The AIA award-winning house that architect Harry Hunt designed and built for his family near Stowe, Vt., is loaded with energy-efficient features: R-40 walls, glass coatings appropriate for each window’s exposure, an airtight membrane that forms a continuous wrap from foundation to ridge, heat-recovery ventilation equipment, and materials with low embedded energy, to name a few. But that’s not what Hunt wants this house to be known for.
“What I’m interested in is melding all that technology with the art of building design, which is not technical at all,” he says. “There’s so much focus on energy efficiency today, but people are missing other things, like how it feels to live in the house.”
For Hunt, whose firm, Harry Hunt Architects, is in Stowe, this design metric is rooted in core Vermont values: frugality, simplicity, authenticity, and a strong sense of place. Hunt grew up in Burlington, Vt., but his family retreated to its second home in northern Vermont, and in his youth Hunt worked alongside a local barn builder. “Old barns are beautiful,” he says, “because they’re very clear about their purpose. There’s no question why they look the way they do.” This contrasts, he believes, with typical suburban architecture that borrows styles from other places and results in buildings that are disconnected from — and have little to do with — the origin of those styles.
For his family — wife, Stephanie, and their children, Alaena, 13, and Tucker, 10 — Hunt designed a home using a simple 2,500-square-foot rectangle that would be easy to heat. Acting as his own general contractor, he worked with Patterson & Smith Construction in Stowe for the framing and exterior finishes. For siding, they used corrugated steel, which, from a distance, says Hunt, has the look of vertical barn siding. Made with a high percentage of recycled content, it lasts 50 years and then can be recycled again.
Hunt added interest and extra living space to the basic form with exterior features such as a wraparound porch and, with the help of Ambler Design in Stowe, a patio and landscaping to create outdoor “rooms” that enhance the feeling of connectedness to the outside environment. Inside, two walls are large plates of glass that meet in one corner of the living room, dissolving the barrier between the interior spaces and the leafy landscape beyond. “The placement of glass is enormously important as you move through a space,” Hunt says, “and can make the house feel bigger.” One of his favorite vantage points is at the end of the kitchen counter, where he can see the outdoors in four directions through windows on each of the four walls.
The interior construction was done by Gristmill Builders of Waterbury Center, Vt., and Flor Diaz Smith of Diaz Smith Studio in Montpelier assisted with the kitchen design and other aspects of the interior decor. Contributing to the sense of place is the use of local materials, such as the green Vermont slate on the vanity in the master bath, maple built-ins and red birch kitchen cabinets made locally, and partitions of pine shiplap, laid horizontally to mimic barn siding. “The warmth of pine is one of those connection things,” Hunt says. “It’s in the collective subconscious of Vermonters. I put part of that into everything.”
Before deciding to become an architect, Hunt worked for an engineering firm in Munich, Germany. “Living and working in [pedestrian-friendly] Germany gave me a feel for the power of design — how it can change people’s lives,” he says. It also introduced him to the German passivhaus concept, principles and practices that result in buildings so efficient, they use up to 90 percent less energy than structures built to current US energy-efficiency codes. These “passive houses” are more than well-insulated buildings heated by the sun. They are integrally designed to provide healthy indoor environments and reduce energy footprints through attention to every aspect of construction, including advanced window technology, airtightness, heat-recovery ventilation, and highly efficient lighting.
The Hunts’ home reflects many of these strategies. For example, the sliding door that opens from the living room to the porch is a European-made triple-paned system that minimizes air infiltration. The door weighs 500 pounds yet is so well engineered, it can be opened or closed with one finger. A high-efficiency propane boiler heats the house and the hot water. A heat-recovery ventilation system provides fresh air throughout without heat loss. And the house is so tightly built, it is literally impossible for air to pass through the exterior walls.
While this level of energy efficiency is common in Europe (it is even required in some municipalities), few Americans embrace such rigorous standards. At the annual Better Buildings by Design Conferences put on by Energy Efficiency of Vermont (a conference in Burlington Hunt presented at in February), “the technical stuff gets discussed in infinite detail,” Hunt says. “We now know we can design extremely energy-efficient buildings. That’s great, but to engage the public and reach a broader market — to really move the dial — as designers, we have to build a product, to have a house that’s the ‘right’ design.”
And what is the “right” house for a given client? Hunt conceives it as one that aligns what’s right for the planet with what meets individual needs and is as comfortable as it is healthy. Thirteen-year-old Alaena notes that their house is “always the perfect temperature and full of light,” while mom Stephanie says she loves how efficiently it functions. Every square inch is used well, she says, with plenty of built-ins for quick access to whatever is needed.
But there’s even more to the concept. Hunt’s “right” house is a house with soul. Celtic peoples refer to “thin places,” he says, “places where the veil between the visible and invisible worlds is lifted and people find a connection with something invisible.” It happens in nature, he says, and he believes it can happen in homes that nurture connections with nature and with other people. “It may be spiritual or it may be a connection with the environment,” he says, “but there’s a feeling about a place that makes that place feel good to be in.” By all appearances, Hunt has achieved that with this family home.