with light in a way that a painted wall simply can’t and the raw steel structural beams and posts provide a beautiful space defining element.

The steel siding is actually “midnight bronze” which means it has a lot of color depth and can appear black in low light and shadow but really bursts forth in bright sunlight with the bronze undertone. has a lively discussion of black houses going on right now and lots of very strong opinions are being expressed! I have always loved black and dark houses. The more monochromatic the better. It speaks to the kid in me – I expect something more exiting from a dark house in a monsters under the stairs and witches in the attic way. With a modern looking project like this it’s always interesting to see what the folks who work on it say. Some are completely sold and others not so much.

I completed Passive House Designer training after the design of this house and with my new level of knowledge of super-energy efficient construction, I would have done a few things differently perhaps but not much. At some point I will complete energy modeling on this project to see how close to the passive house standard we go.

Over the next few months the interior should be completed and I will post photos as things progress. The outside will look good for a while, then the snow will melt and it will look crappy until site work is completed.

One page Construction Document Set

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Here is an example of a basic one-page-wonder construction drawing for a simple house. Not all the information is here to build a house but an expert builder can fill in missing details. For example, I put the stairs in the section with a very basic level of detail to make sure they work and meet code, however, I did not detail anything further than that. The stairs could be built in a very modern way with cable railings or very old fashioned with spindle ballusters and a newell posts. I concentrated on the overall aesthetic, proper Greek Revival details for the location and good building science practices with a very detailed double stud wall section from foundation to roof.

Miscellaneous Musings

By | affordable modern, education, mutterings, products, projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I am working on this new small greek revival in Maine. Not the high style Greek Revival with huge columns like you see on banks and government buildings but the small, simple style that is so ubiquitous in New England and doesn’t get much attention but everybody knows. I’m designing it to “pretty good house” standards. It is for a family member who lost her house in a fire Read More

Fern house featured again on

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The Home Office

By | Living in Vermont, projects, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I often work at home when I really need to get things done. With a 900 s.f. house there isn’t any place but the kitchen table most of the year but when summer comes, I get to work out at my big oak desk in the barn loft. There is no cell phone signal and no internet but I do have a land line. I am able to focus incredibly well in the barn and I often listen to previously downloaded podcasts of books from Librivox or I simply listen to the wind and the birds. Occasionally my daughter invades the space to play with toys or swing on her swing. I built the barn myself over several years with pine from our woods and hemlock framing from Kerber Lumber, a local mill.

barn loft
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Angles and Curves

By | projects, Uncategorized, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I was recently sent a “suggested” floor plan for a renovation project that gave me a good laugh. It was for an old house where rooms opened to each other gracefully and the back parts of the building (not original) contained hallways and many smaller rooms. There was not a big budget. The plan I was sent took out many walls and added lots more but at 45 degree angles. It was very 80’s (roll out the white carpets and sectional sofas, modern floor lamps (shining up) and, of course, the track lighting with huge cans!) If I were a professor in architecture school, having a bad day and feeling the need to be mean I would have said that the plan was amateurish, complicated, ungraceful and expensive. However, I am not an architecture school professor, I am not mean and I never have bad days (and I never lie?)

So I ignored it.

But it got me thinking, and writing… so here goes.

Angles and Curves.

When I deviate from the orthagonal I need more reason than just to be cool (for the non-architecty sorts out there that means when I use angle and curves). There has to be a functional reason and it has to solve a problem rather than introduce new ones or simply add cost. Ideally it adds a layer of sophistication and elegance to the spatial and emotional feel of a place. Ideally it introduces opportunity. And it’s nice when it can actually save money as well.

This modern project has much more overt angles than I normally go for but site constraints and preexisting conditions suggested the design solution. The overall project was more than usual, an exercise in problem solving. Angling the stair opened up the floor plan in a way that made better use of space and eliminated potential tight spots. It looked cool too. The gentle curve in the wall adjacent to the stair was part of “easing up” of a potential tight spot. It softens the harshness inherent the angle of the stair. (and it looks cool too)

steel stair plan + curved wall

This renovation project has an upper level curve that is not immediately obvious. It eliminates a deep, dust collecting spot over some built-in cabinetry by filling in that space. It creates a nice pattern effect with the morning sun through the large adjacent windows and adds a graceful complexity to the space – the curve is apparent from some perspectives but not so much from others. It softens and relaxes the space. I have no idea if there are any acoustic effects.

In this project I introduced a matching pair of curves in the hallway to ease a tight spot without having to expand the overall footprint of that section of the house. It also provides a unique point of reference for a long hall in a large house. Sometimes in a large house with many straight walls at right angles to one another, a subtle angle or curve can ease up the rigidity of a plan and allow a house to feel more comfortable.

curves in upstairs hallway

Mental note: Something similar can be said for introducing a bit of asymmetry in a strongly symmetrical composition – have I written about this already?

Here, a gentle curve allows the entry hall to reference the door to the garage more comfortably and allows the hallway to end less awkwardly and even with a bit of grace. Sorry about the poor quality of the photo – I need to get back for finished photos. I could see that this curve could have a nice emotional effect and I was glad to see it carried out by the contractor during construction. Sometimes on projects where I have less involvement during the construction phase the builder, not understanding a curve or angle will try to “simplify” the job and convince the owner not not do it. Usually this does not have a ruinous effect but it saddens me to see the loss, knowing what could have been.

One last image – the angled wall at the bedrooms was straightened in construction and the bridge has not been built yet. There are some uncomfortable spots now but it still basically works . The built result is more static and less dynamic than it could have been. Which nobody will notice but me.

Plan rendering

By | projects | One Comment

Sometimes it helps me to think about how a plan “lives” by spending some time on it with colored pencils and markers exploring relationships, light, land…. This design is similar to a house I’m working on right now but there are a few crucial differences that represent how I would have developed the design. As an architect I often think about what I would do with a design as opposed to what the clients want me to do. Perhaps it’s therapeutic.

Fern House Plans

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Now for sale here !
The plans are ready for sale and now include a sketchup model. Several have already been constructed from the plans.
pay with personal check to Robert Swinburne at 72 Cotton Mill Hill, Brattleboro VT 05301 or paypal –

Humble Beginnings

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Here is where I can really embarrass myself! I grew up in rural Maine in a rambling house and barn that my father built in the 70’s We moved there from coastal Maine when I was 8 years old. The new place had 40 acres of land which was fairly flat and included several fields where the topsoil had been stripped and sold as well as an old gravel pit filled with water, three cars and some trash (great for a little frog work!) and a meandering stream. (excellent for damming!)
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Tiny House Plan for Sale

By | business, products, projects, super insulated | 4 Comments

Now Taking orders for the plans for the Brattleboro Tiny House. The size is 16′ x 22′ with a sleeping loft. Super insulated double stud construction using advanced framing techniques. An excellent do-it-yourself project. Replace your old garage with something that can make an income as a rental unit or build this as a guest house/studio/office/….. Contact me at if you are interested and/or have questions.

Plan sheet for 16' x 22' Brattleboro Tiny House

Tiny House in Brattleboro

By | projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with an architect | 5 Comments

I’m working on a new project – a tiny house in Brattleboro Vermont. The house will be about 320 square feet and will replace an existing garage and serve as a rental unit. The goal of the owners is to build this this for under 30k. Obviously, that includes doing the general contracting themselves. My job, aside from coming up with a nice design that everybody will love, is to thoroughly vet the products and techniques in order to achieve this goal. There is a difference between designing and detailing to hand off to a regular G.C. and what I do for an owner builder. Especially when it comes to super-insulation and budget issues. The clients are blogging about it Tiny house in Brattleboro, Vermont for under 30k (hopefully) blog The context and budget seemed to indicate to me a more traditional form. I may play with materials a bit on the exterior.

Backyard retreat Greek Revival with Sunporch

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detail of greek revival backyard

This is a photo from a Greek Revival I designed and built as a carpenter on a crew back in 1997 or so. There are lots of hidden messages inside the walls – I always carried a sharpie in my toolbelt. Plus 3 foot high letter on the roof under the shingles that say “Sean is a Nerd”

Schematic Design Model

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I am working on schematic design for a nicely mod house with a modest budget.
At this stage I am trying out ideas and trying to pull together a whole package to a uniform degree of resolution. In the old days this is where I would be making models left and right out of chipboard and doing sketches. Sketchup has rendered that method obsolete. With Sketchup, I am able to try ten times as many ideas in a rapid fire design process that more suits my muse. It is a fast and furious process and I enjoy it immensely.


Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz
Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz


Robert Swinburne Architect, LLC AIA, NCARB, CPHD, DAD 802.451.9764
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