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



children on dock

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

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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