Mother Earth Living

In Vermont, Passive-Solar That Works

Architect Ted Montgomery keeps his earth-bermed home in the sun.
By Anne McGregor Parsons
July/August 1999
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Vermont architect Ted Montgomery saved a majority of the magnificent trees in the Ten Stones Intentional Community by carefully siting the building.
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Call it a harmonic convergence. For architect Ted Montgomery of Indiana Archi­tecture & Design, the design and construction of his home near Burlington, Vermont, brought together values and passions—and possessions—that date back to his architecture-school thesis and earlier. Ideas about earth-friendly building and community living somehow got combined with such disparate pieces of his past as sculptures of a friend’s feet and the hot-water collector that once fueled “Solar Chow,” a solar-powered food stand he took to anti-nuclear rallies in the 1960s. Throw in stories about the handiwork of his seventy-something parents, whom he credits with influencing his core beliefs about architecture and living, and Montgomery’s unique, low-profile home gives new meaning to the term “personal space.”

“I use two slogans everywhere,” he replies when asked to sum up the architectural philosophy of Indiana Architecture & Design, which the Indiana native started in 1985. “I initiate my software with the slogans and sign letters with them. The first is, ‘Keep your home to the sun.’”

In the case of the 3,000-square-foot passive-solar home he shares with his wife Sarah on a half-acre lot in the Ten Stones Intentional Community—a shared-values housing development—Montgomery’s sun-seeking design began with a carefully chosen site. “We spent several years walking the lot and clearing it gently, trying to save the really magnificent trees. We actually staked out five different designs on the lot.” Montgomery laughs. “I’m my own worst client.”

The heart of the design is a greenhouse-like garden room, and the heart of that room is a proud white ash tree.

He finally settled in 1995 with the help of Sarah, a graphic designer, is a greenhouse-like garden room. And the heart of that room is a proud white ash tree. “We really rallied around that tree,” says Montgomery. “In fact, we designed the garden room so we could keep it.”

The garden room is the centerpiece of its energy-saving design. “Passive solar is the intent of the garden room,” he says. “At the moment it’s very low-tech.” In winter, the sun streams through the greenhouse-style roof and, “if it feels warm, I open the French doors, then go upstairs and open the doors there, too. The hot air rises and rushes into the upstairs rooms, and the cold air tumbles down the stairs. The house uses the natural convection of the air.”

Despite reducing heating costs by 25 percent during the famously frosty Vermont winters and providing a place where hardy geraniums grow year-round, the garden room remains a work in progress. “We’re planning to craft a canvas awning that rolls down to shade the room in summer,” says Montgomery—though the summer canopy of surrounding trees has a good start on that job. It also will serve as an interior insulating quilt.

“And we’re planning to place some photovoltaic cells on the roof,” he adds, plotting a potentially active-solar future for his house. “We’d also like to start growing more vegetables—letting the garden room be as useful as it is pretty. And a hot tub seems like a natural addition, either wood-fired or wood-assisted.” As he ponders hot tub possibilities, Mont­gomery, who admits to “trying to be innovative at every turn,” begins con­cocting an almost Rube Goldberg-style system involving plastic tubing and pedaling an exercise bike.

“I actually designed something we would live in that reflects my architectural philosophy.”

Follow the sun

Architect Ted Montgomery of Vermont’s Indiana Architecture & Design is a strong solar advocate. “Passive solar is something I’ve been beating the drum for for many years,” he says. Montgomery carefully designed the pattern of his home’s air circulation to take best advantage of the warmth collected from the sun by a central greenhouse-style garden room.

Energy savings

The name may sound anything but active, but passive solar design can be an energy-saving workhorse, using the natural properties of the sun and earth to help keep a home’s temperature comfortably mild year-round—with savings of 25 percent or more.

The primary goals of passive solar are essentially two­fold: maximizing solar collection and minimizing heat loss.

Maximizing solar collection includes the following features:

• Walls and windows of a home should be oriented to take advantage of the free solar energy that streams in south-facing windows.

• Because the sun is low in the sky in winter and high in summer, wide eaves, awnings, or an overhang over southern windows allow the sun’s rays to penetrate when it’s cold and offer shade when it’s hot.

• Skylights help bring sunlight into otherwise dark areas and often create bright and cheery interiors.

Minimizing heat loss includes the following features:

• Passive-solar homes are designed with few windows on the north, and often reduce or eliminate windows on the east and west as well.

• Insulation is an important factor for retaining warm air in winter and cool air in summer. Some home sites allow the earth itself to work as a thermal mass, with the north side of a home built right into a hillside.

• Air circulation also helps keep temperatures stable by moving a home’s air from hot areas to cool and vice versa—sometimes using fans, skylights that open, or high clerestory windows that take advantage of the natural law “hot air rises.”

Cost savings

Building a solar-savvy home doesn’t have to cost more than building a traditional home. “This house was built at $43 a square foot, not including my labor,” says architect Mont­gomery of his passive-solar home, “and we’re talking about a house with 7-inch-thick insulated walls, Pella windows, and in-floor radiant heating.”

For more information on solar designs, check out the ­following websites. The Department of Energy site shows some interesting case studies of the cost of passive-solar homes, both new construction and remodels—including North Philadelphia rowhouses, a North Carolina country home, and a Santa Fe adobe.

• American Solar Energy Society’s website at www.ases.org/solar 

• Solar Energy International’s website at www.solarenergy.org 

• United States Department of Energy’s website at www.eren.doe.gov 

Still, as it stands, “the garden room is the main solar collection device in the house.” As a result, the trunk of the ash tree inside the room leafs out as early as March, even as its upper branches remain wintry outside. “You enter the room in February, and it’s filled with the smell of the earth,” Mont­gomery says. “It’s good for the soul.”

To reinforce the garden room’s passive-solar role, Montgomery bermed earth around the north, east, and west sides of the house to prevent heat transfer “and to reduce the scale of the house,” he says. “I like a house that really nestles into the ground.”

Inside the south-facing, garden-room window, Montgomery has stacked up about 150 five-pound cans full of high-performance salt. The cans of salt work as a solar storage device. As the sun heats the cans, the salt melts. As the room cools, the salt releases the heat.

Nontoxic and natural

All of Montgomery’s material choices, too, were deliberate. “We used ­nontoxic materials whenever possible,” he says. Cellulose insulation—“which has a fair amount of recycled paper content”—helps keep temper­atures stable, and the roof is prefinished metal—“no tarpaper, no black petroleum goo.”

Some of the trees cleared from the site—and mature trees come as close as six feet, giving the house the “grown-in” look of a much older home—became part of the house itself. “That used to be the way things were done,” Montgomery says. “You cleared trees for a house, then used them to build with. We cut some ash trees into 8-foot logs, then I had someone with a Wood Miser—a portable sawmill—cut them into slabs before we dried and planed them. During one visit from my parents, they offered to help, so I gave my mother the sanding block and my dad the bandsaw. There they were, ages seventy-six and seventy-seven, making ­windowsills.”

Arts and crafts

Idea-man Montgomery gives even straightforward materials an interesting spin. Take the home’s concrete floors. “As an architect I’ve seen lots of concrete floors, though not often for residential use. When I first told Sarah I wanted to try them, she said, ‘Concrete? Like the garage floor?’” But after she saw a friend’s concrete floors, stained to look “like leather,” he says, “she went for it.” Mont­gomery used an acid-based stain on their concrete slab to create a richly variegated look they call “Montgomery Marble.”

“It is easy being green...it’s just a different way of looking at things. It’s not an expense, it’s an attitude.”

The cost-effective exterior plywood siding got a similar arty update when Montgomery decided on a sponge finish for a subtle marble/granite trompe l’oeil effect. “I custom-painted 125 eight-foot strips of plywood,” he says. “It was very challenging to make certain the finish looked random—I had to crank up the rock-and-roll and dance as I painted.” Indeed, the home’s interior cabinetry and much of the furniture suggest dance with flowing curvilinear forms and seren­dipitous cutouts. “Fun was the operative word,” Montgomery says of his wall-to-wall design effort.

The design centerpiece of the house is the root-like organic look of the copper stair railing. Mont­gomery began creating the artful piece with copper, his favorite material, which had already successfully premiered as kitchen countertops. “The copper was actually cost-effective,” he says of the countertops, “and it’s a living material, always changing. It has an affordable kind of elegance.” The same rich-tone metal makes a showing in a spice rack that incorporates two sculptured “feet” given to him by a dear friend from Cleveland. “I believe they’re actually modeled from her feet,” he says.

Eventually, eyeing the staircase and putting pen to paper, Montgomery fashioned his railing from off-the-rack copper tubing that he manipulated with “a tube bender I borrowed from the local hardware store.”

Community context

The Montgomerys are residents of the Ten Stones Intentional Community, thirteen families who make joint decisions about the buildings and the eighty-eight acres—seventy-eight of which are shared open space—that comprise Ten Stones. The community plans some communal buildings and outdoor spaces in the future. “I had been interested in the idea of community living since my senior thesis,” says Mont­gomery, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati architecture program in 1972. Centered on a community combining permanent, seasonal, and transient space for artists, his thesis explored “all kinds of alternative energy—sun, wind, methane gas—that weren’t really in the mainstream then,” he says.

The development of Ten Stones Intentional Community, its name derived from the name of that hypothetical artists’ community—itself a reference to a Jimi Hendrix song—took a long and winding road that led to a destination different than Mont­gomery first envisioned, but nonetheless to a community of “truly exceptional people. It was,” he says, “a case of people bringing their highest dreams to a location—not just building a house, but truly creating a dream.”

Still, there was the matter of his garage. “My wife and I made a big fuss about not wanting individual garages on the community homes, but with our Vermont winters it became an issue of too far to walk in too much snow.” When the community decided to allow garages, Montgomery’s humor and imagination kicked in and he decided to build, as a sort of protest, “the most subdued, unobtrusive garage ever. I wanted to surround my garage with earth, so I bermed it on two sides and designed metal stairsteps up the roof. Then I went to a turf farm for sod. It hasn’t washed out yet, and the grass is still growing. You can walk right up the roof,” he says of his “SodStairs,” which he may market for other residential uses.

Montgomery’s sense of fun is always fully engaged, but this doesn’t negate his deep feelings for his combination home, project, and sometime design laboratory. “This was the first time I actually designed something we would live in that reflects my values, my architectural philosophy,” he says. “I still get emotional just thinking about it.”

Which brings us back to those two slogans Montgomery says sum up his architectural philosophy and have become a trademark element in everything he does. The first, “Keep your home to the sun,” is clearly evident in his solar-oriented house. And the second? “Design from the heart. Those two concepts guide me all the time.”


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