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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”