To paraphrase architect Hank Keating, if a New England farmhouse and a space station had a love child, it would be his house at Stone Fruit Farm in Westport, Massachusetts. Designed by Keating for himself and his wife, Deborah Judd, the passive structure — ultra energy-efficient with little to no ecological footprint — is a far cry from the drafty Victorian in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood where the couple lived for 25 years.
There, says Judd, “we kept the thermostat at 65 degrees all the time in the winter, and it was always cold. Here we have not turned on the heat once, and the temperature always hovers between 68 and 72. One night last winter, with the nighttime temperature at minus 5, the inside temperature was 63.” That’s with no oil or gas bill and no use of carbon to contribute to climate change.
For Keating, who retired in 2016, this new building is the culmination of a career focused largely on designing energy-efficient affordable housing. At Trinity Financial, a real estate development firm with offices in Boston and New York where Keating worked for 13 years, he was the key architect for such projects as a 160-unit near-passive town house community in Taunton, Massachusetts, and a point person for a 28-story, 280-unit apartment building in the Bronx that, when finished, will officially meet passive standards.
But his house is more than a paean to passive design. The couple very much wanted to preserve farmland, “which is difficult to do in New England because of housing development pressure,” says Keating. By purchasing this particular piece of land from the last generation of a farming family that had owned it for 100 years and continuing to use it to grow food, they were maintaining a farm and its legacy.
Despite the ecological attributes and striking design of Keating’s passive home, the building doesn’t draw attention to itself from the road. Rather, hidden 500 feet down a narrow driveway that opens to an 8½-acre parcel, the structure, a low-slung one-story affair flanked on each end by great stone walls, sits just beyond some cow paddocks and chicken coops at the edge of a field.
The stone walls, says Keating, “are the most important aesthetic statement of the house. If you just had normal clapboards on the ends, it would look like a barracks.” Rising 18 inches above the roofline like parapets, the walls, made from stone gathered on the property, “frame it like bookends.” They also turn in as they slope toward the rear of the home to enclose a courtyard. “They’re kind of like arms holding the back of the house,” Keating says.
Ironically, the one-story design is not totally in keeping with the principles of a passive building, which in order to qualify for certification must use no more than 4,750 BTUs in heating energy per square foot per year — roughly one-tenth the energy used by a typical American house — among other very specific criteria.
A two-story structure has a smaller envelope to enclose the volume, which is better for retaining the solar energy. But, says the 68-year-old Keating, “I gotta be able to die in this place. It’s gotta be one floor.”
He managed to meet the passive house standard anyway, in part because he adhered strictly to other principles of passive design, such as setting the long sides of the rectangular house facing south and north. If the house were oriented east and west, the morning sun would shoot through the full length of the structure, and controlling the heat gain would require overhangs some 10 feet deep.
The southerly exposure, on the other hand, means that smaller overhangs do the trick to block the sun in summer but not in winter when the sun is lower.
The house, built by The Valle Group of Falmouth, Massachusetts, is just one room wide, with a master suite on one end, a home office on the other, and the kitchen, dining, and living spaces in between. The configuration ensures that every room has direct solar gain.
“If we made a square and put the bedrooms and study in the back,” Keating says, “the heat would only come into the front half of the building,” impeding distribution to other rooms.
Fully 12 percent of the front elevation — about twice as much as on the typical American house — is glazing that draws in the sun. The European windows can open like doors, or they can tilt in from the top about 6 inches, which Keating says is “very nice for ventilating the house” and keeps the air conditioning reserved for only the hottest days.
Triple glazing (as opposed to double glazing in traditional homes) means the glass on the inside never gets cool enough for a person’s body to start giving up some of its own heat to even out the temperature. Even in the dead of winter, says Keating, you can sit against a window and not feel cold.
Atop the front south-facing roof, solar panels generate electricity and heat water. They are not required for passive design, which focuses on construction details to keep a building airtight, including special membranes enclosing superthick insulation, but mean using less carbon-derived energy. The panels generate more power than Keating and Judd use, and the excess is sold to the local electric company.
A long corridor connects the 1,800-square-foot main house to a two-bedroom guesthouse and a one-bedroom apartment, where a couple live rent-free in exchange for farming the land organically. The corridor itself has greenhouse glazing on its roof and long south-facing wall, allowing it to trap solar heat, which is absorbed into the concrete-block walls. That makes the space an effective carbon-free clothes dryer, an important element for Judd and Keating, who note that Americans spend 12 percent of their energy budget using electric clothes dryers.
Keating and Judd like how comfortable it is to live in their supertight house. For instance, when the air conditioning is on, “you don’t feel cold air blowing, you don’t hear any noise,” Keating says, thanks to silent air-to-air heat pumps.
Judd appreciates the spare beauty of the place. “When it was all done,” she says, “I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I said, ‘Hank, did you know how good it was going to look?’ ”
His answer, she says, was, “Yes, I drew it.”
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