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Best Green Houses:

A Vintage Manufactured House is Made Contemporary

Richard Renner |Architects
Sudbury, Massachusetts

By David Sokol
June 2014
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Photo © Richard Renner

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William Berkes and Robert Brownell founded the Deck House Company in Acton, Massachusetts, nearly six decades ago, and despite a brief hiatus in 2008, the manufacturer has been in operation ever since. Of more than 20,000 residences produced by the company in this period, a large number of Deck Houses are situated in greater Boston. Brownell himself lived in a Deck House for 25 years in the Lincoln subdivision Stonehedge where 80 such units were erected in 1962.

A Deck House has several identifying characteristics, including natural finish materials such as mahogany and slate, that differentiated them from other manufactured homes of mid-century America. Today, casual observers might notice their low-slung gable roofs with wide overhangs, or cantilevered second-story volumes that connect to outdoor patios. Contemporary occupants, meanwhile, enjoy the drama of vaulted interiors featuring tongue-and-groove ceilings and a fluid indoor-outdoor dialogue courtesy of sliding glass doors, numerous windows, and screen porches.

Architect Rick Renner, who has mentally cataloged myriad Deck Houses, says of this latter quality, “Properly done, Deck Houses provide homeowners with a really nice relationship to the landscape.”

Renner’s eponymous firm is based in Sherborn, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Speaking as a sustainability-focused practitioner, he tempers his praise for Deck Houses. While “Disaster would be overstating it,” he says of their energy performance, “The walls are thin, the roof is thin, the original glazing is single [layer], and the framing of overhangs extends through and over the outside wall—each one of those framing members is a thermal bridge.”

“It’s not an indictment of the original design, as every existing house has a suite of problems to overcome. But there was a whole different set of assumptions about energy back then, so if you own a Deck House and you want to make significant improvements in energy efficiency, then you have some serious built-in challenges.”

A husband and wife located about 8 miles from Stonehedge, in Sudbury, Massachusetts, were not necessarily aware of these hurdles when they asked Renner to take a closer look at their Deck House in 2011. Having lived in the house for several years, the client’s brief more explicitly expressed “their dissatisfaction with certain functional aspects of the house and the overall look” than green ambitions, as the architect puts it. Namely, a kitchen renovation that predated the couple’s homeownership was not in keeping with the Deck House attitude, nor with their taste. Bedroom windows that preserved privacy but sacrificed views to the wooded site demanded a best-of-both-worlds redesign.

Renner echoes architects everywhere when he observes, “You can’t design a super-efficient house that does not offer functional or aesthetic improvements. It’s the usual set of tradeoffs.” For the Sudbury Deck House, Renner concluded that anywhere he would be removing building envelope—think exterior repairs or extra square footage—he would maximize the thermal quality of that portion of the envelope.

Expansions to the house were performed in piecemeal increments, mostly along the second floor’s east side, which faces the backyard, as Renner did not want to change the original slope of the roof; expanding too far outward would have yielded a low-ceilinged interior space. These additions to the master bedroom and bath and kitchen were enclosed in thermally broken walls insulated to an R-value of 44+ and respect the original elevation’s rhythm of recessed and projecting volumes.

A similar opportunity presented itself up top. Removing the old roof allowed Renner to shorten the overhang (maintaining that length would have required constructing diagonal struts). Its construction also was modified with replacement metal roofing applied over 4 inches of new rigid insulation to thermally break the house’s rafters. During this process Renner dropped the masonry chimney below the roof, too, because, he explains, “It was a huge thermal bridge in the middle of the house. It was easier in this case because they didn’t want to see the chimney.” Three metal flues take its place outside, and indoors the original exposed rough brick is now hidden.

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