Living in Vermont

Design Process - a super high performance, compact, modern house in Rural Vermont

Design Process - a super high performance, compact, modern house in Rural Vermont

The design process for a high performance home in the forests of Southern Vermont

A 30x40 Barn in Vermont

I have a lovely 30x40 barn that I built myself starting about a decade ago. This is one of those projects like architecture school that was a large undertaking of the sort that had I known....

We had just had a 1 1/2 acre field cleared as our property was all woods with the trees starting just a few feet from the house. The only way to see sky was too look up. straight up. It was very claustrophobic and we would walk over to the neighbor's field in the evening to see the sky and watch the sunset. The neighbor's father was a pilot many years ago and the field used to be used as an airstrip. So we needed a field of our own for garden, fruit trees and to play in.

Where we staked out our field was all forest leading up to a stone wall to the West, over which was a hay field. The trees that were cleared never left the property. We hired someone with a portable mill to slice them up into boards and leave them to dry. I still have a bunch of that wood and some recently made its way into the Greenfield house.

Much of the wood went to siding my barn. Some of the pine was made into very long 6x6 uprights which formed the pole grid for my barn. I used native green (not kiln dried) hemlock from a local mill for the rest of the framing, joists, rafters etc.

I did most of the site work, concrete (including a very scary one-piece retaining wall concrete pour complete with bulge) and initial framing of the upright 6x6 posts in 2006 and I managed to complete most of the frame and much of the siding the year after. I had some help with the first part of the roofing and the roof trim. Which was very very high off the ground. The end windows are old and very large sash that came out of the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro where I have an office. The side windows are old Andersons which came out of a building I helped deconstruct. The cupola and bike room utilize a greenhouse fabric that lets light in and has held up perfectly over the past nine years

What follows is a collection of newer pictures of the barn which turned out to be quite an amazing building. The acoustics of the loft are perfect and the lighting is divine. I am not finished yet - I still need a floor in most of the ground floor and I need to build barn doors.

In the summer of 2016 I built a new greenhouse and chicken coop between the barn and the house

The bike room in the barn - also a library - For bike geeks there is a 2013 Kona Jake the Snake, a 1981 Peugeot PXN10, a 2001 Klein Attitude race, a 1996 Marinoni with Dura Ace (17 lb build), a 1993 Cannondale M700, a 1987 Vitus 979 frameset, assorted wheels, panniers, kids bikes and old parts.

The Barn along with the Fern House made it into this book a few years ago We use the loft of the barn as a play space. It's also a good place to spread out some drawings to go over. We have a bed up there for guests and occasionally we will set up one or more tents for guests as well. I have some gym equipment in one corner and an old oak desk in another. The ground level has the bike room / library and a storage room which still needs a wall. I have much lumber stored in the main space plus my table saw and compound miter saw. two canoes, old tires.....

Hemlock - Open Gap Rain Screen Siding

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 1x3 so gaps will be quite small as the wood dries. Fiberglass bugscreen is installed directly behind the siding. strapping can be regular 1x3 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: wdw2

wdw

Taking Stock of the Business

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

From the archives - Grumpy architect time

From the archives - Grumpy architect time: 1.If your house is adequately insulated there should be little temperature differential between the ceiling and the floor. 2. Adequately differs from code. Remember, a house built to code is the worst house you can legally build. 3. If you choose not to build an Energy Star certified home please give your poor starving architect the $2k that you obviously have to spare. 4. Does anybody with any real knowledge of building use fiberglass batts anymore? probably not anyone who reads this. 5. Air sealing folks! do it correctly!- not 6 mil poly vapor barrier - that was the 90's We are SO over that. There are some great products and great information is available. Check out 475 supply and Green Building Advisor. 6. Why do people want to build a super-insulated house and then put a full on radiant floor heating system in? - see #3 above about where to send all that extra money. 7. Why do people want to build a new house that looks old? I think it's just a phase this country is in. I see signs that the retro-anachronistic architecture phase is fading. 8. But I do it anyway - gotta feed the family + I enjoy it. Sometimes. 9. Bright side - the science of how to build correctly is settling out in favor of simplicity. That is what draws me to the Passive house approach. 10. Why do people have SO MUCH STUFF? 11. How did it happen that I'm going to my 20th year architecture school reunion tomorrow? - footnote: this was the summer before last and it was a blast!

Perry Road House photos

Some photos from the Perry Road project which is sitting empty and unfinished and for sale UPDATE: SOLD!- (It's hard for people to earn a living around here so the owners made the decision to move to where they could work.. for money) Perry Road House in Southern Vermont by Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect.Perry Road House in Southern Vermont by Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect.Perry Road House in Southern Vermont by Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect.Perry Road House in Southern Vermont by Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect.Perry Road House in Southern Vermont by Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect.Perry Road House in Southern Vermont by Robert Swinburne, Vermont Architect.

This is a Structural Insulated Panel (SIP)house on and Insulated Concrete Form foundation (ICF) The windows are Marvin Integrity - there are a lot of them although they seem all very logical and needed. Too bad they are not triple glazed. The basement slab is piped for radiant heat, there is an air exchange system, two bathrooms, (plumbed for a third) up to 5 bedrooms, porch and sleeping porch. There is also a lot of land with a stream and waterfall.

Old Fashioned Stoves in New England

I grew up in Maine with a large wood cookstove similar to this one.old fashioned wood cook stove Cooking in it was sketchy and it was far from tight or efficient. The top surface and oven provided excellent places to keep pies and already cooked food warm on Thanksgiving. My own home has a small efficient and relatively airtight woodstove tucked into the stone fireplace. It has a knurled top surface which makes it hard to even heat water on but it does a good job of heating the house and the front is a large widow so we can watch the wood burn. (nice) We used to have an old fashioned parlor stove but it was too big and inefficient (and a bit scary when it ran hot) It now sits in the barn awaiting installation out there for use during barn parties. Here is what it looked like in place: antique parlor stove in my fireplace Please ignore the pink fuzzy slippers and yellow koosh ball. And the socks... I would love to have a spot in my home for a modern wood cookstove such as this: Ellis cookstove by Boru of Ireland

Here are some places in New England that restore and sell antique wood stoves.

Once Upon a Time Antique Stove Shop in Vermont. VPR recently did a story on them HERE

Good Time Stove Co. in Massachusetts parlor stove at good time stove co. in Goshen MA

Bryant Stove and Music in Thorndike ME wood cook stoves at Bryant Stove Works in Thorndike maine I purchased my own parlor stove from this place and it is truly amazing. there are not only hundreds of stoves but an antiques museum and a huge room packed full of dolls and gizmos that, when you flip the switch upon entering all erupt into action including merry go rounds, dancing dolls, teddies on airplanes, circus bands....I can't really describe it well. Here is a Boston.com article that does a better job and an image from their article Bryant stove Works Doll Circus photo from Boston.com did I mention Slinkys?

Scandinavian influence in Vermont

AmesHill October29 from Robert Swinburne on Vimeo.

This one will have a bit of a rustic Scandinavian feel to it. And be super-insulated of course.

A House for Slow Living

A House for Slow LivingThe 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.

Real Vermonters don't have Master Bedroom Suites

(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.

Site planning and a holistic aproach to design

It's not often I get to do this. I am usually called in when it is too late to have much input into overall site design on a rural project. I am a scholar of historic farm and homestead planning and I am always acutely aware of the relationships between the various elements of the site whether natural, man-made, Solar, weather, history (stone walls and old roads, etc - very important in New England) and the buildings that are located to be a part of the landscape (or not as is often the case) Design often starts with floor plans but is so much richer in the long run when the site is considered with as much rigor and intensity as the floor plans. How a home "lives" is very much a function of how the land outside the walls of the house "lives" from the point outside the front door to the yards to the property lines to the town, region, state...

Perry Road House for sale

Perry Road House for sale - see April 11 blog post on Vermont Architect.Note: it is unfinished - Folks moving on in search of greener pastures

4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, super insulated, all on 70 acres with 2000' of Green River frontage on one edge of property and a brook with over 100' of cascading waterfalls in the middle, perfect for micro-hydro system. Heated it with 3.5 cords of wood and the sun. Old foundations on property. Nice sunrise view down the valley.

Reflections on life in the Brattleboro area

Some friends recently announced that they were going to leave the Brattleboro area in search of a better life. The list is:

1. A Waldorf school for their kid to be able to go to through high school. 2. Better job prospects 3. An easier place to grow old in - perhaps this means less dirt roads, closer to town... 4. Closer to some long term friends for more regular visits. 5. They are tired of living in an unfinished house.

Then my wife said she would be willing to move for the right reasons too – specifically a great, high paying job (for me). This sent me into a few days of introspection and soul searching. I had to re-evaluate my own values by themselves and in relation to my family. I have always felt an incredibly strong connection to land and place. If I plant a tree, I have a need to watch it grow for the rest of my life. Fine - I can accept that this is unusual. I also have a strong need to be in the woods pretty much every day. I would have a hard time being the sort who goes camping on weekends to get my outside time and even day hikes in the mountains have little allure. I need the outdoors much more integrated in my daily routine. I think if I were living in an urban or suburban area for any length of time I would feel very constrained.

1. School – Brattleboro does have some excellent options for schools. Charlotte got a good start at Neighborhood Schoolhouse and Alden will too in a few years. The big crisis came when it was time for Charlotte to start kindergarten. Our ideal choice would probably be the Grammar School in Putney, http://youtu.be/Yk49lac7EPU an excellent private school whose “philosophies” most closely align with our own. Financially it was not in the cards. With a number of educators in the immediate family we are rather progressive in our education ideals. We also would rather not have our kids attend a school with only like-minded students and parents. Perspective is a very important aspect to social development. She will have a number of excellent teachers to get to know over the years and the advantage of a small school is that she is already getting to know them - she has a great rapport with her future 7th/8th grade teacher. She will get to know a wide variety of classmates and their families - Perspective! Our ideal is that our kids' elementary experience provides them with the social tools to easily handle the pressures of attending a larger public high school, and life in general, and come out on top. Our local public elementary school has been trash-talked by a number of friends and neighbors so we were a bit leery of sending Charlotte there but realized that all the nay-sayers were speaking from very little or very limited experience. This didn't sit right with us and we are currently glad we decided to form our own opinion. The school is fairly small – my daughter's kindergarten has 5 kids – and the size has definite advantages in terms of addressing individual students' and parents' needs. The school is also a community in itself and very tied to the local community - a community integrated education is also very important to us. The main issues we have with our local elementary school are the sheer amount of driving time and gasoline used in our cars to get there there every day, (see #2 below) and not enough time spent outdoors (probably the same as at any public school). It is also very important for our kids to take advantage of community opportunities in the arts and Brattleboro is certainly a top notch community with it's dizzying array of opportunity in this regard. Brattleboro is a very kid-centric community. New England Center for Circus Arts Brattleboro Music Center Vermont Jazz Center New England Youth Theater Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center Brattleboro School of Dance River Gallery School of Art Plus the high school has an excellent cross country ski team!

2. Job prospects – It is hard around here to earn a living for sure. The average household income in my town is under 30k. People say “but the quality of life and and fewer expenses and blah blah blah ..” however, automobiles cost the same – and where I live all-wheel or 4 wheel drive is needed part of the year. Which means a more expensive car with worse gas mileage. And fewer opportunities to accomplish the daily activities on a bicycle. There are fewer cost savings to living in the country than many people seem to think. In terms of my own job prospects, I could possibly work in a larger firm in a more urban environment and perhaps I would even love the job but the likelihood of a paycheck big enough to make it worth it is very unlikely. Working for myself is definitely stressful and most years is quite un-sustainable but I'm an optimist and always seem to think that things will turn around soon. Very soon. (stressful on family) Other Job Prospects: 3. Growing old. - I'm hoping to gradually make our estate into a place we could hole up in for weeks at a time. I do have 30+ years before I really need to think along these lines. A lot could happen in 30 years. The North Atlantic Gyre could cease due to melting polar ice and then all bets are off.

4. Friends. - A very personal one. Kid-less friends always complain that when their friends have kids they have no more time available for visiting. Certainly true, however having kids suddenly opens up a whole new world of potential friends. You get out what you put out for sure. My wife is much more social than I and would love to see dozens of her best friends every day for coffee. I, however, am an old-codger-in-the-making and am perfectly happy to mutter around the house and grounds for days at a time without seeing anybody. Working on my woodpile.

5. House – I feel this one. - We live in a small house and I realize that our “standard of living” would be unacceptable for most middle-class people in America, at least for the past thirty years or so. I do have great plans for addressing this but...see #2 plus reference this older post

Designing in my sleep

Dreaming in ArchitectureI 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.

My Children's Education

Another barely architectural post wherein I ruminate on elementary education models. Here in rural Vermont we have to make choices about how and where we educate our children just like anywhere else. There are the public schools, private schools and home schooling. There are special challenges that we face that may surprise some of you. We have no worries about our own children's abilities in reading writing and arithmetic. This year at our local public elementary, transportation is an issue. We will have to drive our daughter 9 miles to school over mostly dirt roads and then pick her up after school. Class size is also an issue – she will only have three classmates. My daughter is entering kindergarten this year after spending a few years in pre-K at Neighborhood Schoolhouse. Neighborhood is a great school without any particular “dogma” that we found at other early education centers such as Montessori and Waldorf. Neighborhood actually goes up to grade 6 but we preferred not to keep her there through 6th grade or reasons I shall touch on below.

Last year I realized that I knew very little about how school is currently taught and what the different models and options where so I began a process of self-education. I quickly learned about the good and bad aspects of modern education. I finally learned what “teaching to the test” means. There is a bit too much of this at the school she will attend starting tomorrow (our local public school) but I expect it will be tempered with the fact that she will have only three other classmates and therefore her individual needs will not be ignored. I also think a bit of this rigor might do her some good. I have become a big fan of integrated and project based learning and I hope to send our own kids to schools where these are the prevalent learning methods. Edutopia is a great resource for information on this and I am a big fan of “the World in Claire's Classroom” a film about a local school. (Everyone with kids should see this)

I can look back on my own architecture school education as a model of how project based learning works. A very important aspect of architecture school was having 50 classmates all working on similar projects and grappling with similar issues individually and in groups. It would have been a very different education if there where only 6 of us. This was the main reason I dropped out of the art program at my first college. My own elementary education followed a more traditional model where we learned math out of a textbook, did worksheets, wrote research papers and book reports etc. It didn't work very well for me (I had an amazing ability to completely forget everything I learned over the summer) and I expect it won't work very well for my daughter either. Project based learning applies a method of learning more similar to architecture school to grade school education and seems difficult to incorporate into lesson plans for small classes with limited community involvement.

Which brings me to an issue which is important to us – class size. Locally, The Grammar School in Putney is a great example of a school that incorporates project based learning, has excellent teachers who are all on the same page with regards to learning methods, has adequate class size and has a huge variety of resources outside the classroom to call upon – involvement with the local community and the “real world” are important aspects of project based learning. We hope to send our kids there in the future – when we can afford to. Neighborhood Schoolhouse incorporates project based learning but really suffers from inadequate class size and resources once kids get beyond kindergarten and first grade. However, Brattleboro is a great place to raise community minded kids no matter what school they attend. There is a tremendous array of opportunity in music, theater and circus arts, sports and other activities to engage in outside of school. My daughters attended her first Sweetback Sisters concert when she was only a few months old and we get her to as many concerts and museums and so forth as we can.

I'm the only architect in the United States without an I-Phone!

I'm the only architect in the United States without an I-Phone ?(or rectangly glasses) (or black in my wardrobe – old bike race t-shirts don't count right?) (or even a jacket – let alone a suit!) Ah, rural life...peaceful silence, other than the occasional airplane, haying in nearby fields and a neighbor down the road working on enlarging a wood pile (insert personal guilt and feelings of inadequacy here) and no internet or cell phone access. Actually much of this area of Vermont has no internet or cell phone access once you leave the I-91 corridor. So I have an office in Brattleboro with cable and my business phone is my cell phone. When I leave my office it usually means I am also out of cell phone range. Thus I have little use for a smart phone. I sometimes long for “aps” even though I barely even know what they are and, by the way, I can't text to save my life. We also gave up on TV years ago. The only option for television is a satellite dish high on a tree near the house. Then at some point we realized we were much to busy to ever actually watch TV so we canceled service. We still had a public television station when the rabbit ears were adjusted just so. Then TV went digital and we lost our one remaining station after trying out one of those little boxes you get with a coupon. The we got a Netflix account which we still have although we manage to watch about one movie every six weeks. (we came down with kids) so I expect that will go next. So there is still radio. Except that the sound of the wind in the pine trees over the house and the crickets in the field is so lovely.

Working part time – my daily schedule and life

As my mom says: “When do you actually work?”The answer is complicated. I try to fit in a bit of work here and there when nobody is paying attention. This morning I had the kids until 2 pm. And now I have a few hours to get a proposal done and type up this little bit of mumble. Then I have to head back into the house to start supper. (I'm at my big desk in my big barn right now with a lovely breeze flowing through the window) Typical day in the summer. Normally, I would be more of a morning person and get up very early every day to start work. Except I have to pack lunches, haul my 5 year old teenager out of bed, argue with her, feed her and get her dressed and started on her day. I would much rather be off on my bike right now. After supper usually involves lots of dishes and laundry and corralling Charlotte to bed which includes more arguing. Then more dishes to wash. By this time I am usually exhausted. During the school year it is usually a bit easier to get in my hours although with the new kid, (6 mos.) this coming year may be will be a bit more complicated. In architecture school I was usually up until at least midnight and I often was at my $3/hour work study job in the library until 1 am. Then early classes. It is very hard to imagine how I did it. I guess I must have been in my twenties or something.