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Discovering the Joy of Living Well at the Garden Atriums

Focused on health and community engagement, developers Stuart Rose and Trina Duncan create a sanctuary for themselves and others through their Garden Atriums community in Poquoson, Virginia.

| March/April 2013

  • The residents use the community space in various ways depending on their family members. The children love running through the park and playing by the pond, whereas teens play sports and adults walk pets.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Trina says the home's gigantic central skylight has helped her connect more closely with the rhythms of the sun and moon and improved her sleep.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • The bedroom opens onto the home's central atrium, offering stunning views.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Stu and Trina's neighbors are two young twins who love running on the trails and picking the fresh fruits that grow in the orchard.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Stu and Trina's dining room table is surrounded by growing plants, some of which make their way into the dishes they prepare.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Waterways offer the opportunity for small boats and fishing.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • The homes' exteriors are beautifully landscaped.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • A community farmer grows fresh produce that everyone in the Garden Atriums enjoys. At Saturday morning "Market Time," residents gather to pick up their produce and chat.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • A gazebo offers a relaxing spot to rest near the water.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Some of Stu and Trina's favorite plants growing inside the atrium include their orange and lemon trees, which provide food as well as beautiful blooms and scents. Because of its many hours of sunlight—even in winter—the atrium is an ideal environment for tropical plants.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Just steps away from growing fruits, the kitchen was made with materials that won't offgas chemicals into the air.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • The atrium in each Garden Atriums home seamlessly connects with all the other rooms.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Garden Atriums includes a shared space that features an aquaculture pond.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino
  • Daily walks on the trails help Trina and Stu connect with nature and relax.
    Photo By Tony Giammarino

What are the components of healthy living? Although that wasn’t necessarily what Stuart W. Rose and Trina C. Duncan set out to discover when they built their home in Poquoson, Virginia, their sustainable housing project ended up revealing the answers: namely, healthy air, fresh food and a commitment to finding joy.

About 10 years ago, when they realized we were on course to burn out the planet’s resources if we didn’t change our ways, Stuart (who goes by Stu) and Trina wanted to do something to be part of the solution. Because Stu is an architect and Trina got her undergraduate degree in interior design, they decided to build the most sustainable home they could—for themselves and others. Leaving their home in Washington, D.C., the couple moved to Poquoson, where they would develop the sustainable living community Garden Atriums—starting with a home for themselves.

Garden of Health

Wanting the most efficient home possible, Stu and Trina superinsulated the house and nixed exterior windows on the north side to block cold winter wind and hot summer sun. But they also wanted the interior spaces to be sunny, which led them to the idea of building a garden atrium—a light-filled space in the center of the home filled with plants.

The atrium became the focal point for the entire home. But more than bringing in sunshine and beautiful plants, the atrium made for a much healthier home, something the couple hadn’t anticipated, but something Trina desperately needed.

Having suffered a debilitating illness throughout childhood, Trina had a weakened immune system and is sensitive to chemical exposure. She hoped to improve her health by choosing materials that wouldn’t offgas into their home’s interior, such as zero-VOC paint, solid-wood cabinetry and dye-free wool carpet. Trina and Stu also sourced locally as much as possible. “We wanted to be able to say, ‘Oh, we got this at your local whatever store,’ so people could see that building this way is easy,” Trina says.

While those choices were crucial to improving their home’s air, installing the atrium—which they chose for its efficiency and aesthetic qualities—may actually have had the biggest effect on air quality. “Somebody visiting our house made the comment that these plants have got to be really good for the air, so we hired a toxicologist to come see,” Stu says. “He has these devices for testing carbon dioxide and oxygen content, but without even measuring he said, ‘My gosh, you have an oxygenated environment.’ When he measured, we ran about 300 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide, which is about the same as outside air. Most houses run between 1,000 ppm and 1,500 ppm, and over 1,500 is when you have rashes and other problems. Our oxygen levels are two to three times higher than outside air!”

audrey p
3/28/2013 12:17:14 AM

I have been wanting to build an atrium home for a few years now. It is beautiful.

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