Lively activity in a passive house

MIDDLEBURY — A year ago, Andrew Gardner and Caroline Damon were living a life that many would call the Vermont dream. They had a quiet old house deep in the woods of Ripton, surrounded by dirt roads and hillsides with dark nights filled only with sounds of the barred owls calling out into the void.
Many people long for solitude like this, far away from the lights and bustle of city living and believe that’s what it means to “make it” in Vermont.
But Gardner and Damon were feeling torn.
Both worked in Middlebury and grappled with the 40 minutes they spent daily on the round-trip commute. They struggled with the carbon footprint associated with keeping up a house that was over 100 years old and suffered the leaks and wasted space typical of homes from that vintage.
On the other hand, both are avid outdoor enthusiasts and loved living close to the Rikert Nordic Center and the Snow Bowl. They were also somewhat uncertain about how they wanted to raise their son, Sam, and in what environment. In many ways they loved the idea of Sam being able to run around unattended in the woods behind their house, but on the other hand they liked the idea of him being able to walk to school and live within a neighborhood.
So they started considering a move into town and a lifestyle where they commuted to play rather than commuting to work. They had their eyes on the market for over a year, flopping one way or the other and trying to weigh the possibilities of updating their Ripton home to bring it to higher performance standards, versus finding something newer and more modern in town.
Then, on a Monday late last spring, a house popped up on the market. It was located within an easy walking distance to downtown Middlebury and had a simple, modern cube-like design featuring wide windows, horizontal wood siding and raw metal details.
Damon and Gardner were immediately drawn to the architecture of the house, which was admittedly quite different from the traditional Vermont vernacular.
Upon further research, the couple learned that the dwelling was a certified passive solar house, relying on solar absorption, retention and distribution from the sun without the use of any mechanical or electrical devices.
Passive solar construction uses modern insulating and air sealing systems as well as careful site analysis to maximize the benefits of the sun to warm the structure. The architect is careful to align window and door openings as well as shading blinds and solid walls relative to the solar paths and climate in that particular zone. This engineering enables the house to make use of heat during seasons and times of the day when the home needs to be warmed, while sheltering the home from the sun during the summer or late in the day when the home risks becoming too hot.
Techniques to achieve perfect air sealing mitigates air circulation through convection (a.k.a. leaks) and advanced methods for insulating reduce heat transfer through radiation. This “tight” building envelope controls the influence of external conditions like temperature and sun exposure inside, enabling the designers and engineers to let in precise amounts of sunlight only when it’s needed.
As a result of this heavily controlled climate, air filtration systems aid in the ventilation and exchange of air from outdoors to indoors and across the home, evening and distributing clean and comfortable air.
Damon and Gardner were not specifically on the market for a passive solar house. However, when they saw it they were immediately intrigued. Unlike their Ripton home, “the cube” (as it had become known) was a simple and concise layout with highly usable space.
“The difference was pretty spectacular between the two houses,” recalls Gardner, “but we knew it was the right fit.”
They made an offer on Thursday and signed the papers Saturday. The cube was theirs.
In June of 2017 the family moved off the mountain and began to establish new patterns in their passive house and central location.
They started biking to work and Sam became known as the kid who showed up to pre-school in a bicycle chariot. They were able to walk to the store and, perhaps ironically, spent more time on mountain biking trails in Middlebury’s downtown than they ever had access to in the woods of Ripton.
“It’s amazing what we can do with those 40 minutes that we used to waste in the car each day,” Damon said. “And it’s also amazing how much more we recognize and appreciate the beauty of that drive when we do it. It went from a heads-down task to be completed each day to an intentional choice that leads us to activities we love.”
In terms of living in the cube, most of the time it’s just like living in any house. Except for a few notable differences.
Gardner suffers from mild allergies to dust and mold. In the Ripton house, they flared up constantly. Now, they are gone.
“More than anything else on a day-to-day, I notice the air quality,” Gardner says.
The cube is outfitted with a Zehnder air filtration system, which constantly works to keep clean air flowing throughout the house. With the aid of a climate monitor that helps them pay attention to temperature and humidity inside, Damon and Gardner have built routines to maximize the benefits of this system.
Following their morning showers or while cooking, they kick the system onto the higher settings. If they’re headed out of town for an extended period of time, they can program it to lower settings. Most of the time, it defaults to medium and requires nothing more than vacuuming the filter once per month.
Two heat pumps offer supplemental heat during the coldest and grayest days of winter, but the couple says it’s infrequent to need them, even through the winter.
“During that extra cold snap in February this year, it was still really sunny, so we left the blinds fully open one day and came home to our house at 78 degrees,” Damon said. “I guess we’ll learn from that!”
In terms of their energy bills, it’s a welcome relief to be able to reallocate that $2,000 a year that Damon and Gardner used to spend on heating oil, not to mention the two cords of wood they burned in their woodstove for supplemental heat. They say their electrical bills are comparable in their new home to what they had been in Ripton, despite the demands from the Zehnder and heat pumps. They are also considering a rooftop solar array that would further help offset that bill and push them further toward a net zero energy impact.
And in terms of the lifestyle change required to transition from an old home with many small rooms, countless nooks and crannies and expansive woodland gardens to their small lot at the edge of Buttolph Acres and a stones throw from Route 7, the couple says it was easier than one might think.
“We were both drawn to the modern, European aesthetic and openness of this house,” Gardner recalls. “It was challenging at first to figure out how to configure our furniture and orient our lifestyle patterns in such a different space, but we just lived with it pretty open for a while and then slowly learned how to define the space.”
When you walk into the cube, a small entry mudroom with closet space and a small bathroom opens into a long and uncluttered great room with a huge picture window taking up the full wall on one short end of the room facing south and a glass door that leads to a small side porch against the long wall to the west.
Despite having no physical dividers within this space, the couple has effectively delineated three separate rooms using furniture, plants, area rugs and shelving. A play space for Sam is under the big window, flowing into a classic living room area with a bright teal couch and modern yellow chair. The dining room table is on the north end of the room, with the kitchen curving around to the east from there. A set of stairs brings you upstairs to three bedrooms and a second bathroom, all arranged in an efficient “U” format around the stairwell. In total, the house is about 2,300 square feet.
“Because it’s a box, we use every corner of the space in this house, which we love,” Damon says. “In contrast to the Ripton house, where we had rooms that we barely spent any time in at all, there isn’t a single room in this house that we don’t use every day.”
For Gardner, who owns Press Forward PR, living in a house that is well-designed and efficient feels consistent with many of the goals that he works with clients to achieve.
“It makes me think more carefully about design and being intentional about every move that you make,” he said. Having the home life that fits with a business working primarily with outdoor brands and with a strong commitment to the environment, Gardner appreciates the opportunity to “walk the walk” and not just talk the talk of environmental responsibility.
Gardner and Damon say reactions to the cube are widely varied. They say many like-minded friends find their home very cool and perhaps even gain some inspiration from it. Others just find it weird or question its unusual form.
For them, it’s home and it’s wonderful.
Gregor Masefield of Bristol-based Studio III Architecture is the architect of Andrew Gardner and Caroline Damon’s Passive House in Middlebury. Masefield spoke with the Independent’s Christy Lynn about this cutting-edge project. Above: Masefield’s Lincoln home, which was inspired by the passive-house prototype he completed in the fall of 2016 in Middlebury. Having grown up in a stone farmhouse and spent his career working on many different types of homes, Masefield’s choice to construct and move his family into a passive solar home speaks to his belief in the resiliency inherent in this building style. Photo: Susan Teare
The inspiration and site
I grew up in a stone farmhouse built in 1782, and I was the littlest one in the family so I was he who was lowered into the crawlspace with a torch to thaw the frozen pipes in the winter. I think that started my interest in more efficient houses.
But seriously, I had been thinking and talking about ideas for affordable, energy-efficient, single-family homes for quite some time when the person who I collaborated with on this project (who wished to be left anonymous) first approached me. We started talking about building a house that could act as a prototype in an urban infill environment that was otherwise going to be wasted space for the neighbor’s brush pile. We wanted to create a project that inspired more natural and sustainable communities and did anything we could to reduce waste, leave materials natural, avoid toxins and require less maintenance.
The site at 2 Thomas St. in Middlebury had been on and off the market for years, so when it became available we jumped on it. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to make great use out of an affordable, centrally located lot and offered an opportunity to site a house that was considerate and sensitive to the site and environment we were working within.
Mid-way through the project there were some stumbling blocks with the Agency of Natural Resources, which exposed an issue with the nearby wetland, but rather than fight we chose to rise to the challenge and remediate the issue with amended site design to incorporate a sensitive building with very low impact on the site.
We wanted the project to address some of the social, socio-economic and environmental issues our society is grappling with and we gained inspiration from a number of different sources. One of those was a book called “Design Like You Give A Damn” by Cameron Sinclair. Another was the Quakers, who designed with an utterly practical, purposeful aesthetic. Rather than design a home to look a certain way, the Quakers designed spaces to function in the ways they needed and wanted to live. In this process we attempted to find economies through the truth and honesty about how we need to function. We didn’t design the space like the Quakers, but we thought like they thought about the design.
Passive House
Passive House was kind of new to me when I started this, but I really jumped in and have become a real advocate. I went and got certified as a Passive House consultant and started learning about some of the really technical components of design and materials. A lot of the people who are doing this are really engineers who LOVE the science of building materials and how to maximize their performance. It’s about calculating the specific heating, cooling, insulating and circulation capacities of every single material and pairing them together for maximum gain. It’s an extremely rigorous protocol to make the scientific side of a Passive House work.
Of course, as the architect, I wanted to make the aesthetic and environmental side work as well. One of the joys of this whole discipline is that function and design don’t ever totally agree. That’s our job to figure out.
We went cubic in form to see if there was economy to be found in the truth of the true demands on the space. Theenvelope of the house was so robust that we could rely on a small mechanical space that was situated with the stairwell in the center of the house. The main living spaces each have two windows for cross ventilation. We didn’t go for lavish master bedrooms and master baths, but chose a modest layout for modest needs. The aesthetic was largely driven by commitments to honesty about what we need to achieve maximum functionality. The flat roof is a good example as a way to eliminate wasted space and drive the performance of each zone while saving on cost at the same time.
One of the most critical elements to a Passive House design is solar access. This site was slightly tricky because there is some obstruction to the solar path, but we were able to site it in a way that would capture the most sunlight during critical times. Windows and doors are also important components, as they break the thermal envelope of the house and require careful detailing and the most innovative designs available. Unfortunately U.S. manufacturers don’t offer windows and doors that are high enough performance for Passive House, so we worked with a company out of Lithuania and there are some inherent challenges with that. However, the R-value of glass is about 11, which is much higher than it is in a typical window (single pane windows have an R-value of about 1; double pane are typically around 2; triple pane windows are typically around 3).
The ERV (energy recovery ventilation) system manages humidity to keep relative humidity in the 40s, and prevents condensation from forming. That in turn keeps comfort way higher in a Passive House and issues with mold and mildew from becoming a factor.
I believe the success of this project will continue to be exposed indefinitely. I know the high performance home program at Efficiency Vermont is growing leaps and bounds. Nationally and statewide there are a lot of goals for high performance and net zero. Building codes and high performance standards globally are looking to Passive House for standards. But right now it’s a little hard to see. There’s a big resistance to this type of building stock because it challenges everything else on the market and the ways people are used to living. These properties are resilient and independent of the reliance upon gas and oil and other market-based commodities.
There is really a global trend toward this, but you may not know it in the U.S. because there’s such high subsidies for energy. When the realities of the global energy market come to roost, we’re going to inevitably turn to these types of properties and be glad for the examples that they offer. The days of 2x4s and pink insulation need to be behind us. What you have to recognize when you buy the existing housing stock, is that you’re buying an agreement to deal with the outdated, rotten, toxic, leaky and deferred issues. With new and modern homes like this there’s a durability and resiliency that is hard to achieve with old homes.
The second take
My wife and I were enamored enough with this project that we built a second cousin to the Middlebury Passive House in Lincoln and moved in almost two years ago. We don’t have any regrets.
I believe that what we need to promote is a new way of thinking and an openness that will breathe life into our ways of living. Passive house and net zero and high performance homes are definitely on the road to getting there.
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