Of paleontology and excellence in Vermont architecture

Waitsfield residence. Photo courtesy of Maclay Architects

Don’t call William Maclay, the venerable Waitsfield architect who came to the Green Mountain State more than 40 years ago from the University of Pennsylvania, and whose firm just won two awards for excellence in Vermont architecture, a dinosaur. Call him a dimetrodon.

Well, okay — a dimetrodon is a dinosaur — or, more precisely, a pelycosaur, which actually preceded the dinosaur by a few million years. But the issue is not just paleontology but also beauty and efficiency – or, more precisely, energy efficiency.

Dimetrodons each had a big, spiny sail-like fin on their backs that some experts think were used for heating and cooling. Maclay does not resemble such a creature, but wouldn’t it be grand if a Vermont building looked and worked like that? If Maclay’s firm designed such a building, wouldn’t you want it to get an award for excellence in architecture from the Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects?

Well, that’s what happened. Sort of.

The 2010 edition of the Vermont AIA awards was just concluded and Maclay Architects bagged two of the three honor awards. In both instances, the jurors (a panel of disinterested architects from Massachusetts) looked with favor on so-called “net zero” buildings – projects that are not just sustainable and energy efficient but literally produce at least as much energy as they consume.

The two projects in question are a new field house at the Putney School and a private residence on the Mad River in Moretown, known as the River House. Each is not just sustainable but graceful – even beautiful.

As Wordsworth said, whither is fled the visionary gleam? Or, to paraphrase Danny Sagan, whatever happened to buildings that take us to a place we have never been before?

But – dang. Neither is unprecedented; neither attempts to change the people who live or work within it, and neither sports anything sufficiently outrageous as to merit comparison to that big fin that heats and cools.

For that you have to check out a sprawling and startling structure that Maclay began 40 years ago in Warren along with fellow architects Jim Sanford and Richard Travers, later joined by Sucosh Norton, Ellen Strauss and Hito Coleman. It was called – not surprisingly – Dimetrodon.

You can read all about Dimetrodon in Architectural Improvisation: A History of Vermont’s Design/Build Movement 1964-1977, published by the University of Vermont Press in 2008 to commemorate the exhibition of the same name at the university’s Fleming Museum. As described by the exhibit’s curator, Danny Sagan, Dimetrodon was “designed as a series of giant parallel box-beam trusses” and was “organized around the concept that residents would receive services such as sewer, water, electricity, and heat, and construct their own dwelling in the space between the box beams.” It thus was, as Sagan notes, an early experiment in cohousing – an idea that did not take off in the United States until fully a decade and a half after Maclay, Sanford and Travers started building those giant trusses in Warren.

At least as of the date of Sagan’s essay about this and other Vermont projects of that era, Dimetrodon is still there. It is still home to five co-dwelling households, though the small wind turbine at the spire is long gone.

The point in mentioning it here is not so much to celebrate this achievement in 1970s design, or the fact that it arose out of a genuine and distinctively Vermont architectural movement that was started by the outlandish designer David Sellers, came to be housed at the non-residential Goddard College, and which endures today at the Yestermorrow Design-Build School in Warren. The point is not to suggest there was, and is, something ineffably noble and right about design-build architecture – the notion that the designers actually help build the thing rather than staying in a cubicle somewhere issuing directives to people who actually know how to construct things.

Rather, the point is more simple. As Wordsworth said, whither is fled the visionary gleam? Or, to paraphrase Danny Sagan, whatever happened to buildings that take us to a place we have never been before?

Vermont has long had distinctive architecture, in contrast to New Hampshire where the closest thing to cutting-edge design would be a bas relief by Augustus Saint Gaudens (who died in 1907, though you can still visit his place in Cornish). The design builders who invaded the Mad River Valley in the 1970s were really just following the Vermont tradition of innovation and adaptation that gave the Vermont landscape such archetypal structures as the monitor barn and the connected farm house.

The Putney School’s field house is an endearing physical presence, but so is an old-fashioned bowling alley, which it resembles. Memo to Maclay and his client: Don’t write me to complain about this.

Putney field house. Photo courtesy of Bill Maclay

The Putney School’s field house is an endearing physical presence, but so is an old-fashioned bowling alley, which it resembles. Memo to Maclay and his client: Don’t write me to complain about this. Let’s stipulate that the architects have done a fine job of fitting the bowling alley archetype into the unique setting of the Putney School, which was originally just a farm and is now a farm and private secondary school. Let’s also stipulate that by commissioning its award-winning new field house the Putney School perpetuates a deserved reputation as, dollar-for-dollar, the most enlightened institutional client in Vermont. The school’s Currier Center for the Performing Arts, designed by the renowned Boston-area architect Charles Rose, is the best non-residential building in Vermont so far this century. Completed in 2004, it went unnoticed by the Vermont AIA awards because it is the work of an out-of-state architect.

Let’s also stipulate that a truly beautiful aspect of the Field House project was on vivid display in the latest issue of the school’s magazine for alumni and friends. It is a negative energy bill – i.e., a net payment, since Vermont law allows such things – that the Putney School received in connection with the building. That the Putney School is able to pull off stuff like this without wrecking the stark and distinctive character of its farm-centered campus is worthy of an architectural lifetime achievement award.

Residential projects are harder to assess because they are, by definition, private. But from the pictures available on the Maclay Architects web site one can readily ascertain that the River House is money well-spent by its owners. Stone that came directly from the site is the dominant material, the roof is covered in sedum (a flowering plant), and inside there is timber framing of lavish (but decidedly un-Vermont) Douglas fir. An array of photovoltaics is separate from the house itself – a choice that presumably made the home more comfortably beautiful (by avoiding the siting constraints solar panels impose) but also an approach that suggests a small bit of cheating on the net-zero claim insofar as much of the energy production is technically not coming from the house itself.

This is not a historicist dwelling but neither is it unfamiliar in its overall form and look to those who read architectural magazines and know about famous non-Vermont designers like James Cutler or, indeed, the aforementioned Charles Rose. Familiarity should not necessarily breed awards.

Union Square, Gossens Bachman Architects

That excellence was equated almost entirely with virtue by the Vermont AIA jury this time around is confirmed by the third honor award, to Gossens Bachman Architects for its Union Square project, a renovation of what was once known as the NAMCO Block, in Windsor. This iconic early 1920s structure and its undulating brick façade were something of a notorious icon in the former mill town, where it had become (not to put too fine a point on it) a giant (as in 85,000 square foot) slum. Originally built as worker housing, the place was rehabbed in 1989 as a low-income housing project known as Armory Square. Now the place is beautiful again as well as energy efficient. The 72 units have been pared to 58.

With apologies to Gossens Bachman, if there is truly excellence here (as distinct from a deft and competent redesign and rehabilitation of a 90-year-old building) the award should go to Senator Patrick Leahy.

With apologies to Gossens Bachman, if there is truly excellence here (as distinct from a deft and competent redesign and rehabilitation of a 90-year-old building) the award should go to Senator Patrick Leahy (who procured a federal grant for the project), NeighborWorks America (which provided below-market financing through a Vermont affiliate, the Rockingham Area Community Land Trust), Housing Vermont (a participating developer of low-income housing), all of the state’s electric customers (who helped pay for weatherization and other energy efficiency measures through Efficiency Vermont), and perhaps others whose contributions cannot be readily ascertained.

The award to Union Square raises the question of what would truly be design excellence in this context. At least a tentative answer would be: A project that manages to persuade not just low-income Vermonters (through economic necessity) but Vermonters from all non-agricultural walks of life that apartment living in village or urban settings is far more responsible, and far more likely to preserve the Vermont rural character we all say we want to preserve, than hiring Maclay Architects or Gossens Bachman to design a sumptuous residence on many acres of land, however well those two firms can execute such projects.

In other words, Vermont, those who design its buildings, and those who bestow awards on those designs, need to reach back to rediscover the time, epitomized by projects like the Dimetrodon, when the task of architecture, as Alain de Botton suggested in The Architecture of Happiness, was “to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” Otherwise, we risk just honoring dinosaurs.

Donald M. Kries is an associate director of the Institute of Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School.

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  • I’ve always thought that it’s one of the enduring ironies of living in Vermont that the best people to appreciate what we have going on here are the people outside looking in. It also appears to be the norm that those most able to capitalize from Vermont’s brand equities are those who come from the outside; the lad from NJ who makes coin from being the logger, the first generation VT individual who banks from 7th Generation virtues, the two NYC lads who’ve emblazened the world with Woody Jackson cows are but a few of the many archetypes.

    As someone who sits astride the fence of “in” and “out” culture (I’ve spent as much time in each of NYC and Tokyo as I have in Vermont, while maintaining disproportionate pride in being a direct descendant of a Green Mountain Boy), the phenomena has always mystified me. Perhaps it shouldn’t.

    So it is with our architecture. We rely on the raw innovation and thrust of innovative lions such as David Sellars to define our own vernaculars. And we revel in the national awards given to us for the work we build for well heeled second home owners who have the wherewithal — and, to be fair, the Insight, sensitivities and passion — to commission the works that strive to define ever greater degrees of sustainability (at $1,000,000 a house).

    Sigh. Forgive me for finding those awards saddening, in that the best architecture in Vermont appears to be entirely unaffordable to the common Vermonter. Can we challenge the VTAIA to create a category for sustainable work for $200,000?

  • Dear Mr. Kreis,

    Although your praise wasn’t among the design parameters for The Putney School’s Field House or Michael S. Currier Center, we do appreciate your appreciation. After a year of monitoring, our net-zero Field House has used 48,374 kWh of electricity while the sun-tracking photovoltaic cells that power it have produced 51,371 kWh. Because of the differential in the price of energy we used compared to the green energy we produced, our final electric bill this year was roughly $3800 of credit.

    We’re also hoping to win a LEED Platinum award from the U.S. Green Building Council soon (things are a bit busy at the USGBC these days, which is also good news) because it makes no sense to create a huge carbon crater on the way to achieving net-zero energy.

    Like the private residence you mention in your story, our photovoltaics are also not part of the building itself, but arrayed in the yard. Net-zero is achieved by balancing siting, passive solar, insulation, and other aspects of the envelope with the systems used to light, heat, and circulate air in the building. If you think our bowling alley looks funny now, imagine it bristling with solar cells to satisfy some notion of fair play.

    But, more to the point, we have proven that a net-zero institutional building can work at this latitude and hope that the price of doing so goes down as efficiencies in construction increase over time so that more institutions will follow our lead. We didn’t build the thing to win awards or editorial praise. We want everybody to copy us from now on. More information and real-time performance data are available at http://www.putneyfieldhouse.org.

    Thank you,

    Don Cuerdon
    Director of Communications
    The Putney School

  • Dear Don Cuerdon and colleagues at the Putney School:

    I am grateful for the clarification to the effect that your new field house, like the other Maclay project that received an excellence award, suffers from the (admittedly hypertechnical) net-zero defect of having a photovoltaic array that is not actually part of the building.

    More importantly, though I appreciate your appreciation of my appreciation, I feel obliged to point out a logical fallacy in your rebuttal. I refer to the fact that your comments twice profess an indifference to critical scrutiny — assertions that sandwich the news that you are seeking a LEED Platinum designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. Though the USGBC standards for LEED Platinum are considerably less subjective than those applied by the Vermont Chapter of the AIA, in both instances the net result (or perhaps I should say the net zero result?) is something you can hang in the lobby of the building and add to the Putney School’s promotional materials. Indeed, as to the LEED certification, one might plausibly ask why you didn’t make the building even more energy efficient by taking the considerable sum you invested in your LEED application and spending it on even more measures to reduce net energy consumption.

    I regard net-zero as largely a technological feat and would reserve awards for architectural excellence for projects that achieve something new and remarkable in the artistic sense. An occasion for dancing in the streets would be a project that combines the beauty of what Charles Rose gave you with the efficiency of what Bill Maclay and colleagues designed for you. No institutional client seems better poised to do that than the Putney School, whenever you next happen to need a new building for your campus.

    In any event, as your first sentence implies, my critical praise (or disapproval) is of no consequence. I’m just someone who likes buildings, likes to write, and likes to combine the two so as, perhaps, to instill an appreciation of buildings in others.

    • Dear Mr. Kreis,

      Ah, would that we could attract potential students with a USGBC LEED platinum rating, but the admission director assures me that’s not the case. Not yet, anyway. I’d love to live in that world.

      Our current strategic plan left us little wiggle room for anything less than seeking LEED platinum for our Field House. One of our “Indicators of Progress” in our strategic commitment to sustainability is “A commitment by the board and administration to the highest environmental standards for all new construction.”

      For the Field House, the board interpreted that commitment as net-zero energy and LEED platinum, since the USGBC is the current standard bearer and net-zero was within the realm of possibility. That made more sense to us than declaring our own standards in lieu of the LEED certification. And, yes, it is expensive to apply. And, no, we still don’t have the thing in hand. It’s a thorough process.

      But we hear you on the aesthetics. A Prius is nice, but a sustainable Lamborghini Countach is much more attractive. We did what we could with what we had. I’m sure you’ve seen an uglier gym building. But there are nicer looking ones as well. Here’s hoping that the next net-zero, LEED platinum gym is gorgeous. It’ll help sell the next one.

      Thanks, again, for taking notice.



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