Empty nesters create modern net-zero-energy house on 10 idyllic acres in Lincoln

Design New England
A greenhouse (facing page) was constructed on the foundation previous owners had built  for a swimming pool.
A greenhouse was constructed on the foundation previous owners had built for a swimming pool. Dan Cutrona

In 2012, Martin and Susan Madaus were looking for a project. “Our youngest sons, who are twins, were about to graduate from high school,” says Martin, and their oldest son was already in college. “We were poised to become empty nesters, and we wanted to give ourselves a new focus.”

They envisioned an open, streamlined structure with lots of glazing and natural materials that would produce at least as much energy as it used.

The family had lived in Lexington, Massachusetts, for years, but for their next phase, they were drawn to nearby Lincoln, where Midcentury Modern architects, including Walter Gropius and Henry B. Hoover, built the first Bauhaus-inspired homes in New England. “The town of Lincoln really respects Modern architecture, so it was a great place for us to build,” says Martin. The couple were captivated by a pastoral 10-acre residential lot. “To find that sort of farm setting so close to the city is virtually unheard of,” he says. Lush and verdant with split-rail fences and wildflowers, the property even had a pond.

There was one big problem: The foundation for a 15,000-square-foot house had been left by a prior owner who had planned for an elaborate estate but abandoned the project early in construction.

“It was an ugly foundation and much bigger than the owners wanted,” says architect Alison Alessi of A3 Architects, the Dennis, Massachusetts, firm the Madauses contracted to design their new house. “There were weeds growing out of these massive circular concrete containers for a suspended glass koi pond.”  Still, she says, “since the existing foundation was sited well, we decided we would work with it.”

The dining area overlooks an expansive deck and the property’s verdant pasture. To make sure the voluminous Moooi pendant lights would fit above the table, the architects and homeowners created paper balls based on the fixtures’ specifications and hung them in the lofty space. —Dan Cutrona

She transformed it into the basis for a one-level, 3,700-square-foot house. “To get the big foundation to work with a new, lighter footprint,” Alessi says, “the design had to get natural light into the deep interior spaces as well as the exterior ones along the perimeter.”

Her concept was to break the house down into three separate sections — simple shed-roofed boxes that would contain the garage, the public spaces, and the private bedrooms. The garage was located toward the east, the more private bedroom wing toward the front, street-facing side of the house, and the open kitchen, living, and dining area at the back, where a glass wall provides an unfettered view of the landscape.

“From the [back] exterior, it’s a glass box in a green field, while the front reads much more solid,” says Alessi. This arrangement left a large interior core that housed a powder room, laundry, and pantry that had little natural light, a problem Alessi solved with three interior clerestory windows that filter sunlight from the main space.

In the living area, the ceiling stretches to a dramatic 15 feet high in spots. “The volume embraces the view and welcomes the southwesterly light,” says Alessi. A large bank of windows and doors wraps the south and west corners of the house, connecting the large, open living area to a deck, making the indoor and outdoor spaces seem as one.

Made of native stone, the fireplace surround and exposed chimney create an intriguing focal point in the living area, where wide pine-board floors, white walls, and light wood trim create an airy feel. —Dan Cutrona

“To achieve a very smart, energy-efficient design, you have to put a lot of thought and money into windows,’’ says Martin, who closely collaborated with Alessi on the decision to import triple-glazed windows and doors from Slovakia. High-performance and available in custom sizes, the windows and doors were tailored to fit the various oversize openings. “It was very important that the house be comfortable during both the summer and winter,” says Alessi, explaining that the windows’ extremely high thermal properties mean that even on a cold winter evening, a person standing next to them feels no heat loss. For hot summer days, Alessi designed a metal sunscreen above the windows on the south side of the exterior to provide shade and avert overheating.

The structure exudes a Modern sensibility, yet it also recedes into the agrarian setting. Cedar siding is accented by a band of native fieldstone that wraps around the base of the house. Not only is the metal roof eye-catching, it’s also uber-insulated and, according to Martin, will last for up to 50 years. “Some Modern houses are very metallic and glassy; they feel cold,” he says. “We wanted a Modern feel but with warmth.”

They infused the interior with red, gray, and yellow hues. Furnishings include Modern classics and current pieces from contemporary lines, along with custom items such as the walnut dining table made of sustainably harvested wood.

Martin started a small orchard on the property, and he and Susan are raising a herd of Icelandic sheep, which graze on the grounds. Atop a foundation designed for a massive pool by the former owner is a greenhouse where the couple grow grapes, herbs, asparagus, and melons.

“It took three years to get this place in shape,” says Martin. “There was so much cleanup and work involved taking the invasive aspects down. But we like doing that; the whole process has been wonderful.”

See inside the Lincoln home:

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