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River House

With a foundation and retaining walls of local fieldstone, a hefty fir timber frame and soft green stucco, River House blends into its surroundings on the Mad River in Vermont. 

Back in the 1960s, Jonathan Larsen had found a striking piece of land on the site of an old dam on Vermont’s Mad River. In 2007, he and Mary Peacock built a net-zero house here—in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. “I have always been a huge fan, especially of his reverence for wood,” Larsen says. “When it came time to plan a house, I never thought of any other architect to emulate.”

fieldstone fireplace, River House

A magnificent fieldstone fireplace wall dominates the open living room. An especially impressive stone forms the firebox lintel. Fireplace doors slide into hidden pockets.

Peacock and Larsen, both now retired, have distinguished journalism backgrounds. Peacock was one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine in 1972. Her career includes editing stints at Lear’s, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mirabella; then she was part of the launch team of InStyle, and started the style section of the Village Voice. Larsen was the Saigon bureau chief for Time in 1970–71, the editor of New Times until the magazine folded in 1979, and for five years editor of the Village Voice. Jonathan and Mary started dating in 2000.

stone wall, Frank Lloyd Wright

The dining room occupies the far end of the living wing. The reverse side of the stone wall holds the living-room fireplace.

Larsen has studied alternative energy since the 1970s; he and Peacock turned to architect Bill Maclay, the Waitsfield architect known for energy-efficient new houses and renovations. His design includes a variety of alternative energy sources while it draws on conventions of Wright’s mid-century Usonian houses. The result is a one-storey, 3,625-square-foot home overlooking the Mad River at a spot where a timber dam had spanned the water until it was blown out in the historic hurricane of 1927. A large stone abutment that housed the penstock is all that remains.

Henrybuilt kitchen

The Henrybuilt kitchen is open and serene, thanks to a nearby pantry that eliminates the need for overhead cabinets.

“Wright’s principles, which root a house so that it is open to the view and engages with the site, launched us into our standard design process,” Maclay says. “Our idea was to locate the house at the site of the dam, utilizing the abutment and creating stairs and a garden. We designed a house that’s one room deep, so that all rooms get the sunlight, the solar gain, and the spectacular views upriver to the south.”

Frank Lloyd Wright interior

The architect and homeowners were inspired to add benches along the living room’s bank of windows, after looking at photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interiors.

Larsen and Peacock call their three-bedroom, two-bath home River House. The structure uses Wright’s vocabulary with low roofs, open living areas, and textural, natural materials. Built with a Douglas fir timber frame and stone harvested on the site, the house has an east–west axis. The front entry on the north side, bermed into the hill, is at the center, with the sleeping and living wings radiating to either side at slight angles.

clerestory windows

The bunkroom has clerestory windows, which provide privacy and light. Stepped bunks, with a queen-size bed at the top, accommodate guests. 

Mason Mike Eramo of Granville harvested and worked the stone that forms the foundation, exterior walls, interior columns, and an enormous fireplace wall. “It took three men four months to gather that stone,” he says. “We hauled 400 truckloads off the mountain. When we found really nice stones, we handled them with care to keep the patina intact.”

earth-tone bathroom

The guest bathroom on the north side of the house gets natural light from one of three daylight monitors, bringing a heightened sense of space. Earth-tone tiles complement Douglas fir.

One example is the slab of schist (a metamorphic rock with a flat, sheet-like grain) that forms the massive lintel above the fireplace. In the interest of energy conservation, instead of folding doors, Eramo installed pocket doors to close off the firebox. Built by blacksmith James Fecteau of Vermont’s Huntington River Smithy, they not only provide a tighter seal, says Eramo, but also “they’re not awkward and in the way.”

The interior follows Wright’s dictum that bedrooms should be small and public spaces large. Drama and natural beauty are provided by sunlight, stonework, and Douglas fir timbers. New York-area interior designer Lori Weatherly deftly combined some of the couple’s favorite old pieces with new furnishings for a classic, neutral scheme.

“I took the color palette from the setting, which is very rustic and natural,” Weatherly says. “We did not use Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, but we wanted the interior design to speak the same language as the house.”

River House owners

Mary Peacock and Jonathan Larsen got married on the terrace at River House.

Mary Peacock says that Weatherly convinced her to put the dining room at the end of the house, instead of next to the kitchen. “She said, ‘This is the most beautiful room—why not make it the dining room?’” Mary explains. “We are so glad we did!”

Net Zero Architecture

Energy efficiency in a cold, fuel-hungry part of the world comes from new and varied sources as technologies advance—and incentives grow.

net zero architecture

Making use of south-facing space below, solar panels are part of the net-zero design. Many more are located in a field out of sight of the house.

“Building a net-zero house is now cheaper than building one powered by fossil fuel,” says architect Bill Maclay, who practices from Waitsfield, Vermont. “And, because of its additional insulation and high building standards, the net-zero house is stronger, more durable, more comfortable, healthier, and less apt to develop mold.”

Net zero refers to a house that produces more energy than it consumes, using only renewable sources. In the case of River House, passive solar heat comes from south-facing, triple-glazed windows and a poured concrete floor that stores heat. (There’s also a radiant-heat system under the floor.) Sixty solar panels provide electricity, and a geothermal system runs two heat pumps from a 660-foot-deep well. Twelve inches of insulation are inside the walls. Three daylight monitors—pop-ups that introduce natural light into interior spaces—rise through a “green” or living roof lush with sedum.

rooftop garden

Sedum and grasses grow lush on the roof, reducing run-off into the Mad River. Three daylight monitors bring sunlight into rooms below.

“During the winter of 2015, everyone [else] had frozen pipes,” Maclay says. “That could not happen in Jon and Mary’s house because, even if the heat is off, there is so much solar gain and it is so well insulated, it never gets cold enough [to freeze]. Usually you don’t want big windows like these in Vermont, but this time they are part of a careful balance of energy-efficient elements.

“The best thing about a ‘green’ house, even better than the energy and cost savings,” he adds, “is the light, the sun, the true comfort of the space.”

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