If you’re feeling disillusioned by the house plans you’ve seen on the
net, you’re about to feel a whole lot better! Vermont architect Robert
Swinburne creates beautiful, simple structures that are soulful and
nurturing and built with natural materials. While most of his work is
custom designed, there’s a limited range of pre-designed stock plans
available online. In this article, Robert talks about his
influences, the Passive House concept, and creating homes that stand the
test of time.
H: WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE CURRENT STATE OF THE HOUSE
PLAN/STOCK PLAN MARKET? IS IT SOMETHING YOU SEE MORE ARCHITECTS GETTING
RS: There’s a lot of stuff that looks the same as what I was seeing
in the 1970s but there’s a wider variety to choose from. Very little of
it is super-simple though. I see a big hole in the plan market in that
area. I see plan after plan with huge garage doors and gratuitous gables
that the publishers are calling farmhouses. What I don’t see much of is
super-insulated high performance houses such as passive houses. That’s a
tough one because detailing such a house is very specific to particular
materials, regional sites, local building talent etc which is not where
the house plan market is yet. I don’t see a big rush among architects
to jump on board but it’s something we’re aware of.
H: YOU’VE DONE SO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WORK IN YOUR HOME STATE OF VERMONT. HAVE YOU WORKED WITH CLIENTS FROM OTHER PLACES AS WELL?
RS: I have projects across the Northeast. I’m originally from Maine
so I’ve done some things there for family. Rarely in New Hampshire,
often in Vermont and occasionally in New York or Massachusetts. I hold
licenses in VT and MA.
H: BEFORE QUALIFYING AS AN ARCHITECT YOU WERE A BUILDER/CARPENTER. I
CAN IMAGINE THAT WOULD BE A DISTINCT ADVANTAGE – WHAT KIND OF HELP HAS
IT PROVIDED IN YOUR CURRENT WORK?
RS: It gives me a sense of what I can get away with. I better
understand when I put something on paper how much I have to go the extra
mile in talking with contractors and people on the job site. I also
know if [my requests] will just get tossed in the trash. I talk almost
daily with my former employer about building science, detailing, and all
matters related to residential building. Houses are (or should be)
built quite a bit differently now than in the 1990?s when I was a
carpenter, so specific knowledge (how to install a window for example)
H: ON YOUR FACEBOOK PAGE YOU MENTIONED THE WORK OF ARCHITECT WILL
WINKELMAN. ARE THERE ANY OTHER ARCHITECTS OR DESIGNERS WHOSE WORK YOU
RS: Way more than I’ll remember here. I try to put links on my blog
for my own reference. Coldham and Hartman in Massachusetts is doing nice
stuff from a philosophical standpoint. They’re doing low income,
student and co-housing as well as a re-work of other project types, and
the level of care and thoroughness they put into their work is
exemplary. I’ve been a long time fan of Elliot and Elliot in Maine for
their highly refined sensibilities on all levels. Thomas Kundig is
absolutely fascinating and well worth watching. Kaplan Thompson
architects in Maine is doing some nice low energy work. I also really
like what GOLogic, from Maine as well, is doing. They bring a good clean
style to Passive House projects (I think they sell plans too). I’m also
a fan of David Salmela out in the Midwest. Some of these firms I admire
for their design work and some for their attitude.
H: YOU ONCE SAID THE HOLY GRAIL OF ARCHITECTURE MEANS TAKING CLUES
FROM TRADITION BUT NOT BEING A SLAVE TO IT, NOT BEING ANACHRONISTIC. HOW
DOES THAT PRINCIPLE MANIFEST IN YOUR OWN DESIGNS?
RS: Not often enough. There’s a lot of logic and many lessons to be
learned from older houses. Some of it is very applicable and some is
anachronistic. Nostalgia is a powerful influence on what people want so I
try not to ignore it as a design influence but sometimes a client is
overly encumbered by it when it comes to their real needs, wants and
budget and I have to sort that out early on. I try to rise above style
and create architecture that works well, looks and feels right, and
stands the test of time.
H: AND JUST FINALLY, SUSTAINABILITY IS VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU – YOU’RE
A CERTIFIED PASSIVE HOUSE DESIGNER PLUS A MEMBER OF THE US GREEN
BUILDING COUNCIL. DO YOU THINK WE’VE ARRIVED AT A POINT WHERE MOST
PEOPLE EMBRACE THE “GREEN BUILDING” CONCEPT?
RS: Most people are aware of it but don’t really know what it means
or how it can apply to them. It’s seen as an add-on that costs more.
What drew me to the Passive House approach is the aspect
of simplification it entails. It’s more of an editing process based on
very good science and it is, simply, the way we should be building for
longevity. It also reduces our impact on the environment. The trick is
to work that into all the other influences and come up with something
that works well but also satisfies all the other needs.
To see Plan 500-3 shown above click here.
If you’d like more information about Robert and his work, connect here:
See the Robert Swinburne Pinterest board by Houseplanology here
If you’re a fan of Robert Swinburne’s work, you’ll be glad to know he
has additional house plans on the drawing boards (Yay!). Stay tuned for