Case Study: Meadow House by Smith Vansant
Mention the words “New England farmhouse” and nearly everyone in the United States can conjure an image in their heads of what it looks like: a white gabled building wrapped in a protective porch, anchoring its surroundings with dignity and sobriety. And yet, despite everyone’s familiarity with its basic forms, there is no textbook “farmhouse” style. More surprising still, the popularity of this unofficial style is growing all over the country. There are a number of reasons for this, but chief among them is its chameleon-like curb appeal—especially in rural areas, of course—and its aptitude for accommodating modern life within the walls.
Most custom residential clients are not like architects—they don’t typically want their houses to generate attention from others. Such was the case with the clients for this second home by Smith & Vansant Architects in Vermont. The 80-acre site is a landmark piece of property in its own right, so its new owners wished to add a house in keeping with the context of the area and one that presented as lean a profile as possible from the road. In consult with Smith & Vansant’s Pi Smith, AIA, and Ira Clark, AIA, they concluded a farmhouse was the perfect fit. But its emblematic form was just the jumping off place for a new family house in a beautiful setting.
“It’s a really interesting site, and most of it is quite visible from the road that heads out of town,” Ira explains. “The area is designated as a scenic corridor. There are hay fields that dip down and rise again. It’s an area that everyone knows, which is why the clients felt a need to preserve the view. We made sure to site the house and the driveway so all the near viewshed remains. We worked hard to stay out of a prime agricultural field, wetlands, and pieces of granite ledge.”
Smith & Vansant have been designing new and remodeled houses and commercial buildings in and around Vermont and New Hampshire for more than 20 years. They are intimately aware of local sensitivities and feel them keenly as well. They are adamant about designing buildings that respond to the needs and desires of their clients while remaining respectful of manmade context and the natural environment.
All of these concerns come before any consideration of stylistic goals. Thus, you’ll find a wonderful variety of buildings in the firm’s portfolio, all executed with a precise eye for proportion and detail. Meadow House presented the kind of commission the firm relishes—one that blends a love of familiar forms with an embrace of modern aesthetics as well. Says Ira, “Our clients wanted the house to fit in, but they wanted modern materials and a modern floor plan, too.”
“One of the clients had a dad who was in the steel industry, so they wanted as much steel in the house as possible,” notes Pi. Therefore, the farmhouse finds itself with steel siding and roofing, and steel structure in the porches and elsewhere in the interior. On the exterior, the corrugated steel siding is bounded at openings and other transition points by fiber cement in panels and laps. The roadside elevation relegates steel to the entry gable volume and the broad side of the master bedroom wing. From afar the materials suggest conventional farmhouse wood laps and perhaps even board and batten, but it’s the horizontal lap siding that reads most clearly to passersby. Metal was a frequent component of farmhouse roofs, and therefore its abundance on Meadow House is no cause to blink.
There are many such evocations of tradition that unveil a modern twist upon closer scrutiny. From the outside of the house, modern is in the details and their execution—the way materials turn a corner, the litheness of roof profiles, the Mondrian-like sizing and organization of windows. “The gable forms stack up in a familiar New England manner,” Ira explains. “The novelty of the fenestration becomes more apparent as you get closer—the whole modern vocabulary reveals itself as you approach the house.”
In plan, the house is essentially “two boxes—one zoned for family and one for guests,” says Pi. “And they all meet in the middle in the kitchen.”
The master suite is on the main level of its wing, and children access second-floor bedrooms via a family stair.
On the other side of the house, guests have their own stair to second-level accommodations.
The main level of their “box” contains shared spaces, such as the main entry, screened porch, and a bathroom that does double duty for the pool, and family service areas, such as the mudroom, laundry room, and passage to the pantry and garage.
“The house needed to feel comfortable for a family of four when they are there just for the weekend,” says Ira. “But then it also needed to accommodatelarger-scale entertaining and longer visits with guests. A distinct guest wing helps manage the sense of scale.”
Blending In and Standing Out
Even though their exteriors are so adept at appearing traditional, farmhouse interiors lend themselves to looking very contemporary. The secret in both cases is those gable forms. On the inside of the house, they easily become dramatic volume spaces. Matched with generous glazing, these spaces connect visually and physically to the outdoors in the modern manner we’ve all come to appreciate. In this house, a covered gable porch overlooking the pool extends its volume back inside to the living room and dining room. The steel structure that supports it continues inside as well.
On the interior, the steel beam recesses are infilled with wood. “The wood helps keep the modern warm,” says Pi. “You’ll see mahogany nosing up to steel or lining the underside of soffits. It’s a little surprise at close range.”
“We like to blend the industrial materials with more natural hand-shaped materials,” Ira observes. Polished concrete floors cover the kitchen and living room, while two steps up, wood floors line the dining room and central passage along the kitchen to the entry. Wood-paneled ceilings appear throughout, as do custom wood built-ins and barn doors that slide on steel tracks.
“Our clients wanted the principal areas to be largely open to each other, with a certain amount of control. We actually played with some 3-D modeling to explore the degree to which the kitchen should be open or closed down,” says Ira. “With all of the principal spaces, you have views back and forth. None of them feels like a confined room.”
Using level changes and flooring and ceiling cues to zone rooms and functions were experiments for the firm. “Since we were bringing everyone by the kitchen, we wanted everyone to feel they were going by it but are not in it,” Pi explains. “It’s reinforced by the soffit. All of the public rooms have the wood ceilings with the subtle gray tint. There’s a secondary route to the kitchen as well—the grocery route with step down to the pantry level.”
The firm worked closely with interior designers dpf Design on finish choices, furnishings, and lighting. “It was very collaborative,” says Pi. “We’ve been working with them for 20 years. They dealt with all the furnishings, and generated tile palettes for the bathrooms. We worked closely on the casework and color for the window frames on the inside.” Ira finishes the thought, “We decided where some of these oak panels would go. They decided about some of the washes. And then our builder made large-scale mockups of the elements to show everyone.”
Both architects concur that builders Tim and Tom Porter of G.R. Porter & Sons did an amazing job pulling all of the parts together. “They outdid themselves on this house,” says Pi. “They’ve done some modern work before, but we’d worked with them more on traditional projects, and they embraced it. The mockups that they did were quite a helpful tool. A lot of this is a leap of faith for the client—they’re trying to interpret from drawings, but they’re not seeing what we’re seeing. Even 3-D modeling helps. But with the big samples they can touch, they are able to see and understand the juxtaposition and the texture.”
No one builds a house on 80 acres without wanting to engage with the land. For these clients that desire was balanced with a mandate to keep the weekend property low maintenance. “The clients were interested in a house that shaped the outdoor areas,” says Ira. “On the entry side, as you curve in from the north, there are a couple of porches that face that. And poolside, the outdoor areas are bounded on two sides—by the ridge edge and by small trees to the east. We were able to use these broken-down building forms to shape those spaces.”
Pi continues, “The most compact aspect of the house is from the road. Isn’t until you walk around to the back of the house that you get how big ahouse it is. We were all very conscious of how it appeared. We worked hard at breaking the house into smaller forms.”
Carving the foundation for the 5,400-square-foot house was no easy task either. In Vermont, it often takes a fair amount of blasting to clear the way. (“There’s a reason people moved west!” Pi jokes.) But the architects left most of the rocky landscape intact, including that ledge that serves as a natural boundary between the curated outdoor areas and the meadow’s edge. The owners wanted the minimum amount of lawn to please family and guests; beyond that, the grasses are left wild, with periodic bush hogging and a rough-cut path here and there.
A powered cover for the pool allows the owners to secure it when they leave, and it eliminates the need for a fence that might block the vista of the meadow. “Around here there are a lot of places with views, but this client wanted rolling meadows,” says Ira.
Eventually, the weekend house will become a full-time retirement home, so energy efficiency and build quality were a long-term concern and worthy application of investment. The owner has installed ground-mounted photovoltaics as a hedge for the future and has an outlet for an electric car in the garage.
Those low-maintenance exterior materials were also deemed more durable than the usual complement of natural woods found on New England houses. “What our builder and we are finding is that previous materials don’t hold up as well as they used to. We’ve worked with corrugated metal before, but fiber cement was new to us,” says Ira. “When we do use wood, we’re looking for wood with longevity—cedar instead of hemlock and pine, for instance.”
With Vermont’s frigid winters and dramatic temperature differentials between outside and inside, a rigorous building envelope is always a critical component of construction. “We make an effort to beef up specs in walls and roofs, and to use insulation with low toxicity,” Ira explains. “Usually, it’s a combination of dense-packed cellulose, rigid insulation board, Roxul mineral wool, and a soy-based spray foam. We install air-source heat pumps with a boost from an efficient boiler system. There’s the usual array of energy recovery ventilators and a fresh air system. And the house is wrapped in a smart vapor retarder that allows the walls to dry in every direction.”
Double-pane windows are the firm’s go-to. Although they have used triple-glazed units on some projects, they can’t always justify the hit to the budget or the architectural aesthetics. Says Pi, “They often ramp up the budget—and the cost of construction here is high anyway. We’ve been focusing on the whole picture of efficiency. Also, we like to play with divisions in our windows, and that gets much harder to do with triple-pane windows.”
The firm arranged windows for maximum effect on the interiors as well as the exteriors. Sight lines across the open plan inevitably terminate in some glimpse of the meadow, pool, or other pleasing vista. “We took advantage of those long views through the house with axial windows, so you’re always moving towards the light,” Pi explains. The windows are a combination of custom and stock, says Ira. “Our window company, more than many other, has made it easier to go to a custom unit without incurring a substantial premium.”
Where the spaces would benefit from more natural light but need to preserve privacy, too, the architects placed custom mahogany screens over windows and other openings. The screens add another of those “hand-shaped” warm elements to balance out the sharper industrial palette. They layer on texture and richness to the otherwise “simple, white gable forms,” as Pi calls them, and strike a proper note of New England reserve on the public side of the house.
As Americans move farther away from their rural agrarian roots, it appears more of us find resonance in evoking its enduring images. But it’s not just wistful thinking—the farmhouse is truly an American archetype. Its basics are as flexible and functional today as they were a hundred years ago. We’ve been perfecting this building for a very long time, tailoring it to each circumstance like a Savile-Row suit. Even updated with modern flare, the 21st century farmhouse is stalwartly beyond style and fleeting fashion. It is an American classic.
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Project team: Pi Smith, AIA, John Vansant, AIA,
Ira Clark, AIA, Stephen Branchflower, White River Junction, Vt.
BUILDER: G.R. Porter & Sons, Inc., Norwich, Vt.
INTERIOR DESIGN: dpf Design, Inc., White River Junction, Vt.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Janet Cavanagh Landscape Architect,
S. Strafford, Vt.
PROJECT SIZE: 5,400 square feet
SITE SIZE: 80 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Rob Karosis Photography
CLADDING: Vicwest, Eter-Color
SOFFITS: Nantucket Beadboard MRX
INSULATION: Dow XPS, IKO Ener-Air, Demilec Heatlok Soy
VAPOR BARRIER: Pro Clima Intello Plus
ENGINEERED LUMBER: Trus Joist
DOOR HARDWARE: Emtek
HVAC: Mitsubishi, Viessmann
HUMIDITY CONTROL: Nortec
RADIANT HEATING: Uponor
ENERGY RECOVERY VENTILATOR: RenewAire
HOT WATER HEATER: ACV Triangle Tube
BATHROOM VENTILATION: Fantech
KITCHEN CABINETRY/COUNTERTOPS: Custom
CABINETRY HARDWARE: Rocky Mountain Hardware,
Schaub & Company
SLIDING BARN DOOR HARWARE: Rustica Hardware
RANGE/VENT HOOD: Wolf
WINE REFRIGERATOR: Sub-Zero
FAUCETS/SINKS/TOILETS: Duravit, Dornbracht, Icera, Aquabrass,
Phylrich, Jado, California Faucets, KWC, Lenova
HOME CONTROL: Honeywell RedLINK
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
LIGHTING: Artimede, Flos, LBL Lighting, SONNEMAN,
Illuminating Experiences, Corbett Lighting, LZF Lamps,
WAC Lighting, Arteriors, Foscarini, Lightyears
PAINTS/STAINS: Benjamin Moore