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Best Green Houses:

Axis Denied: An Architect Reconciles Passive Solar Orientation With a Million-Dollar View

Studio Mapos
Ghent, New York

By David Sokol
May 2014
Photo © James Chororos Montagnaro

If there ever were a client who can respect her architect’s vision, it is Carrie Schoenfeld. With an ambitious resume that includes theater production, film, painting, and invention, Schoenfeld has made a career of following creativity’s call. Yet artistic sympathy has its limits. After Schoenfeld and her husband Fiore Guglielmi had purchased a meadow in Ghent, New York, the architect they selected to design a house for the site produced renderings that promised to eviscerate their bank account. The couple started over with Studio Mapos in 2007.

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Although the New York–based studio won the redo partly on its offer of a fiscal reality check, Guglielmi and Schoenfeld asked Mapos to give them the panoramic western view that its predecessor had imagined. “It was intractable,” says principal Caleb Mulvena. “By the time they approached us, they had been camping on the meadow for three years. They were absolutely married to the exact location of the house, and to its looking out to the Catskill Mountains.”

One of the first commandments of passive sustainability is to align a building on an east-west axis, as the configuration minimizes morning glare and hot afternoon sun, which are otherwise difficult to control. By squarely facing west, the client was effectively contracting Mapos to break the golden rule.

Guglielmi and Schoenfeld, now understanding the predicament, empowered Mulvena to solve the thermal gain presaged by their wall of glass. The architect responded in several steps, first by forming the 3,500-square-foot building into a rectilinear plan with a wedge-like section, and elevating that shape on concrete piles. Lifting the two-story volume places the homeowners directly in line with the viewshed; the negative space beneath it serves a carport function, or it can be filled in with more habitable interiors should need and budget exist. The structure is a hybrid of concrete, steel, and structural insulated panels.

The wedge makes abstract reference to a gable, nodding to Guglielmi’s fondness for traditional buildings. More important, “this funky triangulated form really became a solar receptacle on the south side,” Mulvena says, adding, “A lot of times a house form isn’t defined by angling for photovoltaics, because the PV marketplace is generally geared toward retrofits. In this project it partly defines the form of the house.”

Mapos applied a 3.2-kilowatt photovoltaic array to the 70-degree slope, using a laminate that lends it the appearance of a vernacular standing-seam roof. Solar hot water is made available via a proprietary structure of Pex-AL-Pex tubing on metallic holders, to which the standing seam was attached. The gable’s opposite side channels rainwater into an underground cistern that feeds an organic vegetable garden.

Mulvena deployed the roof for a third purpose, which was to give that much-needed boost to passive performance. He projected the roof well beyond the balcony of the top-floor master bedroom for privacy and shade. Cantilevering that top floor six and a half feet beyond the main floor also keeps summer’s intense early-afternoon sun from penetrating the wall of super low-E insulated glass in the great room. When low winter rays slip past this cantilever, poured-concrete floors absorb the heat.

Thermal mass is employed several ways in the Ghent project. A wine cellar nestles between submerged piles, drawing on the earth’s consistent coolness to protect Guglielmi’s vineyard potions. Deeper down, six 100-foot direct-exchange geothermal wells provide hot water preheat, as well as heating and cooling water for radiant floors and UV-filtered air handler, according to MEP contractor Chris Wasserbach. “The geo system has a coefficient of production on the order of 5, meaning that for every kilowatt the system consumes, 5 kilowatts of heat or cool are moved to or from the earth,” Wasserbach says. The house relies mostly on heat, as its narrow cross section lends to excellent natural ventilation and infrequent use of air-conditioning.

To be sure, Guglielmi and Schoenfeld’s completely reimagined house lacks the grandeur of the 2007 sketch that Mapos dismissed. Yet this more modest design sustains household finances, as well as its environmental footprint: Wasserbach reports that the PVs have produced 4,551 kilowatt-hour over 5,977 hours of operation to date, and that the geothermal system has produced 6,621 kBTU toward water pre-heating, among other impressive findings. Overall, the building is off-grid-capable, and currently it consumes no fossil fuels.

 

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