Just after sunset on a cold January day, Chris Ross stands among the river birches outside his Kennett Square home. He is beaming. “We measured the sunshine in the house on the winter solstice,” he says with excitement, “and it reached all the way to the back wall, just as we planned.”
Thoughtful planning guided Chris and his wife Cecilia through two years of designing and building a home in harmony with nature and their lifestyle. After living most of their married lives in inefficient, older houses that needed frequent fixing, the couple decided to make a fresh start. As a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Chris had worked hard to advance legislation protecting natural resources and promoting alternative energy. He wanted to take those policies out of the state capital and apply them to a real-life situation—his own new home.
The Rosses and their two children were living in an old brick farmhouse when they made their decision. The neighboring property offered pastoral views of Chester County hunt country and a magnificent William Penn-era white oak. Inspired by the landscape, Chris and Cecilia purchased the site and began searching for an architect.
While Chris was advocating new energy initiatives in Harrisburg, Cecilia was researching firms that practiced sustainable architecture. When the couple met with Matthew Moger, a principal with Lyman Perry Architects in Berwyn, Pa., they knew they had found the right firm. “Matthew really listened to us,” recalls Cecilia. “He understood that we didn’t mean just solar panels when we said we wanted a sustainable home.”
Chris and Cecilia gave Matthew a list of dos and don”ts. Do design an energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive home. Don’t present strident concepts that scream modern: no geodesic domes or earthen bunkers, thank you. Do evoke the Brandywine Valley landscape, but don’t recreate an historic house.
The Rosses needed: flexible spaces where they could host large events; cozy spaces for day-to-day family life; creative spaces where Cecilia could enjoy bookbinding and other pursuits; a designated space where their young adult children could entertain friends; and an overall pet-friendly design so the family cats and dogs would also feel welcome. “We wanted our new home to be environmentally responsible without compromising on aesthetics, comfort, or function,” Cecilia explains, “and we wanted to capitalize on the property’s million-dollar views.”
“Orientation is an essential part of sustainable design,” says Matthew, sweeping his arm like a drafting compass as he looks up at the curved roof that calls to mind an extended bird’s wing. “If you flew over, you would see an arc following the path of the sun. When I began this project, I deliberately got lost so I could soak up the local landscape and photograph indigenous structures for inspiration. I was repeatedly drawn to old barns because they were in tune with the sun. Those early farmers knew how to orient their buildings.”
The new house faces due south with a two-story overhang clad in Douglas fir and supported by massive stucco-covered columns. The curve of the roof is precisely calculated to allow the low winter sun to penetrate the first floor wall of windows. Once inside, it heats the hall’s brick floor and interior stone wall. These masonry features store the daytime warmth, then release it on cold winter nights. When the sun is high in the summer sky, the roof completely shades the windows, and the bricks and stones stay cool.
Orientation writes the score for another instrument of nature: wind. Matthew channeled the site’s prevailing western breezes to maximize cooling in the warm months. Extended patio walls off the west end invite the wind in through transom windows. The air travels down the hallway, into the expansive living-dining room and through the kitchen. The central stair tower creates what Matthew calls a heat chimney. The oak staircase with open treads and railings gathers any hot air as it rises. After reaching the third floor, it can be circulated to help heat the house or exhausted through banks of awning windows.
A symphony of windows free of treatments plays throughout this home where every room has a view. Several windows frame living portraits of the oak, including one above the master bath’s claw foot tub. The result is an abundance of natural light and air and a heightened awareness of the outside world. The family watches with delight as thunderstorms roll through, the hunt gallops past, or the sun gilds the sea of grasses billowing through the native plant gardens designed by landscape architect Jonathan Alderson of Wayne, Pa.
To fine-tune the design, Matthew consulted with green building engineer Tad Radzinski, president of Sustainable Solutions Corporation in Schwenksville, Pa. Tad’s expertise guided everyone through the green components of the building project, including deconstructing the site’s existing split-level. The Rosses wanted to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” whenever possible. Old concrete was ground up and reused under the new foundations, while tons of drywall became fertilizer for farm fields, and windows were reused by other builders. Even the mechanical systems from the old well were salvaged for the new rainwater collection system. When the project was complete, approximately 70 percent of the old house had been saved from the landfill.
Tad helped select building materials that were manufactured in Pennsylvania to support the local economy and reduce the use of transportation fuel. Energy Star® appliances and geothermal heat pumps reduce the need for electricity. Ceiling fans help the natural air flow and boost the efficiency of heating and cooling systems. Super insulation provides twice the heat resistance (R-value) of standard construction, while all windows are double paned using argon gas to insulate and special coatings to reflect the heat.
Outdoors, the green detailing continues. Alderson designed a drought-tolerant carpet garden of sedums to help insulate the flat roof over the billiards room. The gravel parking courtyard allows rainwater to percolate, while a 3,000-gallon underground cistern collects rainwater from the barn roof for flushing household toilets and watering horses and plants.
Like the house, the new barn harmonizes with the sun, but in a different key. Thirty solar panels on the south roof produce electricity with a five-kilowatt photovoltaic system. On those long sunny days of summer when the panels generate more power than the household needs, the excess is sent out to the regional grid, and the Rosses get a credit.
“This project gave me a firsthand understanding of how home solar systems work on the local level,” says Chris, “and helped me develop the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act which mandates that 18 percent of energy sold by electricity suppliers in Pennsylvania will be from alternative sources such as wind and sun.” The Rosses don’t yet have their monthly electric bill down to zero, but they’re getting close. When they do buy electricity, they choose PECO®’s wind power.
“Building our home made me think even more about our energy sources, our impact on the environment, and what we can do statewide,” says Chris. “We all need to study our daily lifestyle and make intentional decisions, from how we travel to what we buy. You can still live well and live comfortably without being wasteful.”
“Sustainable living is nothing new,” adds Matthew. “It’s a return to what was done before—connecting to the land, using less, and working with nature.”