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The Sugar Bush House in Putney was recently honored by the Vermont Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for its innovative design and construction.

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Putney house project wins architecture award

Bob Swinburne believes in collaboration from start to finish in his ‘high performance’ homes, one of which has earned accolades from the American Institute of Architects

PUTNEY—For architect Robert “Bob” Swinburne, the design process starts with collaboration from day one and carries throughout every project.

So much so that he’s named his practice Bluetime Collaborative to reflect his cooperative approach.

“‘Bluetime’ is the winter twilight time when I am in my office working hard or going for a snowshoe and the world here turns a quiet and luminescent blue before it gets dark,” Swinburne says. “This is an especially focusing and productive time of day for me, when I begin my transition from work to family.”

“Bluetime Collaborative represents the evolution of my firm toward a more integrated and holistic approach to design and construction where all collaborators are involved with all aspects of a project from start to finish,” he continues.

The result, he says, “is a higher quality project with a greater degree of accountability and control for the client, the builder, and myself.”

That quality is reflected in a 2021 award in the single-family residential category from the Vermont Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for Swinburne’s firm and Mindel and Morse Builders of Brattleboro, the contractor for the winning project.

That was not the only headline news for Swinburne last year. He was also diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, which has caused him to be more selective in the work he chooses to take on. He may or not ultimately be a candidate for a bone marrow transplant.

“It makes me realize how lucky I am,” writes Swinburne in his blog. “This business is equal parts product, process, and relationships. I want my clients to become my friends. How can I design for someone I don’t like and value and am interested in and want to spend more time with? I also want them to be my most ardent sales force.”

“I want to use each project as a stepping stone to the next and not just tick off the projects, do the work, and move on,” he continues.

“This is a fairly recent realization and also a sort of business model,” he says. “The emotional investment I put into my work is very important in that it allows me to do my best work, which is what people are paying me for.”

“I guess I am not — or no longer — a commodity architect. I am a boutique architect, as much as I hate that term. Although there is still the aspect where I really can’t say ‘no’ sometimes, but I’m getting better at curating. The cancer has really forced that.”

The process

Swinburne, who moved to Vermont after architecture school, lives in Halifax, “in a little house with a big barn, lots of woods, a wife, two kids, and assorted animals.”

He says he focuses on rural New England homes and emphasizes “excellent plans, emotionally uplifting spaces, low energy use, tactile and locally sourced materials, and a very collaborative process.”

“Designing and building a new house in Vermont is very much about the people involved in this intense and personal act of creation,” Swinburne says.

He notes that the state has a history of “back-to-the-landers coming together to raise the frame for a new house and all the social aspects inherent in that event.”

“The community that comes out of that carries forward through the lives of the people involved and the life of the home as well,” he says.

Swinburne says that while the traditional architect-led design and building process works for some, high performance homes such as he designs “require a high-performance process.”

That process “requires an integrated team from day one...before the design sketches start to fly,” he says. “Ideally, the builder becomes part of the team very early in the design process to help vet the design for cost, detailing, and buildability.”

Swinburne defines a high performance home as one that uses low energy during construction and results in low monthly bills, that values “function and feel” over square footage, that is easy to live in, that maximizes air quality and interior comfort, that is designed for those who live in it, and that provides “beauty and simplicity.”

Sugar Bush House designed to ‘settle into the wooded landscape’

In the case of the Sugar Bush House, client Nancy Waterhouse lived in a traditional home with outbuildings and gardens but wanted something smaller and easier to care for — somewhere she could age in place.

“I felt I needed a plan for how I could live independently for the long-term and still have a home that was something I could manage relatively easily, and that felt special,” says Waterhouse.

When Swinburne first visited the 5-acre sugarbush the client had bought, he said he was “impressed with how neat it was.”

“It had been managed as a woodlot for the production of timber and maple syrup,” he says. “The lines and patterns of the trees were very strong. The ground gently rolls with a general tilt toward the East and a seasonal view through the trees of the rising sun and moon. With a layer of snow on the ground, the shadows of the trees created a very strong purple rhythm across the snow.”

Swinburne’s initial instinct, he says, was “to create something simple and humble that would age in place and settle into the wooded landscape.”

“The woodlot where the house lives consists of sugar maples, black locust, and a smattering of other trees,” says the architect. “The lines and shadows were all very vertical and visually striking, so I thought I could use that to create a dialogue between the house and the forest.”

That dialogue “shows up most obviously in the vertical siding with ‘fins’ that provide strong shadows that change throughout the day and seasons,” he adds.

Swinburne likes to use southern Vermont’s abundant forests whenever he can. He had been experimenting with how to use local wood from local mills for years and realized the Sugar Bush House “might represent an opportunity to explore this hyperlocal aspect more fully than ever before.”

It did.

The house is sheathed with locally harvested pine boards; the carport and porch are framed with hemlock lumber harvested and milled locally; the porch decking is black locust from the site; the siding is local hemlock that will gradually turn gray; the sugar maple windowsills, black cherry stair treads, and locust decking all came from the property; and the maple flooring also comes from the site, along with Vermont slate.

Inside out

Swinburne calls the home’s interior “an exploration of how to live in concert with the daily changes of the environment outside the windows while supporting the changing physical and emotional needs of the person or people living within.”

“Windows and doors are not just for connecting to the outdoors,” says the poetic architect. “They are about the changing patterns of light and how that plays with the interior. They are about opening up to the sounds of the forest and closing tightly to protect from a raging winter storm. They are about highlighting selective vignettes of the surrounding forest. They are about letting breezes through on a warm summer night.”

To that end, each window and window arrangement is carefully tuned to create a relationship with the outside and the light.

Waterhouse, the owner, says one of her favorite features of the finished product is the way the windows are placed specifically to frame elements of the natural world outside.

“Each season brings dramatic change in the views but always there are the shadows of the trees on the grass or snow,” she says. “I think of it as a sanctuary that brings the outdoor world inside.”

An inglenook provides a cozy place by wood stove. The loft bedroom feels to be in the trees and breezes. The downstairs library is private and cozy, and it can be repurposed as a bedroom for one-floor-accessible living.

For Swinburne and his team, its sustainability is as important as aesthetics. The Sugar Bush House is certified with the Passive House Institute U.S.

“With an eye toward a smaller and perhaps even carbon-negative footprint, the builder bought reused foam for the foundation, used rough board for sheathing rather than oriented strand board or plywood, used local hemlock siding material, and used low embodied energy/carbon material [cellulose] for insulation,” says Swinburne.

Partners in the Sugar Bush House included Mindel and Morse Builders, Sawyer, PHIUS Consulting, ARC Mechanical, Flywheel Industrial Arts, Avalon Woodwork, Brilliant Lighting, Zola Windows, and Wärm Form.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #649 (Wednesday, February 2, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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