Featured Project: A High-Performance Vermont Farmhouse 

An Interview with Bensonwood Client Stephen Ferber

Moving from a cherished mid-nineteenth century farmhouse, why did you decide to build new?
For the past 37 years my wife and I had been living in a 150-year-old Greek revival farmhouse on 40 acres. Retired now and in my mid-sixties, I wanted to downsize somewhat but wasn’t willing to compromise on what I had. Ultimately, three or four things came together in making the decision: First, I wanted to downsize to make it easier on myself. Secondly, I had made a deadline to retire from my job. Third, we wanted to move closer to family and my wife’s work: she works at Lyndon State College. Lastly, I wanted the new energy-efficient home to be a reward for all our hard work.

Why did you decide not to renovate your old house?
Our drafty old house cost $2,400 a year to heat, but that wasn’t the main consideration for building new. I had an energy audit done by the Efficiency Vermont folks, which showed us where the problems were, but I wasn’t willing to compromise the architecture by adding layers of insulating material over architectural features. I didn’t want to see beautiful Vermont granite block covered by insulating board.

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I know you were anxious to get into your new home as soon as possible. Did that affect your decision in choosing Bensonwood?
To be honest, I would have preferred the overall quicker turn-around that the pre-designed Unity Homes plans offer. We didn’t necessarily need a custom house designed from scratch, but we wanted more customization than Unity Homes could provide, so we went with Bensonwood. During the planning stages, we gave quick answers to questions posed by your architect Chris Adams and project manager Tony Poanessa in order to move the process along. We didn’t want one day lost.

Our old house had sold in four days, much quicker than we thought, but that meant we needed to rent while our new home was being built. Our old 40-acre property was deemed organic, which made it of special interest and why it sold so fast. The Jasper Hill Farm cheese people bought the home and property. Among the many renowned cheeses they produce is the organic Bayley Hazen Blue cheese you find featured on high-end restaurant menus.

So while the design process turned out to take a bit longer than we expected, the construction is going quickly and we should be in by the holidays.

What were your design considerations?
I wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper. I basically wanted to repeat my setup by building a farmhouse with a garage that looked like a barn. In my old house we had a four-bay garage and a large woodworking area. And while I wanted to recapture some of this space, I didn’t want my new house to look like a McMansion, with an enormous looking four-bay garage, that would stick out like a sore thumb in its rural Vermont setting. So we wanted the garage to look like a barn, with red-stained, rough-sawn, vertical siding—to make it look like two buildings with a connector.

In the broader sense, I have a real sense of place. We very much wanted to blend into the local vernacular. The home needed to look like an old New England farmhouse, not Adirondack style with orange stained siding—or modern looking, which might look fine in a lake or mountain setting, but not where we wanted to build. It had to look right in its farm setting. We didn’t want our new neighbors to be upset by what we built.

Given Vermont winters, what were your energy considerations?
Our new house, situated on 23 acres with a nice view, is in the middle of a field, with no trees so there are no shadows. We sited the garage due south, so putting PVs (photovoltaics, aka solar panels) on just one side of its roof will be more than adequate to supply all of the home’s electrical needs. We’re using a heat pump system for space heating and cooling and for hot water, with an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) to recapture energy. I think the whole PV system cost $15,000 after tax credits. We had radiant heat tubing put in, just in case, but I don’t think we’ll really need it. The house, designed for Net Zero performance, is all electric—with the exception of a gas cook top.

What could Bensonwood have done better to improve your experience?
We felt we were flying half blind, not being able to walk through a Bensonwood home at the time, in order to say we like this room in this house, and that room in that house. We were shown many plans and pictures, so we knew the quality, but that’s not the same as actually standing in the home and getting a sense of what it’s like. I’m sure not everyone wants people traipsing through their homes. And I guess it’s not practical to have a model home near your facilities, but that might have helped.

On a related subject, how would you feel about your home being used as an example of state-of-the-art energy efficiency?
Situated where we are, within a mile of Lyndon College, with its degrees in Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies, and our proximity to the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, with its meteorological focus (they provide Vermont Public Radio’s Eye on the Sky weather forecasts)—I know there’s going to be a lot of interest in our high-performance home.