Robert Swinburne: Creating Homes that Stand the Test of Time
If you’re feeling disillusioned by the house plans you’ve seen on the net, you’re about to feel a whole lot better! Vermont architect Robert Swinburne creates beautiful, simple structures that are soulful and nurturing and built with natural materials. While most of his work is custom designed, there’s a limited range of pre-designed stock plans available online. In this article, Robert talks about his influences, the Passive House concept, and creating homes that stand the test of time.
H: WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE CURRENT STATE OF THE HOUSE PLAN/STOCK PLAN MARKET? IS IT SOMETHING YOU SEE MORE ARCHITECTS GETTING INTO?
RS: There’s a lot of stuff that looks the same as what I was seeing in the 1970s but there’s a wider variety to choose from. Very little of it is super-simple though. I see a big hole in the plan market in that area. I see plan after plan with huge garage doors and gratuitous gables that the publishers are calling farmhouses. What I don’t see much of is super-insulated high performance houses such as passive houses. That’s a tough one because detailing such a house is very specific to particular materials, regional sites, local building talent etc which is not where the house plan market is yet. I don’t see a big rush among architects to jump on board but it’s something we’re aware of.
H: YOU’VE DONE SO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WORK IN YOUR HOME STATE OF VERMONT. HAVE YOU WORKED WITH CLIENTS FROM OTHER PLACES AS WELL?
RS: I have projects across the Northeast. I’m originally from Maine so I’ve done some things there for family. Rarely in New Hampshire, often in Vermont and occasionally in New York or Massachusetts. I hold licenses in VT and MA.
IMAGE: Plan #500-3 (1,372 sq ft), available from Houseplans.com
H: BEFORE QUALIFYING AS AN ARCHITECT YOU WERE A BUILDER/CARPENTER. I CAN IMAGINE THAT WOULD BE A DISTINCT ADVANTAGE – WHAT KIND OF HELP HAS IT PROVIDED IN YOUR CURRENT WORK?
RS: It gives me a sense of what I can get away with. I better understand when I put something on paper how much I have to go the extra mile in talking with contractors and people on the job site. I also know if [my requests] will just get tossed in the trash. I talk almost daily with my former employer about building science, detailing, and all matters related to residential building. Houses are (or should be) built quite a bit differently now than in the 1990′s when I was a carpenter, so specific knowledge (how to install a window for example) has changed.
H: ON YOUR FACEBOOK PAGE YOU MENTIONED THE WORK OF ARCHITECT WILL WINKELMAN. ARE THERE ANY OTHER ARCHITECTS OR DESIGNERS WHOSE WORK YOU FOLLOW?
RS: Way more than I’ll remember here. I try to put links on my blog for my own reference. Coldham and Hartman in Massachusetts is doing nice stuff from a philosophical standpoint. They’re doing low income, student and co-housing as well as a re-work of other project types, and the level of care and thoroughness they put into their work is exemplary. I’ve been a long time fan of Elliot and Elliot in Maine for their highly refined sensibilities on all levels. Thomas Kundig is absolutely fascinating and well worth watching. Kaplan Thompson architects in Maine is doing some nice low energy work. I also really like what GOLogic, from Maine as well, is doing. They bring a good clean style to Passive House projects (I think they sell plans too). I’m also a fan of David Salmela out in the Midwest. Some of these firms I admire for their design work and some for their attitude.
H: YOU ONCE SAID THE HOLY GRAIL OF ARCHITECTURE MEANS TAKING CLUES FROM TRADITION BUT NOT BEING A SLAVE TO IT, NOT BEING ANACHRONISTIC. HOW DOES THAT PRINCIPLE MANIFEST IN YOUR OWN DESIGNS?
RS: Not often enough. There’s a lot of logic and many lessons to be learned from older houses. Some of it is very applicable and some is anachronistic. Nostalgia is a powerful influence on what people want so I try not to ignore it as a design influence but sometimes a client is overly encumbered by it when it comes to their real needs, wants and budget and I have to sort that out early on. I try to rise above style and create architecture that works well, looks and feels right, and stands the test of time.
H: AND JUST FINALLY, SUSTAINABILITY IS VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU – YOU’RE A CERTIFIED PASSIVE HOUSE DESIGNER PLUS A MEMBER OF THE US GREEN BUILDING COUNCIL. DO YOU THINK WE’VE ARRIVED AT A POINT WHERE MOST PEOPLE EMBRACE THE “GREEN BUILDING” CONCEPT?
RS: Most people are aware of it but don’t really know what it means or how it can apply to them. It’s seen as an add-on that costs more. What drew me to the Passive House approach is the aspect of simplification it entails. It’s more of an editing process based on very good science and it is, simply, the way we should be building for longevity. It also reduces our impact on the environment. The trick is to work that into all the other influences and come up with something that works well but also satisfies all the other needs.
IMAGE: Plan # 500-2 (352 sq ft), at Houseplans.com
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If you’re a fan of Robert Swinburne’s work, you’ll be glad to know he has additional house plans on the drawing boards (Yay!). Stay tuned for updates!
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