Can a house with modern European sensibilities slip into a suburban New Jersey neighborhood without offending the neighbors? What’s more, can it achieve Passive house certification without looking a little forced? This unassuming but self-assured house by Mowery Marsh Architects does both, even though it was built by a general contractor who knew next to nothing about Passive house standards. It is an example of how creativity in its purest form is also about collaborating, making connections that lead to dynamic buildings and streetscapes.
The owners, who are from Belgium, lived just down the block when they bought this lot containing a one-story teardown. Although the existing house was dilapidated, the lot was deep and had beautiful mature trees. The couple envisioned a light-filled, four-bedroom house with tall ceilings, minimal detailing, and flowing spaces. This seemingly easy request, however, challenged the architects from the start.
“They had a great design sense and the palette they were interested in excited us, but we’re on this street of houses with 8-foot ceilings and dinky porches,” says Jennifer Mowery, AIA, who designed the house with her husband and business partner Brian Marsh, AIA. “They wanted 10-foot ceilings. How would we give them what they wanted and make this house not feel like a monster on the street?”
The two partners were able to realize their clients’ aesthetic goals and preserve the street scale, in part, by drawing an L-shaped floor plan that projects into the backyard. The front reads as an updated bungalow with its front porch, a long dormer like the neighbor’s, and a second story tucked under the roof. A columned porch hung with four timeless “barn lights” reinforces the familiar rhythm of the house’s two-over-two punched windows.
It’s clear something else is going on, though, and the crisp, black-and-white exterior is a clue. Visitors step up onto the long, metal-roofed front porch and into a two-story entryway with a stairway to the right and a mudroom and powder room to the left. From there they step down into the great room containing a living and dining area with large expanses of glass, and the kitchen beyond. The slightly raised front porch and foyer was a way to give the clients their 10-foot ceilings without creating too much massing outside. “The mudroom and front stairs are compressed, but not much, because that area is open to above,” Jennifer says. “It meant taking pieces of the puzzle that everyone has and rethinking them, making them more pure and clean.”
Inside, building a modern dwelling in an older neighborhood also suggested a more nuanced approach to the double-height living space. The architects finessed this by designing a one-story window wall at the back of the house but inserting a bridge at the second floor with the two kids’ rooms on one side and a guest room and master suite on the other; this allowed for a two-story window slot at the back that creates the airiness the owners were after and floods the first floor with light. “I personally like living spaces that have some intimacy,” Jennifer says. “The house has a two-story space, but it’s not the space you’re hanging out in. It’s nice to treat circulation with a kind of grandeur.”
Other moves also nudge it toward hominess rather than grandeur. Extending the kitchen into the landscape allows the owners to experience the house exterior while they’re inside and to see into the kitchen from the living room. That connectedness “creates a story,” Jennifer says. The footprint also gave the architects more skin on which to place windows. “The kitchen and the master suite above it aren’t huge spaces but feel quite generous because they get light from three sides,” Jennifer says. The L shape makes the master bedroom feel like a sanctuary, tucked into the trees at the end of the finger, with a balcony overlooking the yard.
The owners splurged on wide oak plank flooring with a matte finish, which gives the house a Nordic feel and marries well with the natural palette of black metal windows, walnut cabinets, and creamy white walls painted Benjamin Moore China White. Most modern designers would go for a purer white, and the wife hesitated, but she was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked, Brian says. “The colors we presented were very warm, not stark white, and she said she would never have picked the white, but she loved how it gave the house warmth throughout and avoided a cold modern box with black windows,” he says.
“Back in the day when people used creamy whites, they were pairing them with tan and beige, and everything felt muddy,” Jennifer adds. “This lends a little softness, so that when you do striking navy blue in the bath, it still seems homey and inviting. It’s something we play with in all our projects.”
This is Mowery Marsh’s first certified Passive house, though a previous renovation fell just short of the requirements. Because most of their clients don’t have Passive house goals, Mowery and Marsh try not to lead with the conversation, but it’s a layer of rigor they apply to every commission. “Once you do Passive house construction, you can’t go back because the detailing of a regular house is so bad,” says Brian, who is trained in Passive house standards. These owners were familiar with the concept, however, and saw the value of getting the house certified. “They thought, absolutely, why wouldn’t you build this way?” he says.
It took some serious networking to find a Passive house–trained subcontractor who could oversee critical tasks such as insulation and air sealing. The general contractor, Mike Passafiume, embraced the building science aspects and said, “You tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it,’” Brian recalls. “But I knew from past experience that wasn’t going to work.” Brian found Jason Endres through a supplier of Passive house materials. Jason is certified through PHI, a European standard, and this would be his first Passive house project, too.
If the building lives on the suburban edge aesthetically, it is buttoned down at heart. Mike’s crew used conventional 2×6 framing and screwed TGIs, or wood I-beams, outboard of the 2x6s to create a thermally broken, 12-inch exterior cavity filled with dense-packed cellulose and wrapped with a vapor barrier. “We had to have blower door tests even before we insulated, to check the airtightness of the taping and barriers they put up on the outside of the house,” Mike says.
EPS rigid foam further insulates the envelope—12 inches around the foundation and 8 inches under the basement slab, plus foam glass under the foundation footings. “Our goal was to thermally break the foundation from the ground so you have the entire concrete mass acting as a thermal battery,” says Jason. “It sounds corny, but the house operates like a beautiful symphony. You have the ERV that’s constantly exchanging air, the triple pane windows, and the insulation, all doing their part to be passive.” The exterior was finished with Boral cladding, which has a crisp edge but looks like wood.
While acknowledging that the build-out was “a lot more involved” than on a conventional home, Mike was impressed with how well the house hit its targets. “It’s a cool design and barely needs any heat—and sound-wise, too; it’s very quiet inside,” he says.
Perhaps the most rewarding outcome for Mowery Marsh was assembling the team that could make this happen. “I think it’s significant that nobody on this construction team had ever done a Passive project,” Jennifer says. “You have to find someone who really wants to do it right. They have to have the drive to really futz with the details of every penetration.” The couple also welcomed the opportunity to design a forward-thinking house in an older established neighborhood. “We wanted people to understand that even in a suburban New Jersey town, you don’t have to be shoehorned into your vernacular but can still do something that belongs,” Jennifer says.
Plans and Drawings
Madison Passive House
Madison, New Jersey
ARCHITECT: Jennifer Mowery, AIA, and Brian Marsh, AIA, Mowery Marsh Architects, Hoboken, N.J.
BUILDER: Mike Passafiume, Home Improvements Plus LLC, Long Valley, N.J.
PASSIVE HOUSE CONSULTANT: Jason Endres, Endres Home Builders, Nutley, N.J.
BUILDING SCIENCE: Levy Partnership, New York
SITE SIZE: 0.6 acres
PROJECT SIZE: 3,400 square feet
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Haris Kenjar
ENTRY DOORS: Emtek
FAUCETS: Watermark (kitchen)
GARAGE DOORS: Clopay
HVAC: Mitsubishi mini-splits
INTERIOR DOORS: Trustile
LIGHTING: One Forty Three, Rejuvenation, Cedar Moss, Atelier de Troupe
POOL DECKING: Resysta
PORCH LIGHTS: Barn Light Electric
ROOFING: Sheffield Metals
THERMAL AND MOISTURE BARRIERS: Intello
WINDOWS AND EXTERIOR DOORS: European Architectural Supply
WINE REFRIGERATOR: Miele