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Monday28 July 2014

Pull House in Vermont by Procter Rihl

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Procter Rihl’s Pull House sits amid the maple trees of rural New England and creates an architecture to match the region’s progressive politics.

Born in America and Brazil respectively, Chris Procter and Fernando Rihl both trained in the UK and have built up an impressive body of work over the last 15 years, notably the tough, seductive Slice House in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which won the RIBA Overseas Award in 2005 (Works July 8, 2005). Together, they run a practice that straddles both sides of the Atlantic, working at varying scales from furniture, architecture to urban design. They teach respectively construction technology and a design studio at the Royal College of Art.

Pull House is a house for Procter’s mother, who has recently returned from the UK to enjoy her retirement in rural Vermont. Procter himself acted as general contractor for concentrated periods, drawing on his experience as a foreman and joiner. Visiting the house with him, you recognise both the personal and professional achievement this represents.

The house is located in the hills above Brattleboro, 100 miles west of Boston. As we drive out on Route 2, the tarmac ahead cleaves through Western Massachusetts’ densely forested mountains basking in the late summer heat. The sky is wider, brighter, higher: we are not in Clerkenwell anymore!

Pull House is set on a 1.2ha rectangular plot off an old logging trail, in a clearing of maple trees. The plot falls steeply to the east, to the Connecticut River below, with the mountains of New Hampshire rising across the valley. The mournful wail of the Vermonter train passing below briefly interrupts the crickets and the rustling maple leaves, reminding us of the distant cities it serves.

Procter Rihl has distilled the traditional Vermont-style barn or ’salt box’ to create a near-Platonic voume

This is a progressive place: Vermont was the first US state to abolish slavery; it pioneered recycling legislation in the 1960s, and voted in favour of same-sex civil unions in 2000. The town of Brattleboro’s planning department encourages the diversity of its high street. Starbucks and Wal-Mart are kept away and “big box” stores are limited in size; a
co-operative supermarket stocked with local produce thrives. A more community-centric, idealistic version of American capitalism is at work here, so it is disappointing that most local architects’ work seems focused on historic renovation, pastiche or lowbrow modernism. Pull House feels a bold intervention.

Procter Rihl has distilled the traditional Vermont-style barn or “salt box” to create a near-Platonic volume; pulling the south-west corner of the traditionally rectilinear pitched roof south and east – hence the building’s name.

This move allows for a larger interior living space, south of the roof’s ridgeline. Externally it provides the building with a more sculptural relationship with its surroundings.

View east over the valley, showing the west elevation’s grey timber.

View east over the valley, showing the west elevation’s grey timber.

The external cladding comprises three elements. Firstly, dark blue-black stained timber wraps the north and eastern elevations. The boards are vertically hung ship-lapped rough-sawn pine, as is standard for barn siding here. The timbers’ colour brings to mind the dark trunks of the surrounding maples; which together with the flush set, minimally framed windows create a laconic, taught surface. Secondly, a standing-seam aluminium roof wraps over from the north elevation, folding down to become a vertical rain screen on the south. This is sliced into, to make a shaded opening for a balcony to the kitchen and bedroom below. And thirdly, the faceted west elevation is again clad in vertical timbers, this time painted a pale grey, providing a more inviting counterpoint to the darker elevations.

It is easy to make comparisons with other “dirty” or “stealth” houses that have been in vogue in the UK. But here the darkness seems appropriately iconoclastic, when juxtaposed with its picturesque white-painted neighbours. The colour also serves a functional purpose, to maximise solar gains in the winter.

The entrance lies within a single-storey recess that has been cut into the western gable-end – a device that protects the visitor from snow shedding. A carport is planned here that will form a roof terrace connection to the forest above.

Entering the hallway, we encounter a long view down a dark corridor towards the kitchen table and the mountains beyond. To one side lies a wet room and the client’s bedroom; to the other we discover the soaring expanse of the living room. The diagonals of the plan and soffit give this compact room a particularly dramatic quality.

Views are carefully framed throughout. Here in the living room an intimate space is created where the south-western corner of the soffit reaches its nadir, and a low-level window offers a view back to the dirt-track approach. One imagines sitting here, waiting for car lights in the falling snow. The living room gives way to the kitchen tucked into the eastern corner of the plan, and to the triangular balcony, which opens out over the valley.

The floors to the ground floor “public” areas are in float finished coloured concrete. The red-oak stair is wrapped in horizontal southern yellow pine boards, as are the kitchen walls, the
cupboards, the dining space and, up to high level, the living room. Stained in four colours, the boards create a rustic core to the otherwise white interior. There may not be a traditional open fireplace here, but this material envelops the visitor in a dark, warm, scented embrace.

The design aims to meet Passivhaus standards, whereby ambient temperatures are maintained all year round without recourse to electrical or fossil-fuel energy input. That is a tall order here, where average temperatures range 40°C over the year, compared to just 20°C in London. The project has already achieved a five-star energy efficiency award as part of Vermont’s Energy Star programme, but will only achieve Passivhaus status when solar roof panels have been installed to provide the radiant floor heat.

Pull House is “super insulated”. Structural insulated timber panels (SIPs) make up the walls, comprising a sandwich of 200mm extruded polystyrene foam glue-laminated between standard sized sheets of OSB board (U=0.142). In the loft, a 35mm extruded polystyrene foam sheathing is fixed across the underside of the trusses with 600mm of shredded cellulose blown above between the trusses (U=0.079).

Window openings are few and carefully sized and positioned to minimise both heat loss and heat gain. Overhangs to the south elevation limit direct sunlight to the interior during the summer (we are at the same latitude as Nice). The architect sourced energy-efficient – but delectably slender – fibreglass frames from Accurate Dorwin, an innovative Canadian company yet to break into the European market. These are foam-filled pultruded, with triple glazed low-E glass and argon gas.

The house uses a Passivhaus heat recovery ventilation system, made by Venmar, to provide fresh air to the rooms because the house is so tightly sealed there is little or no infiltration when the windows are closed. Warm moist air from the kitchen and bathrooms exhausts through the HRV unit and preheats cold incoming air, which is supplied to the living and bedrooms.

Elegant yet simple details reveal the architects’ care for the end-user

To cope with the severe winters, the architect provided radiant heat in the basement and ground floor concrete slabs with a small on demand electric heater, which will become the backup once solar panels are installed. The exposed concrete of the ground floor and basement provide thermal mass for summer tempering. The upper floors’ only heat comes from the heated towel rails in the bathrooms.

Procter Rihl drew on readily available local skills and technology to provide rapid, cost-effective construction solutions. The prefabricated SIPs were cut in a local factory to the architect’s cad files, and were erected within nine days, once the concrete basement walls and foundations had cured. A truss roof system was procured to limit cost. A local contractor, who had recently refurbished the roof of the nearby West Dummerston covered bridge, completed the standing-seam roof. The building was weather-tight in four months; relatively slow compared to local prefabrication standards.

The careful internal detailing reveals simple planes of material, texture and light which marry with the external planar aesthetic. The flush door frames and frameless window openings are let down by the slightly heavy wall-mounted skirting. However, considering the local skills available, the minimal detailing achieved is a triumph.

There are several elegant yet simple details that reveal the architects’ care for construction and the end-user: the balcony handrails are angled timber flats, with a levelled top edge which dissolves from the view when at close hand; the T-section handrail to the stairs provides a reassuringly firm grip for less able visitors; and the kitchen table, which repeats the proportions of the adjacent window, rests on L-section timber legs which appear so thin as to make the table almost float.

To date, the house has been delivered for £240,000 including land and construction costs. At the time of my visit the master bathroom was awaiting completion, and I look forward to seeing how the building will incorporate the proposed carport, terraced landscaping and solar collectors.

Regardless of these quibbles, I suspect the client will particularly enjoy the coming months, with front-row seats for one of nature’s great displays. The house sits like a dark jewel set among these trees, a transatlantic confluence of conceptual thinking and pragmatism.

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