homeward bound

A home shelters, provides a place to gather, to entertain, to play, to seek quiet places and spaces all your own. The yearning for a sense of home unites us all beginning with our very first steps continuing through the chapters of our lives. Over the course of our practice we have helped many families and individuals find a place called home, cultivating a sense of heart and purpose with them along the way and leaving things better than when we found them. We share the following highlights of that work.

Stephen Frey in Montpelier, VT on Houzz
Stephen Frey in Montpelier, VT on Houzz

Ground floor plan showing proposed changes

A farmhouse waiting to be opened up

Our client purchased her home for herself and her daughter. Unfortunately the previous owners had added onto the original part of the home adding smaller rooms connecting together over many years creating lots separate rooms and no sense of unity. To counter this boxed in result, the owner sought like many do, to take down walls and open up the downstairs into more livable space flowing between the kitchen, dining, and living areas.

To begin, we sat around the kitchen together table preparing early sketches and then developed an overall architectural design which included developing her space program, developing a three-dimensional design and drawings with floor plans, building sections, and exterior views and flat-on elevations. We created a future possible phase which included a deck extending the dining room out connecting better to the outdoors, a possible great room addition along with new more updated siding materials.

Located on the southeast corner, the addition would someday extend the living and entertaining spaces tying together the kitchen and living areas allowing for a circular flow. High shed cathedral ceilings with simple roof framing would provide an inspiring space framing views of nearby mountain ranges. The addition will eventually be built to high performing standards with high R-value dense pack cellulose walls, and roofs with an insulated frost-protected concrete slab. Exterior materials would be a mix of cement board panel with reveals together with galvanized corrugated metal siding. For further energy use reductions and additional comfort, future plans also call for installing on the exterior added rigid "outsulation", new siding over a draingage plane, with window extensions, and wood trim.

From the plans we provided, the builder extensively renovated the main level by opening up non-load bearing walls improved flow between the entry, mudroom, kitchen, dining and living areas. The design-build contractor worked one on one with the homeowner to stay within her budget, prioritize weatherization improvements, reduce energy bills, reuse farm beams and posts to provide structural support in opened up spaces.

Their work also included new custom kitchen design of cabinets and counter-tops, lighting selection, distressed wood cabinet fronts, oil-rubbed finishes all working together to unify the renovated spaces. Plaster finished walls and new paint tie together all newly renovated living area spaces. The builder and homeowner also heavily renovated a leaky basement with a natural spring stream flowing through it. Improvements there included a new insulated concrete floor slab, extensive painted foam insulation against the existing rubble stone foundations, and new lighting.

View of opened up dining and kitchen room with new counters, lighting, flooring, freshened up wood trim, doors, and windows.

Southeast view

Southeast view

Existing exterior view of the home

Existing exterior view of the home

Existing kitchen area

Existing kitchen area

View of existing dining room

View of existing dining room

View of new kitchen counters and opened up spaces

Exterior view from the south east looking towards the shared living area and porches from the units.

     In 2013, Vermont’s first straw-bale affordable senior housing project was built in Holland, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Becky Masure, project manager for the affordable housing non-profit, Rural Edge, says, “The Page Holland Senior Housing project helps seniors retain their independence while they remain in Holland close to their extended local community of family and friends.”

      Evelyn Page, now deceased, donated land from her family’s nearby farm and funding in memory of her late husband to Rural Edge. Recently, more standardized energy efficient construction methods have become increasingly expensive for them, often making it difficult to achieve their affordability and long term performance goals. Here, Rural Edge on this project, tests a new approach and new-old ideas.

      Straw bale appealed to the them for a number of reasons such as helping with fire-resistance, insulation capability of the straw, savings on labor costs, availability of local talent to build this way, carbon footprint reduction, low-embodied energy, chemical and allergy free composition. Enduring comfort, durability, and the beauty also inspired Rural Edge to try this approach. So they asked the architects to consider straw bale as a possibility after reviewing other choices.

Birdseye View (via Ward Joyce Design) - Shown prior to changing to a straw-bale exterior wall enclosure.

The design process and team

Detail showing exterior wall under construction with straw-bale and post and beam wood frame.

  Ward Joyce Design with Arocordis Design as primary design collaborator designed the project, with Ina Hladky providing structural engineering. Arocordis Design also acted as project manager. They designed two single bedroom apartments sharing a common area with a front-entry porch, with separate unit porches facing south. The building sits on the top of a hillside site across the road from the former Page Farm homestead and barn. Taking architectural form cues from nearby farm buildings, the bent uplifting roof reaches south towards dramatic rolling farmland vistas. Built on a cost-reducing radiant heated frost-protected concrete slab, the builder installed empty sleeves designed into the slab for future installation of on-site solar-electric PVs with the potential for greater self-reliance and renewable readiness.

      The architects sited the building facing the long way south to north orientation for passive solar heating. Operable awning and casement windows naturally ventilate each unit and common area. Ceiling fans circulate air in the living spaces to distribute passively warmed air in the winter and cooler air from the windows in the summer.

      A small parking area to the north serves building residents and visitors with a winding drive leading to nearby Page Road. Eventually as the site is finished over time, the owner will install and maintain pathways around the building along with a small vegetable garden and edible landscaping to provide fresh food for residents. A possible future arbor as shown in the birds eye view may be built to add further exterior living delight.

      Uncontrolled moisture is the natural enemy of straw bale construction, so the architects paid close attention to strategies reducing exposure to wind driven rain and snow. Extensive roof overhangs shed water away from the plaster and stucco walls. A two-foot-high double-stud pony wall forms a base on which the non-structural straw bales rest. The pony wall is cellulose-insulated. Site crafted straw-bales extend up to the underside of an I-joist framed loose filled cellulose insulated sloping roof clad in gray EPDM. This is a long lasting rubberized roofing system used in low-slope situations like this.

View of interior living area looking out onto the meadow beyond.

      Lee Cooper of Back 2 Basics Builders, the general contractor, built a post and beam frame, with 18 inches of straw bale surrounding it, to support the roof. The builders installed air fins made of ½” homosote, finished with air-sealing tape fit into specially detailed slots in the wood frame helping to reduce heat loss at joints between materials. Multiple rough and finished coats of plaster encapsulate exterior and interior faces of the straw bale wall enclosure. Natural colored lime coatings and wood finishes were used along with other easy to care for materials like the polished concrete floor warmed by radiant heating. 

      New Frameworks Natural Building was the straw bale consultant, with Ben Graham and Deva Racusin working on the project. Ben helped the architects with the unique detailing of the straw bale enclosure system. Deva provided construction administration assistance during the straw bale installation and assisted Lee Cooper with straw bale enclosure construction and related air-sealing work. 

      Rural Edge obtained certification from Efficiency Vermont for the project as a Vermont Energy Star Home. Efficiency Vermont provided the design team and owner invaluable technical assistance during the design phase clarify all of the compliance details required to be included in the specifications and drawings. Their service extended into construction as well with site inspections, and conducting blower door testing to ensure compliant air-tightness levels were reached. Energy Balance, of Montpelier, Vermont was the energy consultant helping early on with developing exterior enclosure design strategies.

Interior and exterior design

Affordable durable grade kitchen cabinets and counters were installed along with higher-performing Tier III energy efficient appliances. A whisper-lite bathroom fan provided whole-unit exhaust for fresh-air. Finishes were kept simple and durable in nature. Energy efficient lighting was also installed with compact fluorescent fixtures. The straw-bale walls window and door openings were finished with rounded bale edges, removing the need for expensive wood trim helping to save money on interior finishing. The rounded edges also soften the feel of the interior upping the internal warmth and character of the spaces.

The design team selected an exterior and interior palette of warm harmonious colors to further emphasize the natural underpinnings of the project and its design intent. Generally we selected darker warmer colors nearer the ground with lighter tones the higher up you go. Warm brown exterior stains, coatings, and door and window finishes all integrate together with the warm yellow wall color hand applied to finish coats of plaster.

View of kitchen along with the warm tones of the polished concrete floor.

View of kitchen along with the warm tones of the polished concrete floor.

Exterior view of building corner and uplifting roof along with flared straw-bale wall with its exterior plaster.

Exterior view of building corner and uplifting roof along with flared straw-bale wall with its exterior plaster.

      This innovative renewable ready project offers a natural building way for putting “affordability” back into affordable housing. When entering the building a “Truth” window graces the entry hall revealing the internal straw bale wall system telling the story of its construction. Time will tell what sort of impact the Page Project will have on Rural Edge’s overall affordability approach and other’s around the State. 

straw-bale relevance to single-family homes

While a residential duplex, this system is very suitable to homeowners interested in using similar natural building techniques on their projects. Straw-bale construction is well suited to projects of one to two stories in height due to structural limitations. Straw-bales can be assembled relatively easily with teams of labor led by a builders with expertise in straw-bale techniques. They are easily combined with wood timber-frame or post and beam structure, or more traditional energy efficient advanced framing wood wall systems. The straw-bale wall material is readily available and of low cost as are other aspects of the wall system. Their low toxicity and embodied energy construction will last generations helping to reduce your family’s long-term exposure to out gassing chemicals from more typical building materials, improved fire-resistance, and energy cost predictability. These homes provide a peace of mind altogether different from traditional construction with their shifted mindset onto natural materials and healthfulness.

The rounded edge of the window sill belies the presence of straw-bales below

If you’d like to learn more how to adapt natural building techniques like straw-bale construction to your project please let us know. We would be happy to help. Click on the learn more button below to send us a message or give us a call.

ZigZag House 2 - Geometric Playfulness

ZigZAG_House_View_8_sundown_summer_solsticeA_low - Copy.jpg


A 1,000 square foot small compact home, weekend getaway, or a downsized home for your next chapter. Call what you will but it's a ready to go super energy-efficient net-zero ready home simply conceived, easy to maintain. If you're of modern design inclination and want to try simpler living within a compact footprint you might consider this design or adapting it to your specific needs, building site, life stage and more. A squarish rectangle with an angled entry way and living area, the easy geometry soars as living space cutting an intriguing uplifting form greeting the sky.

      Designed for you and your family’s health and well-being, comfort, and energy efficiency, we can work together to tailor its design to your functional and aesthetic goals and objectives while meeting your budget and schedule. Whether urban, suburban, or in the country, we will work with you to tailor the end-solution to your site to find its sense of place which brings your family together. With each site condition we would re-examine the floor plan with its entry sequence from the outside to the inside, the layout of rooms, views, neighbors and more. We would work hard with you to develop a build-able approach integrating how your home fits on the your land, connecting to its setting and sense of place. We would work to balance the details of the interior and exterior specifics to maximize comfort, flexibility, performance, and long-term value for you.

A concept site and ground floor plan - Single level living

A concept site and ground floor plan - Single level living

Choice and delight

Shown here the 1,000 sq. ft. house and 700 sq. ft. garage nestle into a relatively flat site. Also, note, as part of considering your requirements and budget, you have options to build only the house, the house and garage / studio space or perhaps conceive of the garage space as an open carport someday you will build out. If you growing a business, an avocation or adding someone to your family, we can add on a third-bedroom module group. It’s really up to your imagination and your needs. You could easily locate solar pv-panels on the sloping garage roof to help achieve your sustainability and resiliency goals as a micro-grid site (pending availability of solar net-metering incentives and available infrastructure) connection providing energy back to your community.

     Exterior finishes range from cedar shakes to cement board siding, steel columns near the entry, Ipe or Trex decking for recyclability. The horizontal siding covers the angled rectangular form with the three and twelve slope roof. Cedar shakes highlight the low-sloped entry and special living area with a view framed by the square form jutting out the corner of the taller angled living area box.

View to entry from drive walk

View to entry from drive walk

climate responsive Construction and design details

       We believe its crucial to design homes to fit the regional climate they’re located in. A solution for northwestern US will greatly differ from the Southeastern US and so on. Here, given where we are located and our client base, we propose a cold-climate responsive solution suitable for Northern New England. We envision R-values goals of R40 walls, R60 roof, R20 foundation and R10 slab for insulation levels or better, along with a mix of clear and low-e argon filled triple-insulated fiberglass windows and high-performing double-insulated doors for comfort and performance. Combined with R-values which indicate thermal resistance to heat loss (higher numbers are better), air-sealing is another critical factor in achieving both comfort and energy efficient performance. Homes with leaky gaps in the outside wall and roof, at windows, corners, at door thresholds are much less comfortable and cost much more to heat irregardless of insulation levels.

HERS Index and the Greening of the MLS,

It’s not only just about thermal resistance though, it’s also about achieving an effective overall HERS index score, the industry standard by which a home’s energy efficiency, is measured looking at a host of factors. It’s also the nationally recognized system for inspecting and calculating a home’s energy performance according to RESNET. A score of 30 or lower is a worthwhile goal. This score is increasingly relied upon by the realtor, appraiser, buyer and seller community with sustainable design features now beginning to appear in the Green MLS. This makes it easier then ever to comparison shop between non-green homes and green featured homes and better understand the long-term value for homeowners while living in the home and then selling it later.

the interior

      Inside the dramatic uplifted roof reaches to the the sky coupled with simple, health focused interior finishes and interior lighting to meet your design and budget objectives. We suggest an interior palette which includes slate flooring and sustainable wood flooring here a walnut colored stain.  Site cast concrete counter tops distinguish the kitchen detailing. We show Herman Miller for the Home and Commercial pieces furniture to align with the modern aspirations of the home.

View from kitchen towards open dining and living area. Bedrooms are off to the right through the opening.

View from kitchen towards open dining and living area. Bedrooms are off to the right through the opening.

View of entry area and porch beyond.

View of entry area and porch beyond.

The view of the entry and mud-room show’s how we seek to bring the outdoors in while creating a comfortable place to enter the home, sit down to take off of your shoes. Small space living is the theme with a hard-working entry doubling as a mudroom and more.

View from living space towards the kitchen and entry

View from living space towards the kitchen and entry

The view back to the kitchen and entry shows the concept of the open space living in looking in the other direction and at night. The exterior comes into the interior with cedar-shake shingles covering the angled seating and living area. The cedar works to soften the hard-edges of the drywall or plastered wall interior shown with maple doors and casing, wall base and more. We selected the furniture with its modern forms and simple shapes to complement in the simple modern interior spaces.

View of seating area and window bump out with cedar shingles echoing the exterior.

View of seating area and window bump out with cedar shingles echoing the exterior.

Small space living continues with this image showing the built-in seating area with the custom cushion in the window seat bump-out. We omit a wood stove or fireplace as having them is unnecessary in a high-performing energy efficient home. They’re not needed as the home would be too well-insulated to have one that made sense. A tiny wood-stove could heat the whole house and likely it would be overheated at best with windows and doors needed to be opened to be comfortable.

Of course, we need to collaborate with you on the design of the interior along with the kitchen and bath tailoring the specific character and details to meet your needs. To learn more, click the contact us button above to send a note. If it’s easier just call 802-448-0056 to speak to Steve Frey, Principal Architect for Arocordis Design.