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Photo © Nancy Belluscio/On-Site Photography
The cedar-clad writer's retreat sits atop Y-shaped supports. By elevating the building, the architect reduced its impact on the terrain while providing panoramic views.

PROJECTS:

ThinkHouse

Eric Thompson Design
Jaffrey, New Hampshire

By Jenna M. McKnight
May 2012

For Dennis Thompson, long stretches of solitude are critical. The Harvard political theory professor and author of national renown has published a dozen books—many of them written in the dimly lit basement of the country home he shares with his wife in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. With the recent influx of boisterous grandchildren, the professor increasingly needed a truly sequestered refuge for work. He turned to an architect he knew well: his son Eric, an NBBJ employee in Ohio who agreed to take on the project in his spare time.

KEY PARAMETERS

Location Jaffrey, New Hampshire (Merrimack River watershed)

Gross area 427 ft2 (39 m2)

Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation, just heating and lighting) 20 kBtu/ft2 (226 MJ/m2)

Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 3.4 lbs. CO2/ft2 (16.5 kg CO2/m2)

TEAM & SOURCES

Structural system Insulspan Structural Insulated Panel

Windows Andersen Windows 200 Series, Wood w vinyl cladding.

Skylights Wasco Pinnacle 300

View all team & sources

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The first question was whether to build an addition to the house or create a freestanding structure on the wooded property overlooking a sparkling, spring-fed pond. Dennis knew he wanted an elevated workspace with a view, in contrast to his former oubliette. "Staring at a blank screen can be depressing, and a dark place reinforces that," he says. "I wanted to be up in the trees."

The Thompsons realized there was no logical way to add to the existing home and that only a separate building would provide the contemplative sanctuary Dennis desired. Eric's solution: a single-room cabin on pilotis that is perched on a gentle slope and offers inspiring views of the water. Completed in 2009, the "ThinkHouse" is reached via an 85-foot-long, cedar-board walkway, which establishes both a physical and a mental divide from the main house.

From the beginning, the architect was determined to reduce the building's environmental impact. "We did not want to tear up the land," Eric says. Only one living tree was felled to make way for the raised structure, and each Y-shaped support is anchored to a small precast foundation block, allowing rainwater to flow unimpeded down the hillside. To mitigate solar heat gain, Eric paid special attention to orientation; during the design process, he spent hours on a stepladder, measuring how the sun's rays would penetrate the cabin at different times.

Aesthetically, too, the building hardly imposes on its picturesque setting. "You're immersed in the environment, but also observing it," Dennis says. Upon entering the L-shaped volume, visitors pass through a small, book-lined entryway that yields to an airy, clutter-free study resembling a futuristic command station. A curved bamboo desk faces an expanse of glass slanted 10 degrees outward; the tilt not only adds a dramatic flourish but also minimizes glare. Operable windows provide ventilation while ushering in the sounds of nature. There is no plumbing system, and heat is supplied by a lone unit fueled by propane. Structural insulated panels in the roof and floor decks help lock in warmth during the harsh New England winters.

The project entailed various negotiations between father and son—"One's parents are always one's parents," jokes Eric—as well as with local contractors, who were not accustomed to dealing with unconventional designs. It seems fitting that the professor's most recent book, The Spirit of Compromise, was produced within his striking new think tank.

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