Image Credit: Images 2, 3, 4, and 5: Robert Swinburne My design is getting "pretty close." I’m trying to balance "small and simple" with a richness of space that goes far beyond light and shadow. The design incorporates 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.
The original concept for the house I am working on came to me in a dream (yes – I dream architecturally). I think the dream may have been generated by the image on the right, which has been on my bulletin board for a few years.
My 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,” making routine preparations for winter in the autumn, starting seedlings on a windowsill in the spring, and caring for children or elders.
A question: 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. Around here, everybody is also a musician. How does that fit into our daily lives?
A house where Beatrix Potter would feel comfortable
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 and practical; they show their age and history, and that is where their beauty lies.
Better living through building science
Lately, we have all become immersed in the building science aspect of design and detailing: 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 details that allow a house to be “net zero” – so that you don’t have to store and burn fossil fuel on site, nor pay for it.
Building science addresses the notion of simplicity. After all, 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 – the maintenance and replacement of the mechanical parts of the house – because now you have fewer and simpler systems.
Romance meets physics
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 potential for 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 the design I’m working on, but it’s still early….
The climate and culture of Vermont
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 – to which I’ll 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!
Robert Swinburne is a part-time architect and full-time homemaker living on 49 acres with his wife and two young children in Halifax, Vermont. He was a carpenter for several years after architecture school and is now a licensed architect and passive house designer with over 100 completed projects in the Northeast. Bob maintains a blog (primarily for therapeutic reasons) under the moniker “Vermont Architect.”