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Artistic Expression of a Passive House

A passive design home fulfills the vision of two artists in a natural setting

Passive House Oct21 2

“There are no two clients that are even vaguely the same,” says Leonard Wyeth, AIA, CPHD. “The people we worked with were a delightful pair. They’re both artists, one in fabric and the other in sculpture and painting, and they have a wonderful, quirky, youthful outlook.” Wyeth’s firm, Wyeth Architects LLC, Chester, Conn., was charged to design a home and studio on a unique lot, and as much off the grid as they could get it for these clients.

The result is Stonington Passive House, Stonington, Conn. It wasn’t without challenges.

Location And Layout

The property for the home was several acres, but much of it was in wetlands and the township had very strict zoning regulations. “If strictly applied,” says Wyeth, “to meet the setback requirements, you would end up with a house roughly several hundred feet long and 3 feet wide.” Fortunately, there was an existing home on the property. The township allowed the designers to build on that footprint but with no more square footage.

Photos: Robert Benson Photography

The 2,700-square-foot home sits on a rise that slopes down on one side to a tidal salt marsh and is surrounded by forest. The main view is to the east, “but with a passive home you want the maximum view to be to the south. To meet passive house standards, we had to jump through a lot of hoops to make it work.”

As it is, the entire structure couldn’t qualify for Passive House standards no matter what. One end of the home is living quarters and the other—connected by a breezeway—houses two studios, one for each artist. Because one artist works in fabric and dying requires huge vats of boiling water, the space required large exhaust fans. There was no way to overcome the air change requirements using passive design. Nonetheless, the owners wanted to be as much off the grid as possible, so a large solar array and other enhancements offset that issue.

Envelope Details

It is much easier to design a multistory Passive House than a one story because it’s easier to air seal and insulate, and there is much less exposure of the living space to the exterior. “We had to invent a whole series of solutions,” says Wyeth. His colleague, Sara Holmes, AIA, developed an outer wall system that was 17 inches thick. It was built with 2-by-4s at 16 inches on-center on the outer edge, and 2 x 4s at 24 inches on-center on the inside. Filling the gap with insulation got the wall to approximately R-60.

“Air sealing a building like this is critical,” says Wyeth. “Passive House requires 0.6 air changes per hour (ACH) maximum. We needed to get well below that, and to accomplish it there had to be an unbroken air barrier. No wire, wall switch, duct or vent could break it. The interior service space was just big enough for wiring conduit on the inside of the air barrier.”

The floor detailing was equally as challenging. The concrete slab penetrates the exterior envelope, so they covered the slab with Type IX Styrofoam insulation that was 10 inches thick, and built the floor and wall partitions on top of the foam. “It’s a thermal bridge-free design,” says Wyeth, “that to the best of my knowledge has not been done before.”

Because the home is so tight and has such a low ACH, the air is forcefully exchanged using an energy recovery ventilator that filters out impurities and ensures the indoor air quality remains pure. “The air is fresh, free of smoke, pollen, bacteria,” says Wyeth. “If you have allergies, your head clears remarkably quickly.”

A Weathered Rainscreen

One of the defining design elements of the home is the corrugated siding that uses weathered steel. That aesthetic fit a plan to use as much reclaimed material as possible and serves as an earthy contrast the bright colors of the rest of the house.

“We were delighted to try using it out here because there is a lot of salty ocean air,” says Wyeth. “I was curious how quickly the Corten would weather in. It goes really fast. Once that rust surface is on it, it’s amazing how it stops reacting. It’s just waiting for someone to scratch it so it can heal itself. And that rust sheen is just a gorgeous natural color.”

The metal siding also defines the occupancy of the space where it’s used. “There are two strong artistic personalities living in this home,” says Wyeth, “doing different kinds of art and sort of living in separate spaces. The Corten is on the master living suite and is matched on the studio that that artist uses.”

The Reward of The View

“The view to the east across the salt marsh is very long,” says Wyeth. “There are magic hours in a house like this and in this case it’s in the late afternoon when the sun is behind you. It makes the salt marsh glow with the most marvelous warm colors. And that’s when all of nature converges to make the views the best they could possibly be. We have been working so hard to maximize southern exposure on other projects that we have lost sight of the visual magic that is actually in these eastern views. I think both of these artists knew this long before it sunk in for us, and that’s why they loved the site so much.”