house size Feature - Greenfield House

The folks over at 475 High Performance Building Supply wrote a very nice article about the Greenfield house last week. 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

Greenfield House project update

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: 6

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

House size and ruminations Thereupon.

I am fascinated with the Tiny House Movement. Tiny House on Wheels is THOW btw. I would like to have one as guest quarters (or an airstream) but after living in a smallish (900 s.f.) house for 15 years I know that a tiny house is not for me. I do have plans to add several hundred square feet in the form of a functioning kitchen, eating area, mudroom, and a work area so I can ditch the in-town office. A THOW would have been perfect when I was young and single. I actually lived in an 8x12 cabin in the woods for 6 months sometime in the 90’s. Other than the mice and raiding raccoons, it wasn’t bad. I moved out when I started getting cold in late fall. -Pictured above Kids take up a lot of room and in our climate, you can’t just kick them outdoors to ride their bikes or do huge art or building projects. Plus each kid has to have two snowsuits, multiple winter boots, sleds, tons of books, a guinea pig (my daughter wants a cow and chickens) Not very applicable to tiny house living. Check out my friend Sean’s tiny house related blog UnBoxed House. He is building his own house using a shipping container. Although I have done a few tiny houses for clients I find I have to keep the tiny house mentality out of my regular work and attitudes, at least for now. I have found that some people are Big House People and a few (very few) are small house people. The usual conundrum comes when people have tiny house budgets but are horrified when I suggest that they need to be looking at something smaller than 1500 s.f. given their budget and their desire for quality. I once had a client who was horrified and outraged that I had designed a house with 10x12 bedrooms for her boys. (her budget was 350k) (plus she wanted a garage) Where I grew up that was a big enough bedroom for 2 boys to share. I will push and nudge and suggest like crazy but some people are just “Big House People” I have a hard time relating sometimes but I try. I nod my head sympathetically when a clients who are expecting their first child and live in a house twice the size of my own have called me in to discuss an addition to accommodate their growing family. Fine if they can afford it. I know from experience that I feel strangely uncomfortable in a house bigger than 2000 s.f. It feels wrong. Likewise a big bedroom. I contribute that to my introvert nature more than anything. I must be a medium house person. I follow a few tiny house groups on Facebook but try to ignore them mostly as people put up photos of their tiny houses that they built that, as an experienced architect, I can see that in five years, the house will be a falling apart mold factory. My face hurts too much from that sort of thing. But I applaud the do-it-yourself nature of the movement and the growing wealth of information and support.

Early Thoughts on the Greenfield Project (architect)

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. Phew! 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. Otherwise- 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.

Always know what and where your AIR BARRIER is.

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 2x6 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 – Detailing such as represented in these drawings is also very much about budget. The goal is to bump up the levels of insulation, air tightness, r value of windows etc. so that we can eliminate the traditional boiler and heat distribution system in favor of a minisplit heat pump which is more of an appliance than a system and dramatically less expensive. (I think this link is a GBA pro only link - subscription) For those without a subscription try this alternative Ideally, it becomes a wash cost wise but with the added bonus of very low monthly heating and cooling costs. Those savings alone can represent hundreds of dollars per month.

A Smallish House in Massachusetts

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

Life of This Architect

Life is complicated. We all long for a return to some point in our lives when things were simpler. So along the lines of what it is like to be an architect in rural Vermont I thought I'd write up a summary of what my life is like without getting too personal of course. In 2000, my wife an I were lucky to “accidentally” find and buy a small house with a kitchenette and electric heat on 50 acres three miles from where my wife went to college. This fortunately happened just before real estate prices escalated dramatically. We also learned at that time that banks really don't want to talk to self-employed people. We moved in with great plans to add on to the house, which was rather small. We did some master planning, cleared a field, planted a cover crop of buckwheat--the flowers of which were beautiful but smelled like cat piss at night. buckwheat in Bob Swinburne's field We built a barn with lumber from the local lumber mill and from the trees cleared off the the field, planted fruit trees, a lilac garden, a raspberry patch and a huge vegetable garden, planted hundreds of daffodils and built and a fern house. We dug a few vernal pools which proved to be a bit too vernal necessitating a joint compound bucket rescue mission every June to move eggs to a neighbors pond before ours dries up. And we built a trail network that connects to a trail network in the forests to the North of our property around South Pond in Marlboro.

Our house, however remains at 900 square feet and remains relatively untouched . We still cook fabulous meals in the tiny kitchenette and heat the place with a wood stove tucked into the fireplace. I often work from home in the winter to keep the fire going. The bathroom desperately needs a gut remodel – a large section of tile fell off the wall a few years ago while I was taking a shower and I glued up some sheet metal “temporarily” and used some packing tape to reinforce the remaining tiles. Pitiful huh? Not an impressive home that I would want clients seeing. “Uh, yeah, that's the house..come see my cool modernist barn!”

My office was the second bedroom (9 ½ x 9 ½ feet square) until my daughter at age two announced that the room was now hers. (She needed a headquarters from which to plot her eventual world domination. And keep all her stuffed animals.) So I moved my practice into an office in Brattleboro's Cotton Mill where my wife works. This was a good move anyway as it gave me a place with high speed internet and a place to meet clients. Did I mention that dial-up is the only option on our rural dirt road? Previously, I had to go hang out at a cafe if I needed to download or upload large files, surf the web or meet with a client somewhere other than on site.

So my wife and I have this 4-year-old daughter who goes to preschool 5 days a week for some part of each day. We also have a beloved dog with DM (Degenerative Myelopathy) who needs someone with him most of the time in case he falls and gets stuck or poops himself. He got stuck under the Christmas tree a few months ago and I came home from errands to find him looking rather miffed but being remarkably patient. We currently spend a fair amount of time schedule-juggling to determine who has the kid and/or dog. For the time being, travel is out of the question as is most visiting. “We brought the dog and he might poop on your living room carpet!”

My wife is self-employed as a massage therapist and I am self-employed as an architect. There are periodic issues relating to the idea that one of us should have a job with benefits that would cover the family, usually around tax time when we tally up what we earned and realize that one of us really should head down to Wal-Mart to pick up a job application. We each work about ¾ time and feel like we are right out straight all the time. My wife has specific appointments for her work while I am usually just trying to accomplish my work whenever I can get a chunk of time to focus. I have found that if I achieve the necessary level of focus, I can accomplish huge amounts of work in a relatively short period of time. If I can't enter that zone, it is a painful thing to try to work and I am better off doing something else useful like increasing the size of my woodpile or weeding the garden. This pattern of work is not very conducive to employment in a firm if I remember those days correctly. I remember working 5 hours and getting more done than anyone else in the office but getting in trouble for not looking busy the rest of the time. I also seem to accomplish great feats of design and detailing while walking in the woods, riding my bike, xc skiing and more consistently, in the early morning hours when I often lie in bed for an hour or two working out details or design issues that I couldn't seem to focus on during the previous day. I often work from home in the summer as well, at a desk out in the barn loft where I can listen to the birds singing, the kid playing in the garden with the sitter, enjoy the warm summer breezes and work with relatively little distraction. (Also the cotton mill office gets a bit hot.)

At this point in my career, I tend to attract the type of client who has big ideas and a not so big pocketbook. Therefore the bathroom doesn't get renovated and the house doesn't get added on to. Often, projects end before they have really started when early in schematic design we realize that the wants/needs list won't match up with the $$. I certainly could use an occasional high end residential project so the “cobbler's children could have shoes” however. This blog has increased my exposure to a level that has allowed me to remain in business when most local architects and designers seem to be unemployed. It has also been rather cathartic as a way of letting off steam...although I try not to get too grumbly. I originally started blogging as a way to complement my website which seemed rather static – just a portfolio. I really wanted to communicate more of who I am, how I work, what it is like to work with me, what my values are and to open a general window into the process as most people really have no idea what to expect when they pick up the phone to call an architect. The blog has been very successful at that and I actually have around 1000 subscribers now which puts a bit of pressure on me to come up with decent content. Such as this post. I hope.

As I think forward to what I want the business to become I reflect on a business plan I worked on with my wife a few years ago. It was helpful to inform me what path I didn't want to pursue: to grow the firm with employees that I would have to work full-time just to keep busy and employed. I started to explore what is happening in terms of a different business model based on collaboration. I also realized that the days of the small town architect that does everything are fading away. Everything requires specialized knowledge that one person or even one small firm can't provide. I realized that I had numerous contacts in larger and more specialized firms that were interested in pursuing local work outside the residential realm in a collaborative relationship with me. The internet has changed the nature of the architecture firm dramatically in more urban environments and we are starting to see it in more rural areas as well. My new business model is based on this idea . And it allows me to focus on my greatest strength--which is not marketing, schmoozing, management of employees, being a super-geek, but is simply ….Design.

Sizing a New House

Most clients say they want either a bigger house because they have kids or a smaller house because the kids have left. It has been my experience over the past few years that 2000 square feet is unacceptably small for most clients. Unfortunately, I most love designing houses in the 1200 to 1800 square foot range. Mostly, people either have too much stuff (oh the stuff I've seen) or are simply used to a large house. Try fitting the retired couple into a 2000 square foot house when they have just spent the last 40 years in a 3000 square foot house. They may initially like the idea but when it comes right down to it, they can't make the mental adjustment. Even if I come up with a floor plan that functions much better than what they have been living with.

house size - my rules

okay, lets see if this can get me into a few good arguements!my square foot standards for house size: Tiny < 750 Small 750-1500 medium 1500-2500 LARGE 2500-5000 immoral and irresponsible >5000

I would perhaps make an exception to the last category for adopting a large quantity of children.

I like to throw about the term "functional square feet"  I hate it when people come to me with a list of specific room sizes.  I also don't mind designing a large house when I know it's going to be filled with children and in-laws and  parties.  If you try to design too small, you get into the issue that the house may not be flexible enough.  Hopefully the house will be around a few hundred years and who knows what families will live there.  If you design a 1200 square foot house that fits the current client perfectly, what happens 20 years down the road when somebody else adds on?  I would rather focus on the idea that a good house should: 1. last 300 years 2. use very little energy to maintain / heat / cool 3. be flexible enough in plan to adapt to a wide variety of occupants, not just the current ones. 4. be responsible in materials usage.  No granite from half way across the country, No non FSC  tropical wood etc. The actual size is secondary to all these.

December 09 update: When I travel to Maine for family shindigs, I find myself looking at all the "housing stock" between here and there. about 30% of houses are under 1200 s.f. or so and have 1.5 bathrooms max. I then start to think about all the large happy families raised in these small homes, kids sharing bedrooms, waiting for the toilet etc. Clients who come to me - whether they have any money or not - all would be horrified at the thought of their kids sharing a room or sharing a bathroom with their kids or "guests" or not having an "away room" (thanks Sarah Susanka) It is the sad state of where our culture has taken us. I suppose one could say that being an architect isolates me from the lower financial half of society.

House Size, Square Foot Costs and Economy of Materials

or: Size Matters

I have some issues with the idea of building small which I will see if I can explain. I really appreciate Sarah Susanka’s book “The Not So Big House” but most of the houses she illustrates the book with are still fairly large. Yes, 2500 square feet instead of 4500 square feet is a good thing but it is still rather large and the jogs in plan and overly complicated roofs that many plans use to reduce the raw square footage seem wasteful.

Lets assume that you are at least meeting and hopefully exceeding energy codes. (remember these codes represent the bare minimum! - Vermont has an energy code although there is no residential building code in most towns) A simpler plan that is 20% bigger is not going to cost 20% more to heat and/or cool and it may even cost less. A simple form may also use fewer raw materials or at least result in less waste. Simple forms, particularly ones that have cleaner roof lines, are less likely to need renovation and repair in the long run.

I also like the idea of designing as much flexibility into a plan as possible so that a home is not just custom tailored to the current residents but will fit a wide variety and quantity of people over the next several hundred years. This often means adding a little more area to allow for multiple furniture layouts, the possibility of wheelchairs and walkers, age related issues on both ends of the spectrum, big dogs who like to sprawl in the middle of the most traveled route, the list goes on and on. There are a lot of small houses around here that were built to perfectly fit their tenants but I am often called in when the next person comes along and can’t fit. A good architect will help plan for the maximum amount of contingencies. This is a large part of the value an architect can add to the project and the subject of another blog entry someday.

A current project that had me thinking along these lines is a smallish house with a large floor plan. The main floor has 1060 square feet. I could knock out 160 feet fairly easily but the spaces would not be quite as flexible, a few tight spots would crop up, future possibility of a first floor wheelchair accessible bath would not be an easy retrofit, there would be less room around the woodstove for drying racks, the pantry would be smaller, necessitating more ($$) cabinetry in the kitchen, etc. The site is conducive to a walk-out basement. Since basements are required to be warm conditioned space (75% of the way toward finished space) I can use this space for bedrooms, offices, a play room, media room, storage or many other uses and it now officially becomes finished space (add 860 square feet) except for the utility room. Raising the roof by three feet and adding a few simple shed dormers allows me to use the attic space as well. We get lots of bang for the buck since we are building this house with structural insulated panels so the loft or attic space is finished off anyway. (Add 675 square feet – some of the main floor has cathedral ceiling) Suddenly my small 1060 square house has ballooned to 2595 square feet and the only substantial visible difference is that the roof is three feet higher. When I look at square foot costs, they have gone way down. I have created a house 2 ½ times larger for about 25% more materials. The outward appearance of the house changes very little. The larger house is much more likely to serve the occupant’s changing needs without using more energy and few additional materials. Interestingly, the larger house will also be valued higher which, unfortunately, means higher taxes.

Size isn’t everything.