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Community and Q&A

“The River House”

DCcontrarian | Posted in General Questions on

I like to post links to stories about interesting houses. Here’s one in Westport, MA:,118308

From the article it seems like it’s a triumph of architecture — and a catastrophe of building science. 

The River House consumes no fossil fuels. Its heat and hot water are derived from a number of sources, including active solar panels, passive solar heat, and four 300-feet-deep geothermal wells, which pull up water that is heated by two large-capacity heat pumps. The entire house is warmed by radiant heat from the floors — along with the natural effects of sun streaming through glass doors, windows, walls and roof.”
About a third of the roof is covered with solar panels, but that cannot produce enough power for the entire house. The panels generate about 20% of the home’s electricity.”

It’s 3400 square feet and from the pictures looks to be all on one level. So let’s say 1100 square feet of solar. I figure that’s about 60 panels, about 24,000 watts. In that area you get about a thousand hours a year of solar generation, so figure on about 24,000 kWh per year. If that’s 20% of the bill that would mean 120,000 kWh per year or about $36,000. 

Also: ‘In the summertime, the greenhouse-effect of the glass can make things uncomfortably warm, but Levi said that’s when they throw open all those windows and let Mother Nature provide a solution. “We are blessed here, living on the east branch of the Westport River. In the summertime, there is a southeast wind blowing all the time,” he said.’ 


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  1. rockies63 | | #1

    When I see houses like this, I'm reminded of that quote "The very best window makes a really lousy wall".
    So you take out an R-20 to R-40 wall and replace it with an R-3 to R-8 window.

    And then the roofs are "many layers of polycarbonate" - so they also transmit light - and heat.

    Didn't Martin Holloday do an article on failed passive solar designs from the 70's, all those floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass facades that resulted in overheating and glare?

    I noticed in the description under one of the pictures in the gallery they talk about "the temple", which is a little room within the house that has the only solid roof over it (as well as a couple of sofas and a fireplace). It says, "We spend much of our time in here".

    I wonder why?

    On the plus side, they do provide "silk eye masks" for overnight guests who are not used to all that early morning sun and want to sleep in. Gee, thanks.

    1. Expert Member
      DCcontrarian | | #2

      An architect once explained to me that you should be able to get all the views you want with 15% of the exterior of the house devoted to glazing. That seems like a pretty good rule of thumb. Sure, the plate glass and no-drywall interior looks cool, but you need walls for switches and outlets and hanging things.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #3


        Hopefully he gets that stuff out of his system designing his own projects and doesn't inflict those ideas on his institutional clients.

    2. Expert Member
      Akos | | #6


      Building codes are geared towards builders and the simple fact is that it is way cheaper to build an R60 roof than an all glass roof.

      When it comes to prescriptive insulation, our code has a max glazing ratios, once you go above that you have to do performance based whole house compliance, so technically an all glass house similar energy intensity as the prescriptive package. This is how log houses are still allowed, you have to use might higher levels of basement and roof insulation.

  2. Expert Member
    DCcontrarian | | #4

    Massachusetts has been pretty aggressive in implementing the energy code. This house is basically a poster child for loopholes in the code. If I didn't know better I'd assume the architect built it to poke fun at the code.

    I assume he was able to get the roofs categorized as 100% skylight. One of the ridiculous things in the code is you have to do R60 for roofs -- but you're allowed to have skylights. Similarly they allude to exterior insulation in the article, I'm sure the walls are high R-value -- where they're not two-story floor to ceiling windows.

    It really shows how the code is process-oriented and not outcome-oriented.

  3. wastl | | #5

    I do not see any solar panels so that calculation is moot.

    - the walls could even be "perfect walls" the way the interior looks like.
    - this is a very public living - no real place to hide - for me a bit uncomfortable - this is a statement first
    - a maintenance hog - just to keep the roof clean (no moss etc.) will need some work.

    There are translucent plates available (Lexan or acrylic) with 1 1/4" thickness and and a R value of a typical 2-pane "e-coated" window so it is still bad but not THAT bad - but you pay a price.. Even with a "anti IR coating" the rooms below will heat up some.

  4. Expert Member
    Akos | | #7

    A good architect can make a house that looks good and functions. This is rare as this example shows. This was designed to look good in pictures and that is about it. I can see the attraction of designing something and hoping to be the next Phillip Johnson's Glass House.

    No anti-ir (lowE?) coating or southernly breeze will make that place comfortable in the summer sunshine. You can see in one of the pictures a return grill big enough for a large commercial AC unit, about the only way to make this place comfortable. My bigger beef is trying to sell this as energy efficient and green.

    I know if you can afford this, maintaince costs are moot, but refinishing the siding every year? No thank you.

  5. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #8

    Oh the hubris: "Designing his own house, with no restrictions, he unleashed all his creativity and innovation. 'I seized the opportunity to use this as a demonstration house, to showcase all kinds of new ideas. There is almost nothing in this house that’s conventional, from the walls, to the floors, to the ceilings, to all the plumbing and the mechanical systems. They’re all kind of invented,' he said."

  6. walta100 | | #9

    My guess is every contractor that worked in this house also worked on more than a few of the public buildings he will be building and they all billed him a market rates. LOL

    “warmed by the sun, free of fossil fuels”
    My guess is that most people read this line and think it will be heated for free and I doubt that. I sure would like to see a copy a years’ worth of electric bills. Given east coast power rates my guess is about 2k per month.

    “The geothermal wells rely on the fact that, once you dig deeper than three feet underground, all the water is about 50 degrees. In the winter, it is 50 degrees, and in the summer, it is 50 degrees.”

    If it is a closed loop my guess is the water coming out of the well at the end of February will be at or below freezing. If it is an open loop the pumping costs will be enormous from 300 feet.


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