Home Grown: A Wooden Home in Vermont

More than anything else, the use of local materials—many lifted directly from the site—lend this exquisitely designed Vermont home a solid, organic beauty.

| September/October 2002

When Architect David Sellers received an assignment to build a home in Vermont’s Green Mountains on a sharply sloping, uncleared woodland site, he didn’t hesitate to take on the difficult project. In fact, he thought of it as an exciting chance to flesh out his ideas for reducing both the eyesore factor and the environmental impacts of building in a relatively unspoiled setting. It didn’t hurt that the client offered what every architect dreams of—a nearly unlimited timeline and a great deal of budgetary and creative control. Sellers had already proved his mettle: Named one of the world’s 100 foremost architects by Architectural Digest, he had achieved recognition for his emphasis on designing with nature as well as his work with pedestrian and human-scale settlement patterns. The prospective homeowner did give Sellers a few important guiding principles: He asked that the home reflect the Japanese architectural traditions he’d come to love through visits to his daughter-in-law’s homeland—simple, natural materials and a connection to the surrounding environment—and he wanted trees to be in the forefront of the design.

A dainty footprint

Sellers began to plot a scheme for a structure that would seem to grow right out of the hillside. “We tried to leave the immediate surroundings wild. There’s no lawn or garden, just a few native plants for minimal landscaping,” he remarks. “An inch away from the house is wilderness.”

Sellers carefully considered all of the treasures that clearing the existing site would offer up, from huge stone slabs to stately, solid trees. He explains, “It’s like a game of rock, paper, scissors. You look at the choices available to you, all of which might work, and consider factors like aesthetics and embodied energy. Perhaps the first choice involves very low embodied energy and is essentially free because it’s found on-site. The second choice might be economical as well because it’s mass-produced, but it involves a whole lot of embodied energy because of manufacture and transportation. Then you have to think about what other materials you’ll have to use to go along with it. For example, if you put in milled two-by-fours, you have to use a lot of other materials to cover them up and support them, and that involves more embodied energy.”

Once local stone and salvaged trees were selected as the major building materials, Sellers created a design that relied on unsawn timber as the structure’s vertical supports. Construction began in 1996, but the house wasn’t completed until two years later. Rick Moore, the contractor, had to throw out all conventional timetables and procedures and give in to the demands of the site. “The land was so hard to work on,” he says. “We had to start at one end and work to the other, piece by piece, in a sort of backwards fashion. All the retaining walls and landscaping were done before we started on the house. The framework of the tree supports was put in place first, and everything was cut with chain saws, so it was slow work. We did the framing through the winter.”

Sellers’s approach to the project was collaborative and organic in nature, to say the least. Moore remembers, “There was never any true architectural drawing, just sketches. They gave us a pretty good idea, but all of the detailing was a surprise. Only the foundation had true blueprints. And Sellers wasn’t working very far ahead of us. We used a clay model as our guide—and we had to resurrect that from the architect’s dumpster.”

Looking at the holistic beauty of the finished project, dubbed “The Tree House” because of the extensive use of unsawn timber, one might find this story a bit hard to believe. Yet how could a house that seems so unusually grounded in its place possibly have been created with conventional building practices? The roofline echoes the surrounding ridges and is designed for snow to pile up on its uphill, near-to-the-ground side so the house blends in with the winter environment. As Sellers explains it, “It’s designed so that, when the roof is covered with snow in the winter, you can’t even see it from that side.”

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