A small timber frame high performance house in Vermont

High Performance, Timber Frame House in Vermont

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Last week I received these photos of a project I helped out with last year. When I say helped out it really means just that. As an architect, I do very little imposing on clients. I nudge, hint, suggest, recommend, advise but in the end it is their project and their money and people hire me for different reasons. Sometimes it doesn’t go as smoothly as this which ended up being a pretty sweet project and people make some really awful decisions. (you don’t see those projects in my portfolio but all architects have them) These clients live a few hours away in another part of Vermont. I visited them last spring and I’ll make sure to visit again.

Classic New England timber framed house being sided with clapboards
A classic new england house corner

Of all the projects I do, most projects involve some level of client involvement during construction – not just during the design phase. It may be as little as purchasing fixtures and lights and doing some painting but often I design for clients who will be doing the contracting and much of the building themselves. This is Vermont after all. It’s how we roll up here. In this case the young couple had family with timber framing experience, they had survived the house building process as kids and they were ripe for some professional assistance with floor plans, aesthetics and some good solid building science. The result is one of my favorite combinations – good building science, natural building and classical New England detailing and form. And enthusiasm.

unfinished interior of a timber framed house showing air barrier
timber frame and plaster on a high performance home in northern Vermont

This is a timber frame cut from wood harvested on site. The frame is wrapped with a neat double stud detail that puts the intello air barrier in a nicely protected location. Braces are set so that sheetrock can slip nicely behind them saving much labor fussing. Much of the framing lumber also came from the site. Interior finishes are plaster which saved them money on taping and finishing the sheetrock as they were able to do it themselves. Future provisions were made for a mudroom and porches. This house may even end up being net zero. The overall footprint is 22’ x 34’ which seems to be a common size for my work in recent years. I can do a lot with that footprint.

timber frame detail showing air barrier

This project represents a “limited services” project. My role is to assist where needed but I don’t do full architectural services. My usual role involves lots of help with plans, advice with the building science and buildability aspects of things and helping the clients to keep things as simple as possible. I spend much time as a sounding board. Drawings are fairly minimal and often involves sketchup models and sketches in lieu of construction drawings. I do minimal structural and framing plans, no electrical plans, no interior elevations, minimal specs and schedules etc. We really focus on the core elements of the house. Costs for this level of service range between 2 and 5 % of construction cost if yo want to look at it that way. I’ve done a lot of these projects over the years and I’ve been involved with some really great clients.


New Video features the Greenfield House team

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The Main Team for the Greenfield house put together a short video about the house and the process of build an home with an integrated team which is pretty much necessary to do a high performance home. This video briefly explains a bit about what that means. The key players are Chad of Vermont Natural Homes, Mel of Helm Construction Solutions and myself, Bob Swinburne of Robert Swinburne Architect, LLC and Bluetime Collaborative, which represents the bringing together of key players in a collaborative team which is how I like best to work. Grady Smith of Grayson Digital did the filming and video production

Here are a few other videos that I have been featured in. The first features the Fern House and has been viewed over 28k times by now. The second is called “Living Small – Tiny House Documentary and has been viewed over 50k times

foursevenfive.com Feature – Greenfield House

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The folks over at 475 High Performance Building Supply wrote a very nice article about the Greenfield house last week. foursevenfive.com provides building materials and expertise to many high performance home builders and architects.This plan will be the next stock plan available in the VSH – Vermont Simple House series. I’m working on bringing it to a high level of detail now.

The article contains many process photos and an excellent description of the process with Vermont Natural Homes, Helm construction Solutions and Deap Energy group

Brattleboro Vermont Architect Robert Swinburne classic new England small home

Greenfield project update

By | Passive House, projects, Small house, super insulated, traditional vs modern, Uncategorized, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

I have a lot of photos from the Greenfield project. I am spending a fair amount of time on site working out details with the builder. I strongly feel that this is the way it should be. Things never translate perfectly from paper to built form no matter how much detail and specificity I put into a set of construction documents and on this project, I am spending much time on site figuring things out and detailing to a higher level. I think Chad, the builder, appreciates this process and I’m finding that it hearkens back to my pre-architect design build days. I hope to do more projects with this level of involvement in the future. I really think that this is “the way to go” here are lots of photos. Note the local wood use: Cherry stair treads with “live” edge, local maple flooring downstairs and pine upstairs, Vermont slate, and a wall sheathed with weathered pine off my own land.
Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect, Bluetime, Brattleboro

















Greenfield House project update

By | business, ego, projects, Small house, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

I spent part of Sunday painting at the Greenfield project with the builder Chad of Vermont Natural Homes. The all white primer that drywallers left us with was rather intense in the bright winter sun. The main bedroom upstairs which faces south was almost too bright to tolerate. It was good to spend much of the day there on a sunny day to better understand the light and to see how things will photograph when all is said and done. The color we used is a light blueish gray and it really had a soothing effect on the main room. I hope it will feel warm at night under artificial light as well. I am a bit concerned about this room as it had so much going on in terms of different materials on different surfaces. It was nice to spend the day talking with Chad about design and business and such. I don’t often get to interact on that level with the builders. There is a lot going on in this house that will help me learn and get better as an architect and help Chad get better as a builder. Plus the part where it is shaping up to be stunningly beautiful.

Greenfiled house Robert Swinburne Brattleboro Vermont architect

We tried a different construction method for this project than plain old double stud walls. There is potential in this method – (see previous post) but I don’t think we gained as much as we hoped in terms of air tightness and ease of construction. There are some Passive House builders using this method to hit ridiculously low cost per square foot numbers and it has numerous other advantages. I look forward to improving the detailing next time around. Double stud construction (used on the Ames Hill Project shown below) is the local standard here in Southeastern Vermont. The cost/benefit ratio is very high and local “green” builders are very familiar with it and prefer to build this way. Some local builders are also starting to advocate using locally milled boards as sheathing rather than OSB and plywood as well. I asked around (sent out a formal questionnaire even) and most think the cost difference is negligible.

Greenfiled house Robert Swinburne Brattleboro Vermont architect

We also had issues with the trusses on the Greenfield project. Maybe we just had bad luck but it seems that whenever I’ve tried to specify trusses to save money, they come through just imperfect enough to cause problems that need to be solved in the field.

I detailed lots of things both interior and exterior in such a way that they can be filled in later but don’t interfere with occupancy permit and impression of completeness. The sheetrock around the deep set windows for instance, costs more on the drywaller’s bill but when they leave, the window is essentially trimmed out. Done. We can add a sill later. Perhaps even just laying some slate tiles on the window sill. I have found that using wood trim on deep windows looks too…heavy and complicated. There are more cool and experimental things happening at this project as well which I will detail in a later blog post as they happen.

Greenfiled house Robert Swinburne Brattleboro Vermont architect
The stairs aren’t in yet so I did some quick and dirty photoshopping:

On most (all?) projects there is a level of design that is in the earlier, preconstruction drawings and models that I find really hard to convey to builders and clients and thus gets edited out of the final constructed project. Things that often look unnecessary on paper and I sound silly trying to explain but, the older and more experienced I get, the more I understand how important these things are. Once in a while I have a client who trusts me enough to let me do what I do to a greater extent. I suspect I have been luckier than most architects in that regard. I am so often trying to use space, light (and dark), flow, texture, detail, color etc. to shape and affect emotion and state of mind for my clients and I hope that long after I’m gone that will be a big and recognized part of my legacy.

Greenfiled house Robert Swinburne Brattleboro Vermont architect

This project and the Ames Hill Project have been opportunities to work with – and see how to work with – a full-on construction management firm – Helm Construction Solutions. This is part of trying to reach a higher level of service as an architect (it’s a hard thing to do as a sole proprietor) as well as re-write how projects happen locally. I have lots of cost and pricing information gathered on my own over the years that I can use for rough estimating purposes but what Helm does involves knowing the cost of things much more accurately earlier in the process. I have found few builders who can really do this well. It tends to be a level of service one would expect of a larger firm with a dedicated staff (back at the office) for this aspect of construction. It’s very much about managing expectations, communications, process, accountability and smoothing the tumultuous process of building as much as possible.

helm construction solutions brattleboro vermontVermont Natural Homes

I filled out some of the Bluetime Collaborative section of my website finally – check it out from the top menu.

Vermont Architect Robert Swinburne southern vermont

Hemlock siding Vermont Modern Robert Swinburne architect

Hemlock – Open Gap Rain Screen Siding

By | affordable modern, cool stuff, education, good ideas, Living in Vermont, products, projects, Small house, super insulated, traditional vs modern, Uncategorized, working with a builder, working with an architect | 6 Comments

My use of eastern hemlock as a siding material has been generating interest. Hemlock is a common wood in Vermont but doesn’t get used a lot except in barns and outbuildings and sometimes for timber frames. My summer job during high school involved working in a small sawmill. We sometimes cut hemlock and I found the wood beautiful, but heavy. One summer, we cut some hemlock for a bridge. Fast forward um… lots of years and I ordered a bunch of hemlock for framing and decking when I built my barn. I learned a bit about how to work with hemlock, how it ages and weathers and I started thinking about how I could use it in my own work. I try to source materials as locally as possible and design within local builder’s abilities and interests – which is easy to do here where builders get together monthly to discuss building science related issues

Eastern hemlock in Vermont

In rural New England, buildings are often sided with pine siding in a vertical shiplap form – and often unfinished. It tends to develop a black mold that is relatively harmless but can be ugly. I found that hemlock is more resistant to this mold. It’s also harder and more rot resistant. It is nowhere near as rot resistant as cedar, a more common siding material however.

White pine siding on my own barn
white pine siding on a barn robert Swinburne Vermont Architect

A brief on open rainscreen siding: Good architect and builders are installing siding with a vented airspace between the siding and weather resistant barrier (WRB). This allows any moisture that gets behind the siding to dry out before it does damage. Modern materials (a better WRB) and the venting detail allow us to use different materials and different details for the siding itself. I have commonly seen the open gapped rainscreen detail used with ipe boards but Ipe is a tropical hardwood related to mahogany. Cement based boards are also used commonly but cement has fairly high embodied energy. Both of these are not locally sourced materials. The gap in the siding also reveals a view of the WRB (depending on the size of the gap) This means that damaging UV rays are also reaching the WRB. And bugs. Thus the need for a better (and black) WRB. There are several on the market designed for this. Both projects shown here use Mento and tapes from Foursevenfive.com

It occurred to me that I could use narrow hemlock boards from local mills to create a very elegant (I hoped) rainscreen siding detail. It would use local and relatively inexpensive materials, it wouldn’t need paint or stain, installation could be simpler and faster if I got the details right, and if I installed it horizontally, the lowest courses could easily be replaced if the siding degraded due to splashback and snow banks. The damaged siding would not present a disposal concern – just toss it in the bushes and it becomes habitat for red backed salamanders.
I was lucky to have a client with a taste for modernism allow me to try my ideas out on his home. The results were rather spectacular and gave me a sense of the potential. Now I am doing my second project with hemlock siding. The builders for this project (Webster Construction of Marlboro, Vermont) are quite familiar with good building science and modern products and methods. They saw the potential and were happy to give it a try plus they were able to improve my detailing in several ways which I can then incorporate into drawings and specifications for the next time around.

modern ski house in vermont near Statton

The hemlock turns silvery gray within a year. The narrow boards create a woven, fabric-like aesthetic.

The hemlock is installed “green” with deck screws. This siding is all 1×3 so gaps will be quite small as the wood dries. Fiberglass bugscreen is installed directly behind the siding. strapping can be regular 1×3 strapping although coravent makes an excellent product for this purpose and should at least be used on any strapping set horizontally such as over and under windows.

hemlock siding installation

This is the corner trim detail the builder came up with and I really like. One side runs long and is cut after installation. The other side is held back for a crisp reveal – very architecty! Of note: the deck is white oak (local) and the post is European Larch which is from a harvest of a Vermont tree farm. European larch is used in Europe as a durable siding material that needs no treatment.

hemlock siding corner detail - Vermont architect Robert SwinburneHemlock siding in Vermont - Vermont architect Robert Swinburne

modern ski house in vermont near Statton with open gap rainscreen siding

detailing around windows is super simple. On the first house I used metal panels (installed by the roofer) to accentuate the windows and wrap corners. Here it is about as simple as it gets.

Eastern Hemlock siding detailVermont modern house by architect Robert Swinburne

A few of my minimal details:


High Performance Window Installation – Part 1

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Today’s post is about windows. Specifically installing high end windows. Most American architects and builders don’t have to read this or worry about this. Nothing to see here… move along. For those of us working on a higher level, however, windows and window installation are hot topics. I have to tailor the construction documents according to the windows chosen. This is a fair amount of work I didn’t have to do in the past. The actual installation is now on my plate as something I need to be on site for as the architect. I was on-site last week at the Greenfield project and took some photos. Chad (the builder – Vermont Natural Homes) and I had much fun working out the installation details for the Klearwall windows chosen for this project. Our goal is to simplify the installation details to the greatest extent possible, minimize the possibility of water infiltration and create a system that can easily be monitored over the years for durability. We use tapes and weather barriers from foursevenfive.com to accomplish this. Calk has no place on the exterior of a modern high performance home (that is SO nineties) Our trim detail (subject for a future blog post) is designed so that we could easily remove the casing around the exterior of the window to inspect the taped joints.

We start with a fairly traditional clapboard at the window opening to provide a bit of pitch.

Then we use Extoseal to provide a sill pan. IF any of you have ever used Bituthene for the is purpose, I feel for you. I really do. But don’t ever do it again. There is a better way.

Check how the Extoseal turns the corner. Note also the integrated exterior sill. Different manufacturers handle this in different ways. I think the Klearwall way is less elegant than some.

The next trick is to use Tescon Profil to tape over that annoying joint at the junction between the sill and the window frame. after several tries we came up with an excellent and easily teachable/repeatable solution. This all gets hidden with trim so we prioritize “good” over “neat”

The up and around part is relatively easy. We inset the window in the opening to make it so. This allows up to uncouple the head flashing from the window flashing in a simplified manner. The head flashing detail will be covered in a later blog post (along with the trim)

Then, happy with what we had figured out for the windows, we turned our attention to the door. And I wrote all over everything. Because I’m an architect.

Taking Stock of the Business

By | business, Living in Vermont, mutterings, projects, Uncategorized | No Comments

The current state of things. In rather wordy format. It was late.
Sometimes it is good practice to write down a general summary of the state of my business to help myself put things into perspective.
I have several projects under construction.
The Greenfield MA house for my in-laws is being framed currently by Chad and company with Vermont Natural Homes and Mel of Baiser Construction Management.
vermont architect Robert Swinburne
I have spent and have yet to spend an inordinate amount of time on this project. I am using lessons learned here to bring my services to a higher level than ever before but it is tough. Sometimes I wish I had stuck with the design-build route so I would have more control. This project didn’t have quite enough money in the budget to go the Passive house route although the insulation levels etc may actually end up performing at Passive house levels but without the added cost of certification. It’ll be close. I learned (deja-vu) that trusses (like SIPs) are not perfect. I’m second guessing myself about the TJI’s outside the structural shell to hold insulation. (would it have been cheaper to do double stud?) I may do some tiling there myself and I need to schedule a trip with Mom-in-Law to IKEA for the Kitchen cabinets. And the whole family is pre-priming the trim on the old logging landing at my house.
The AH house is on a similar schedule for construction but with a higher level of finish work and a higher budget.
vermont architect robert swinburne
This project got a bit crunched in terms of my work when it disappeared for a few months and then started back up after I had filled the gap. It has been a bit tough getting everything out to the builders and clients on a fast track schedule. Especially when I am only working part time. Which brings me to my own project.
I live in a small house with a cat, three dogs, an 8 year old girl, a 3 year old boy and my lovely wife. We have one bathroom. Which was rapidly disintegrating into goopy piles of mold. I really needed to do something about it so this year, with a little ($) help from mom, I performed a gut remodel job. I had to rebuild the entire exterior wall down to the foundation and remove and rebuild the entire wall between the bedroom and the bathroom.
vermont architect Robert Swinburne
I even ripped up half the subfloor. The only thing that stayed was the exhaust fan in the ceiling and the door. The plumber arrived yesterday and I took an extremely luxurious shower (and other things) last night. This project has taken a fair amount of time (I’ve been keeping track of this as I would a regular job)
So I’m a bit under the gun with this personal job and the jobs I have under construction which isn’t that much work except that don’t forget, I’m only a part time architect. I have, for the most part, been successful at getting meals on the table, keeping the house clean, keeping up with the laundry etc. but I’ve had to pretty much give up cycling this summer as I have to try to make all my time every day productive. I’m also a bit behind on the winter’s wood supply and some other home maintenance jobs.
This week I started back working on a long term project that will start construction next summer – the house for slow living. It is more expensive than the client’s original number and I have been pointing that out to the point of getting told to “shut it” because they like it so much. Which is fine but I have been a bit paranoid about digging into the CAD work in case it is all for naught. The biggest $$ savings would have come from putting the house on a floating slab ala Bygghouse and Chris Corson. (check out his system here). This is fairly standard in Sweden and Scandinavia as well as other cold parts of the world and the detailing is certainly well vetted and has stood the test of time but is a bit too “different” for the more conservative local contractors. So “no go” on that sales job. They want a full basement. Interestingly, some friends are doing a floating slab for a project in the neighboring town. More hip contractors I guess. I need to write a blog post comparing different types of foundations. I’m starting this project in full-on BIM mode. There will definitely be some unbillable hours there as I learn things. BIM or Building Information Modeling is using the full potential of my very expensive software to create a project in full 3-D as opposed to “drafting” The benefits are more accurate and more efficient construction documents as well as being able to perform more accurate lighting, shading, and energy modeling studies. This is standard practice for larger firms and the more geeky and technically oriented small firm practitioners (of which, I am not one of) But I’m always pushing myself on these things.
I also didn’t get a rather large job that I was a bit nervous about as it would have taken a huge amount of time and the budget was fairly unrealistic as was the time frame. I didn’t get the job because my portfolio of commercial work is quite thin. I have been doing almost exclusively residential for the past decade. In retrospect, I should have sought out a partnership to do this job. There are several really excellent firms that have expressed interest in working with me and I would love to do that sometime but I’m sort of glad I didn’t get the job. It would have been too stressy and I probably would have lost money.
Last week I met with a couple who want to renovate an old farmhouse/cape that hasn’t even been lived in for decades (no asbestos, no 70’s kitchen to tear out, no insulation) That sounds potentially very cool – I LOVE working on old New England houses.
There are also a few smaller projects that may materialize plus I need to spend some time on my stock plan portfolio and finish building this website.
I’ve been thinking about the future of my business as well. It seems that it will remain part time for the foreseeable future. My wife works ¾ time and is in grad school as well. Perhaps, in a few years she will get a regular job with a salary and a 401k and I’ll remain part time or perhaps I’ll be forced into more full time work and she will reduce her hours. It’s all too unknown to make plans so I’m just taking it one day and one job at a time with no plans for growing my business. I think that if I were to ever take on a partner, that person would have to be in a similar situation time-wise. Plus they should have an MBA and be really good at hanging out at brewpubs and schmoozing.

The light at the end of the tunnel is this: (The plumbers installed a new toilet in my bathroom yesterday)
Vermont Architect Robert Swinburne Brattleboro

The business card at the top is by EM Letterpress

Greenfield House – client perspective – mid design

By | Passive House, projects, Small house, super insulated, working with an architect | No Comments

Bob, in response to your invitation to comment on the passive house you are designing for us, here are some thoughts.

I see this first of all as an opportunity to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The chance to show off the kind of technology and design choices that–were they widely adopted–could significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels feels not just like an opportunity to showcase your talents as an architect but to participate in a necessary new way of thinking about housing. That you are, coincidentally, our son-in-law certainly plays a role in our enthusiasm, but it goes so far beyond providing for immediate family and grandchildren. It goes to realizing the models that are going to keep the earth inhabitable for everyone’s grandchildren.

Greenfield house plan first floor

Coming back to the ground now, to the very immediate house in question and the very personal responses on an aesthetic and emotional level: It’s exciting to think about having a space designed to support who we are and how we like to occupy space. The openness of most of the design, combined with the privacy of spaces designated for bedroom and in-home offices for each of us, is perfect. I imagine fondly the day when, if one of us is cooking in the kitchen and the other is in the living room, we won’t have to shout to each other to be heard. I look forward to having a cup of tea by the floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows. Visual access to the outside year-round is crucial to my mental health, and if I have a view of the outside space, I need far less inside space. I am inordinately pleased by the idea that we may be able to design a root cellar into this house. The idea of storing garden vegetables connects the seasons for me. (An aside: I got a ridiculous amount of pleasure in Seattle from picking kiwi fruit in October/November, and eating it in December, January, and even February.) And, of course, those floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows will be a great spot for starting plants in the winter and early spring. Did I say I love the idea of floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows?

We love wood fires, but I’ve got to admit that each time I build one these days and notice the ash that has to be cleaned out and the wood dust on the rug that will need to be vacuumed I realize these are tasks I will not miss. And again, as we age, and things tend to take a little more time to accomplish just because of increased physical limitations, I won’t regret leaving wood and ash hauling behind. It will leave more time for reading and writing. In the cozy office spaces or by the wonderful floor-to-ceiling windows.

Then there’s air quality and noise issues. I’m given to respiratory irritations and ailments, which means that, especially during heating season, I keep a HEPA filter running in the living room and a humidifier in the bedroom. Both are noisy, but help to create a white noise effect that drowns out traffic on the street outside. I know I’m going to enjoy the quiet of a super-insulated house and the climate-controlled clean air I’ll be breathing.

As we are very near retirement age, it pleases me that we’re designing this house to be one in which we can age. Thinking ahead not to the inevitability but the possibility of one or the other of us needing a wheelchair at some point, and having the first floor bathroom at the ready, means not having to worry about retrofitting in a hurry someday.

Just knowing some of the principles of Passive House design has made me so much more aware of heat and cold. I take a hot bath, and imagine the system that will capture the heat as the water cools. I open the curtains when the sun is shining, the better to capture a bit of the free solar warmth. I have begun to use the term “thermal bridging” in casual conversation.

Circling back to the overview: I like that we are able to support, with this project, not only the concept of Passive House but also the business model that you, Mel, and Chad are using. Having presided over a remodel in Seattle, I need no convincing that it’s going to be worth it to have project coordination and scheduling built in to the process and the services your team is going to provide us.

passive house Greenfield MA

Early Thoughts on the Greenfield Project (architect)

By | affordable modern, business, Passive House, projects, Small house, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with a builder, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I took a shot at writing down my own thoughts about the Greenfield project I’m doing for my wife’s folks. Sometimes I have so many half-baked ideas in my head that writing them down creates a jelling effect and helps me to clarify and focus my efforts. I’m planning on documenting this project to a much higher level than I have in the past, partly because we are assembling something of a dream team to get this done and partly because I am using this project to redefine how I work in order to bring my own practice to a higher level. I have encouraged the others to start writing as well and some of that will show up here on the blog as well for a more well-rounded perspective. We are currently exploring the feasibility of doing this house as a Passive house and seeking certification.

I hope, as usual, to show what can be accomplished when a highly functional and customized plan is also an emotionally uplifting place to live. This projects continues my exploration into the emotional aspects of “home” and how to use architecture to augment and reinforce the emotional connection to place.
What have I to gain from doing this project as a full-on Certified Passive House? So what if the winter heating bills drop from $75/month to $25/month? Is that really worth all the extra effort and expense to go through certification? We don’t know the answer to that yet. “Let me run some numbers” as the engineer or accountant would say.
Passive house has cache. It attracts media. There is huge marketing potential. The clients (my in-laws) are understandably interested in that aspect of it – it relates to their son-in-law’s ability to financially support his wife and children. I want to do more of this type of work in the future and will I ever get such a good opportunity to gain exposure, attention and build a reputation that to do a very attractive and relevant project at this highest level… and market it to the greatest extent possible. I have seen that model propel other firms into the limelight so I am aware of what power and potential in inherent in this thinking.
My own limited knowledge of Passive House indicated that this house as designed thus far could attain Passive House certification with minimal extra effort. I’m a Certified Passive House Designer – CPHD with the international credential but I have little practical experience. This project could be a great way to gain that experience. The most effort and extra money will probably be in soft costs – hiring someone with experience to do the energy modeling, advise on detailing and assist in the certification process.
With this project we are also formalizing a fairly progressive project delivery process that I am realizing is crucial to creating high performance buildings. This represents the direction my own business model is headed in. I have, in the past, followed both the more traditional architect route where I work with clients to design and detail a project and we shop it out to builders. I have also worked (more often) in a more design-build model where the builder is integrated into the process from very early in the process. That has been my preferred method of project delivery but I am realizing that to provide the highest levels of service, I need to fill in some gaps. I can’t do everything and I don’t have expertise in everything so I’m bringing in people to help fill the traditional gaps. Subcontractors as well need to be on board as part of the team at a much earlier stage and need to be aware that they will be asked to perform at a very high level of professionalism. Part of my job is to make that as easy as possible for them through design and detailing.
I am working on this project with Mel Baiser of Baiser Construction Management and Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes both of whom have training in passive house detailing and construction. They understand what it takes to reach that highest level of building excellence. And considerable enthusiasm to do so.
We are pouring over the details as fast as I can draw them up to insure that no stone is left unturned. The process requires a high level of integration at this early stage in terms of product selection, integrated assembly, cost (and relative costs). Assumptions are challenged and vetted and everything will be put down on paper before the project is staked out on the site which is under considerable snow at the moment.
We will maintain a process blog as part of Vermont Architect to provide a window into this process. Blog readers and Bluetime Collaborative facebook followers have already seen some early schematic design images of this project.
Stay tuned.

eave detail

Always know what and where your AIR BARRIER is.

By | affordable modern, education, links, mutterings, Passive House, projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, Uncategorized, working with a builder, working with an architect | No Comments

I’m working on detailing out a smallish house in Greenfield, MA. We probably won’t go full Passive House on this but we will look at what additional costs and detailing it would take. And if we’re close…

We are doing some novel (to me) stuff for the shell of the house that, I suspect, will become more standard practice for me in years to come.
Here are some “progress print” detail drawings from the plan set. My drawings tend to look a bit different than most architect’s drawings due to two things: The time I spent wielding a hammer and trying to interpret my own drawings and the fact that I have worked as a sole practitioner for so long and have developed my own graphic style. I should add to that a third thing – my knowledge of building science informed best practices.

building section and details illustrating air barrier location and definition

The first thing you will notice about these drawings is actually the most important thing. The red and blue dotted lines represent the weather resistant barrier and the air barrier respectively. If your drawings don’t have at least the air barrier called out in the sections, (and continuous around the thermal envelope) The drawings are incomplete. I have been getting picky in my detailing about how to make the air barrier both easy to achieve and durable. In my opinion, relying on painted sheetrock to serve as an air barrier just doesn’t cut it – certainly not for the next 100 years.

Many builders and architects in the Northeast US are still building 2×6 walls with fiberglass batts and a poly vapor barrier. That’s how I learned to do it when I was just starting out in the 90’s. I also opened up a number of walls built that way that were full of mold.


builders don’t build this way anymore. Check the Building Science Corporation website for some pictures of what can go wrong.

One part of building science is probability and statistics. I often hear builders say “I’ve always built that way and I’ve never had any problems” – that you know about. But those builders are only looking at 50 or 100 projects. Luck plays a part here. What happens when you look at thousands or even tens of thousands? You start to see some patterns emerge and you start to see the luck factor drop out of the equation. You are able to formulate some best practice standards for a number of things including durability, air quality, energy use and even catastrophic failure. I prefer to work with builders who are informed about building science and involved in the discussion.

That’s easy here in the Southeastern Vermont area home of Building Green area, home of Building Green and SEON which sponsors a well-attended monthly building science discussion group and learning circle. – If anyone wants to get something like this started in their own community, send Guy an email at the address in their website.

I owe it to my clients to help them get the best constructed project possible. That, in addition to the most functional, aesthetically appropriate, finely crafted project possible.
– Oh and the budget thing too – Read More

A Smallish House in Massachusetts

By | affordable modern, Passive House, projects, Small house, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with an architect | One Comment

I am working on a 1400 s.f house in Massachusetts. Given that the walls are over a foot thick, the actual square footage is quite a bit less (about 1200). The extra insulation (and cutting edge building science) allows us to forgo a heat system other than a relatively inexpensive minisplit – and monthly fuel bills. Here are a few images of what I’m up to. no fancy rendering for now, just the Sketchup model and some Vectorworks CAD drawings.

composite section showing stairs, construction details, interiors and exterior trim

Brattleboro architect Robert Swinburne

I spent a fair amount of time detailing the steel and wood stairs in Sketchup as I have found that is the only way for me to really figure out every nut and bolt and refine the design to the level that I am comfortable with before construction drawings. I like to approach the stair as sculpture with every piece exact and connections “just so”. Thus I am able to design something that is quick and easy to assemble with just the right amount of “fudge space” built in.
steel stairs

steel stair design

The floor plans have shrunk and simplified from the last version becoming more functional and comfortable.

Floor plans

Progress on Mod ski home in Vermont

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

One of the projects I’m working on is an addition to and renovations of a ski home in Vermont. The main house is well built and and other than a maroon and pink bathroom and rather 80’s finishes, we are not doing anything too major to it.

We are locating a family room addition between the existing house and garage which will provide a much nicer kitchen and living area plus additional bunkrooms and a multi-user bath on the basement level. I’m sticking with the dark clapboard and red standing seam roof of the existing as I think it provides a nice base for some fun things to happen with color at the doors and windows.

I am using big windows, wood, steel etc to create a warm, modern and relaxed space for lots of people to be in.

Here is the current plan:

and I put together a few videos of the sketchup model

house for slow living

A House for Slow Living

By | affordable modern, good ideas, Living in Vermont, Passive House, super insulated, traditional vs modern, Uncategorized, working with an architect | 12 Comments

A House for Slow Living
The original concept came to me in a dream (yes – I dream architecturally) I think the dream may have been generated by this image which has been on my bulletin board fora few years:

The original sketch was called “a house for food”

The core concept was centered around the growing, preparation and consumption of food which lends itself to the idea of gatherings of family and friends and leads to the notion of how to live in a close relationship to the local environment. From my own experience I drew upon the old fashioned ideas of hunkering down by the fire on a cold winter evening, opening the house up to the sounds, smells and breezes of a summer day, “putting food by” and making routine preparations for winter in the Autumn, starting seedlings on a windowsill in the spring, caring for children or elders. Also, how can we appreciate the beauty of the winter landscape and light without feeling overcome by it. This is a common issue in the Northeast. Where do you sit to watch a thunderstorm rolling in or to watch the snow fall? Music! – not just acoustics but around here, everybody is also a musician. How does that fit into our daily lives?
Much inspiration is to be found in images and stories depicting rural life from previous times in Europe and America. I am drawn to the imagery of hard working English country houses where the real life of the house centers between the kitchen and the door stoop leading directly to the working yard and gardens. Think: Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor’s Garden by Beatrix Potter with a potting shed, cold frames and lots of cabbages.
I am fascinated by early New England farms and town dwellings and how lives were played out in them. Not the big events but the little, day to day, season to season routines. Light and fresh air are celebrated and sought after and even, perhaps, taken for granted in an age before television and telephones. Materials are worn but durable, practical and show their age and history and that is where their beauty lies.

The Building Science aspect of design and detailing that we are all so immersed in lately addresses the idea of being able to lock the door and walk away for a month in the winter and not worry about much of anything. The neighbor has the key and will water the plants. Building Science addresses being what we are calling “net zero” so you are not storing and burning fossil fuel on site and paying for it as well. Building Science addresses the notion of simplicity – who needs a heating system that could go on the fritz and bust your pipes and freeze all your house plants so when your neighbor comes over to water the house plants, he finds an awful mess and has to call you in some recently devastated country where you are doing relief work. Building Science allows you to return in March to a house filled with fresh air and no mildew. (building science can’t help with what you left in the fridge) Building Science can free you from many previously taken for granted maintenance issues and expenses such as painting and periodic repair, maintenance and replacement of the mechanical parts of the house because now you have fewer and simpler systems.

How then, to marry my heady and romantic thoughts with the physics of modern building science? How do I pack all of this sensuality and feeling into a house that celebrates the process of living this chosen life rather than reminding one of the potentially inherent drudgery?
Since these ideas are very personal to me, it isn’t very difficult to make a series of design moves and decisions that bring me pretty close. I have been moving in this direction for much of my life. I am often “pretty close” but getting to that higher level is tricky and elusive. I’m not there yet with this design but it’s still early….

In this design, I’m trying to balance small and simple with a richness of space that goes far beyond light and shadow, a good floor plan and simplicity of form and add my own interpretation of what it can mean to live in Vermont and lead a life integrated with the climate and culture of the place. I’m drawing heavily on history and my own sense of aesthetics as well as all my cumulative observations and experience.

Dang! Maybe I should tear down my own house and build something like this!

For those interested in the Slow Living Movement, Brattleboro has a Slow Living Summit coming up in June associated with the Strolling of the Heiffers parade and festival.

Observations from Rachelle (my co-#1 fan)

By | bad ideas, ego, mutterings, working with a builder, working with an architect | No Comments

Bob has been asking me for some time to write a guest blog entry and since he has happily been to busy of late to write much himself, I thought this was a good time to finally make good on my promise to do so.

Last year, I had a visit with an old friend who had recently moved back to the area. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was the first time I’d seen her new house since it was just a partially-erected timber frame. It was lovely to see my friend after such a long gap, and also fodder for pondering and a blog entry.

The house was nice—open, tasteful, bright and spacious (huge by our standards) and it fulfilled their goal of functioning as somewhat of a community gathering place as well as a home. For example, they were holding a weekly meditation group in a specially designed meditation/yoga area. But I couldn’t help thinking that if Bob had designed it, it could have met their needs so much more simply, elegantly and with much less square footage.

Of course I said nothing (how can you say something like that and what would be the point?) as I had said nothing during their design process. It seems rather self-serving to say to a friend who’s designing their own dream house, “you know, you should really consider hiring my husband.”

But what I learned next makes me question whether that was really the best approach. When somebody builds a house, you expect them to be excited, even jubilant with the result. Instead, my friend told me that she felt like she had PTSD. There wasn’t a single corner of the house she could look at without dredging up the stressful arguments with contractors over that bit of construction. She wished she could be rid of the house, but they were sunk in it for so much more than market value, that wasn’t an option.

The biggest mistake they had made was to get sweet-talked by the GC into inadequate planning and problem-solving. One thing Bob stresses to all his clients is how much easier it is and how much cheaper it is to work out problems on paper. My friend believed her charismatic contractor that they could figure it all out as they went. What she figured out is that it’s very expensive to pay for an entire crew to stand around and wait while hasty compromises are made.

I could go on, but you get the point. My friend’s unfortunate house-building experience is a classic example of why it pays to pay for someone good to be on your side. Of course, that’s no guarantee of satisfaction either, I suppose. I’m thinking of some clients who fired Bob a few years back after he showed them a rendering of what the addition floor plan they loved would look like in elevation. Not at all what they’d expected. You’d think they might have been appreciative to discover that after a few hours of design time rather than mid-construction. No accounting for people. It’s now once again been a while since I caught up with that friend. I hope she’s come to peace with her process by now, and that she’s enjoying her home. And if another friend embarks on the process of building a home? I wonder if I’ll serve them by being self-serving. I’ll probably just give them some generic advice about working all the kinks out that they can on paper, and leave it at that. After all, my friends all know I’m married to an architect.

Thinking ahead

By | good ideas, projects, traditional vs modern, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

HA! This happens a lot. I just got a call from a contractor who wanted to modify roof trim on an addition to make it both easier and he thought it would look better. Which it would except that a future phase of the project involves adding a porch in such a way that the frieze on the addition becomes the casing for the porch beam. The continuity was important to the client to calm that side of the building. In the image, the red over the window is where the contractor wanted to case the window with 1 x 4 thus creating a narrower frieze board. When that line got over to the porch on the left it would have to drop down to case in the porch beam. Not smooth. On the windows above, the casing for the windows is independent and below the frieze which is preferable, however, I was setting the three lower windows as high and large as I could over a countertop to maximize light into a deep room. We were squished also in terms of the roof in order to get it well under the upstairs windows. Especially over the porch area. The contractor’s solution would be fine and what I would have designed were it not for the open porch to the right.

I found, during the years I worked as a carpenter, that it was easy to concentrate on the task at hand and lose sight of the overall picture. As a designer, sometimes I’ll make a foundation more complicated in order to make framing or trim more simple. Or sometimes I’ll do things in a more complicated fashion due to an aesthetic historical precedent. (Isn’t much of traditional design like that?) Sometimes I will complicate things to make the end result look simple. Sometimes I complicated things just because I can be really really picky.

Recent Design Work

By | projects, Uncategorized, working with an architect | 2 Comments

Then I looked at a larger barn with more “clipped” New England eaves. Need to work on the front windows. Traditional barns often utilized some asymmetry here but more modern barn builders seem to stick rigidly to symmetry. The side windows are not good however. -see last picture. Perhaps two large windows

Further work:

philosophy and process

By | mutterings, working with an architect | No Comments

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.

Real Vermonters don’t have Master Bedroom Suites

By | Living in Vermont, mutterings, Uncategorized, working with an architect | One Comment

(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.

GateKeepers Cottage

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

Sort of
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:

Site planning and a holistic aproach to design

By | good ideas, Living in Vermont, working with an architect | 5 Comments

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…

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.

I am a Passive House Designer!

By | education, ego, Passive House, super insulated, working with an architect | 6 Comments

Apparently, although I never got an email, I am now a Certified Passive House Designer!!

What is Passive House ?

– The passive house standard represents the highest level of energy efficiency and “green building”.
– The passive house standard is where state and municipality energy codes are headed.
– Public housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity and regional housing authorities and land trusts are starting to require new housing units to be built to the passive house standard as these groups tend to prioritize overall cost of ownership over initial cost of construction.
– The roots of Passive House trace back to the 1970s, when the concepts of superinsulation and passive solar management techniques were developed in the United States and Canada.
– More than 25,000 buildings have been built to the Passive House standard in Europe. The standard is especially common in multi-family housing where it often makes little financial sense not to build to this level of energy efficiency.

“Maximize your gains, minimize your losses”. These are the basic tenets of the Passive House approach. A Passive House project maximizes the energy efficiency of the basic building components inherent in all buildings; roof, walls, windows, floors and the utility systems: electrical, plumbing & mechanical. By minimizing a building’s energy losses, the mechanical system is not called to replenish the losses nearly as frequently. This saves resources, operational costs and global warming related pollution. Unlike any other structures, Passive House buildings maintain occupant comfort for more hours of the year without the need for mechanical temperature conditioning of the indoor air. The opposite has been the norm in this country where we have a history of inexpensive fuel and construction techniques with little consideration for energy losses through thermal bridging, air-infiltration, and inadequate levels of insulation.

Passive House is both a building energy performance standard and a set of design and construction principles used to achieve that standard. The Passive House standard is the most stringent building energy standard in the world
The Passive House approach focuses on the following:

Strategic Design and Planning:
Passive House projects are carefully modeled and evaluated for efficiency at the design stage. Certified Passive House Consultants are trained to use the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), a tool that allows designers to test “what-if” scenarios before construction begins. They are also trained to use other software tools to identify and address potential thermal bridges and moisture issues at the design stage.
Specific Climate, Siting and Sizing:
Passive House design uses detailed, specific annual weather data in modeling a structure’s performance. Orientation of the windows can maximize or minimize solar gain and shading. Passive House theory leans towards minimizing the surface area to interior volume ratio, favoring an efficient shape to minimize energy losses.
Super-Insulated, Air-Tight Envelope (But Diffusion Open):
To keep the heating/cooling in, wall assemblies require greater insulation values to “stop the conditioned air” from leaving. Walls are typically much thicker than today’s standard construction. Passive House takes great care in designing, constructing and testing the envelope for an industry-leading control of air leakage. Blower door testing is a mandatory technique in assuring high performance. Walls are designed to be virtually air tight, while allowing water vapor to dry out. “If moisture gets into the wall, how does it dry out before damage can occur?” is a fundamental tenet of modern building science addressed in Passive House design. Wall assemblies are analyzed to allow for proper water and moisture management to make a long lasting and an exceptionally healthy building.
Thermal Bridge-Free Detailing:
Breaks in the insulation layer usually caused by structural elements and utility penetrations in the building envelope create a “thermal bridge,” allowing undesirable exterior temperatures to migrate to and “un-do” expensive interior conditioned air and creating colder interior surfaces that encourage the growth of mold. Passive House design attempts to minimize thermal bridges via progressive mindful architectural detailing.
Advanced Windows and Doors:
Historically these items are the weak link of a building’s envelope and thermal defense system. Passive House places significant emphasis on specifying high performance windows and doors to address concern. To meet the high performance needs of various climate zones, windows must meet strict performance standards regarding: component insulation, air tightness, installation and solar heat gain values.
Energy Recovery Ventilation:
The “lungs” of a Passive House come from a heat (or energy) recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV). It provides a constant supply of tempered, filtered fresh air 24/7 and saves money by recycling the indoor energy that is typically found in exhaust air. The heat from outgoing stale air is transferred to the unconditioned incoming fresh air, while it is being filtered. It provides a huge upgrade in indoor air quality and consistent comfort, especially for people sensitive to material off-gassing, allergies and other air-borne irritants. HRV’s are fast becoming standard equipment in all new houses in Vermont.
One of the best benefits to implementing Passive House design is the high performance shell and extremely low annual energy demand. This allows owners to save on operational costs as they can now significantly downsize a building’s mechanical system. Passive solar gains, plus heat from occupants and appliances supply most of the needed heat. Radiant floor, baseboard, or forced hot air heating systems are unnecessary!
Alternative Energy:
Considering alternative energy systems on your project? Building to meet the Passive House Standard is the smartest starting point. The significant reduction in energy use, allows alternative energy to power a greater percentage of a buildings demands. Likewise smaller demand equates to smaller and more affordable alternative energy systems providing higher cost-benefit value. Passive House design puts a project within reach for achieving true “Net Zero” performance (the building generates as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year), making use of alternative energy systems smaller thus more affordable and attainable.

Designing in my sleep

By | good ideas, Living in Vermont, working with an architect | 2 Comments

Dreaming in Architecture
I have noted before that I have probably spent more time thinking about design in my adult life than most people have spent sleeping. In this post I shall one-up myself.
Sometimes I dream-design.
In a dream a few days ago there were some houses moved onto our property that had been built by my late father-in-law and we had inherited them. It was in the middle of the winter and the property bore no relation to our own and my father-in-law didn’t build houses and there was other strange dream stuff such as the two elderly Asian women sitting high up in a window of one of the houses eating and the sink was full of dishes that should have been frozen in another house. You get the picture.
In one house, there was a specific arrangement of the stairs to the very long kitchen table which set me off into that place in my head where I design things – It seems that whether I’m conscious or not has little to do with it. I started exploring the design and pinning things down on a very personal thesis of some things I really would like to explore in how I would like to live in a house in Vermont.

The idea of a very long kitchen table that was where everything happens formed the basis of my exploration. An important part of the thinking came from a recent photo I had seen in a magazine with a hearth room off the kitchen where the ceilings were low, windows minimal and set in deep walls, books, mattresses, comfy chairs, a stone floor, and lighting only for reading. It is a perfect space for reading in the winter evenings. It is very “Slow Living” Who needs a living room? An advantage of designing while I am dreaming is that my ideas come out with greater clarity. When I wake up and sketch out my ideas I may find that none of them work very well in that they ignore some practical aspects of form and function. This design, however, identifies some issues that I will need to think about and develop. It probably isn’t very marketable as it comes from so deep within my own self but it may be interesting to others in terms of thinking about how design can respond on a very deeply emotional and personal level that goes far beyond searching for the perfect floor plan.

Why Hire an Architect ?

By | ego, mutterings, working with an architect | No Comments
    An older post buried away and re-posted here today for ya’all with some extra muttering added.

As I have mentioned before, much of my work is for people who would never have gone to an architect in the first place, thinking that they could never afford it. Designing a custom home for someone is an incredibly complex endeavor. You can buy a set of plans relatively cheaply that may go 75% of the way towards fulfilling your needs and end up with a decent house. Most people go this route. However, some of my best work to date has been for people who are more concerned with money and value. I have been hired by clients to say “no, you can’t afford it” when they lose focus in the process of building a home and start to make a decision or series of decisions that would blow the budget. A good architect should be able to save a client at least the cost of architectural services if that is one of the stated goals. If you have $250,000 to spend on a house you can buy a plan and build a house that is worth $250,00 or you can spend $20,000 on an architect and build a house for $230,000 that gets you a better looking house with a more efficient and flexible floor plan and nicer spaces that fit your lifestyle more comfortably, a house that costs less to maintain over the longer term. Notice that I keep saying “good architect”. As with any profession there is a wide range of talent and specialties. Always ask for and check references. Find an architect and a builder who you are comfortable with. You need to develop a good relationship with these folks. They’re not just there to sell you something.

Of course if you have lots and lots of money, maybe you don’t need an architect. Many problems can be solved by throwing more money at them. Perhaps a not-so great-floor plan can be solved by increasing the size of the building. If it starts looking too big you can add jigs and jogs and gratuitous dormers and gables to lessen the visual impact. Perhaps a high heating bill doesn’t bother you so why bother with energy modeling and value engineering? Perhaps you are not planning on spending a lot of time in the new home so certain things are simply less important. If your caretaker discovers leaking, rot and mold 6 years down the road there are folks who are perfectly willing to deal with that too.

One page Construction Document Set

By | business, projects, super insulated, working with an architect | 2 Comments

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

What would Bob do?

By | affordable modern, cool stuff, mutterings, Uncategorized, working with an architect | 7 Comments

I have been asked before: If I could start from scratch with a decent budget, what sort of a house would I build for myself? I was thinking about that the other day as my eyes wandered up to the huge pine and maple trees that tower over the house (mental note: check homeowners policy) That is a tough question to answer. Part of me would live to live in a big old farmhouse and part of me wants a Tom Kundig sort of house with lots of steel, glass and concrete and a cool device that does something interesting.
The reality may be somewhere in between. Living where I do, energy efficiency and insulation rule out either of these options in their pure form. But there are lessons to be learned from both extremes. My own tastes probably run toward a warm modernism with Scandinavian influences that isn’t afraid of wood and stone as well as glass and steel. I would not impose the limitations of “traditional” architecture on myself. I’ve seen too much for that. I’m spoiled. I like light and dark, open spaces and well defined spaces. Indoor and outdoor. I don’t like to take my shoes off whenever I come in the house. Function rules! I like porches. I like woodstoves.

I like low maintenance. I like simplicity. I want a huge range in the kitchen and a huge island to match. I like old fashioned pantries – with a window. I like when a window goes down to the floor. I want laser cut steel switchplate covers. I like wood ceilings and floors but not wood walls. I love dark slate with dark thin grout lines. I don’t like big bedrooms. I want a soaking tub.
I dislike fancy. I hate frippery and fakery! (fake divided lite windows make me gag) Sometimes I use the term “carpenter modern” to describe my tastes. There is a lot of this in VT. My own barn is a good example. It describes a building or house or detail that does the job without any overt nod to “style” but in its simplicity and function and logic, it becomes beautiful. Did I mention that I love raw steel? It is difficult for me to find examples of what I like in print media. Everything is too big, too fancy, too complicated, too precious. Dwell Magazine does a better job of presenting “real people” type projects. And I love looking at what happens down South at Auburn U’s Rural studio If I were to design my own home, it would probably kill me.

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz


bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764 72 Cotton Mill Hill Brattleboro, Vermont 05301