The High-Performance Home, Step By Step, Part 1
Rendering of exterior view of house from the north, with the main house on the right and the garage/studio on the left.
Judging by the number of clicks we get on our Real Estate pages each week, it’s pretty obvious that many (do we dare say most?) of us in the Rural Intelligence region actively engage in what some call real estate porn. So when EASTON+COMBS, the award-winning architectural office based in New Marlborough, Mass. told us about a project they’ve started working on, we had a thought: Could we look over their shoulders (and those of their client) throughout the construction process? Rona Easton and Lonn Combs, with the permission of their client, said yes. This is the first installment of eight (or so — this is construction, after all) in a series that will give us a window — and door, and much more — into the building of a high-performance house in Egremont, Mass.
By Rona Easton and Lonn Combs
Lonn Combs and Rona Easton.
Our client, formerly of NYC and now living in Sheffield, desired a “house that would not use fossil fuels, and would be resilient in a variety of scenarios.” After extensively researching the housing market in the region, she made the decision to build rather than buy a home with those qualifications. There were few listings for high-performance homes that provide comfort, durability and low annual energy costs. The ones that exist don’t come on the market very often: for good reason, those homeowners don’t want to sell their prized properties.
So we’ve worked with the homeowner to design a resilient, low-impact and modest home that’s efficient in all aspects — spatial, materials, energy use — and at the same time responds to the natural beauty of our rural landscape with a simple aesthetic vision. In this first installment, we’re introducing the project and its performance goals; future articles will follow the house through construction to show how those goals are being met.
Floor plan: condensed interior cores of utility space and bathrooms allow a loft-like layout of main living spaces.
The site in Egremont has all of the quintessential qualities of the region — quiet and beautiful, wooded, with perennial streams and dramatic rock outcrops. We designed the house to work with the undulating terrain, locating the one-story main house at the highest part of the site, and connecting it by a bridge to a two-story building at a lower grade elevation, which houses a first-floor garage and a second-floor studio. By working with the landscape, and following its lead, the house is at ease with the site, bridging the connection between the living spaces and natural environment. It also allowed us to avoid expensive and destructive site work.
Modestly sized at 1,800 square feet, the main house has two bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a large living space and kitchen, and a small basement.
Over the last two years, our firm has focused on super energy efficiency and cost-effective construction approaches, and the exterior envelope of this house is a perfect example of that. We increased the insulation to levels far above building code requirements, and detailed the wall assembly so that air leaks are practically eliminated. This minimizes the heating and cooling loads to the extent that there’s no need for a furnace and large heating/cooling equipment. Thus, there’s no reliance on fossil fuels. (And much to our client’s delight, the basement space has been liberated for other uses.) The small air source heat pump heating and cooling system is electrically operated, and solar panels will further reduce electricity costs — potentially to zero. In fact, a small woodburning stove will easily heat the entire house, even during the winter’s coldest months!
Left: The condensed interior cores also keep electrical and plumbing infrastructure out of the exterior walls. Above: The main living space, with a high-performing exterior envelope, includes triple glazing to maintain comfort throughout the winter.
We are excited to take Rural Intelligence readers along with us as we shepherd the house through construction. To start, here is a brief look at the current construction status of the insulated foundation walls, and insulation below the slabs (the blue boards in the photos).
A view of the insulation on the interior face of the foundation walls.
The insulation around the exterior wall, projecting above the slab insulation, will provide a thermal break that will keep the slab warmer and further diminish heat loss.