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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Norwich Cliff House: Tradition Meets Affordability in a Right-Sized Modern Home

The Cliff House sits atop a little knoll at the end of a narrow street. (Photos: Greg Whitchurch)

Barb and Greg Whitchurch

At the end of a small street in Norwich, VT, there is a fascinating, small home being built for a mother and her three teenage children. It is highly energy efficient, very affordable, and features all-electric appliances, plus a small pellet fireplace-style heater for radiance and ambiance.

A refinished countertop from the owner’s old house forms the bookcase top and doubles as the office and library in the second floor stair hall.

Designed by Daniel Haedrich, Associate AIA / LEED AP, (BackTilt.com) and constructed by Ethan Cole (EarthShareConstruction.com/) it is 1280 square feet, two stories, sits atop a concrete slab, and features a very flexible, indeed adaptable, interior design and construction (more on that later!).

The first impression is that the house blends in so well with its surroundings as to be almost part of the landscape. The rear yard is populated with about a dozen very tall gray-trunked trees and backs up against a huge bare cliff face, and the vertical pine siding is painted the same light gray as the cliffs. There will be no environmentally costly lawn. The landscaping will be permaculture-based and will consist of gravel paths, a stone patio, and wildflowers (using seeds from the Vermont Wildflower Farm (VermontWildFlowerFarm.com).

Inside, there is a kitchen living space with an island and large windows with deep sills that can be used as seating. (This seating feature is common in high-performance buildings. Since the walls are super-insulated, twelve inches in this case, the sills are deep and invite various uses.) Of course, when one invests in proper walls, one doesn’t want to scrimp on the windows. As with other residential and commercial buildings in this area, the windows are triple-pane Kohltechs supplied by Loewen Window Center of VT and NH (LoewenVTNH.com/).

Efficient window in stair hall frames cliff behind the home. (Interior images: Daniel Haedrich)

Adjoining the kitchen is a small bedroom. The partition wall between these two rooms contains the kitchen plumbing and electricals. This clever design allows the two rooms to be “flipped” at any time, the small bedroom could become a pass-through kitchen with the top half of the wall removed, and the larger space could be used as living space.

Likewise, there are three upstairs bedrooms for the kids, but the partition walls are wired and framed to be easily removable as the kids leave the nest. There are no closets; rather, freestanding Ikea-style wardrobes will serve. The stairway to the second floor also incorporates a bookcase built into the railing. These flexible design features make the most of the modest footprint. In fact, everything about this house is geared towards modesty, economy, efficiency and low environmental impact. To quote the architect, Daniel, “We wish to work quietly with this environment.”

By now, most people know that gas and electric water heaters are unaffordable both financially and environmentally. But heat pump water heaters can add or remove a bit of heat from a home at awkward times. Ta Da! Enter the SanCO2 (bit.do/475-sanco2), which follows the design of traditional heat pump home heaters/coolers by placing the heat exchanger outdoors. Plus, it uses CO2 as its refrigerant for additional efficiencies.

Speaking of whole house heating and cooling systems, they’ve installed a cold climate heat pump (bit.do/fuj-12lzah1), especially designed for our climate. But the owner grew up with wood-fired stoves for heating and has included a fireplace-style pellet stove from Home Comfort Warehouse (https://www.homecomfortwarehouse.com/) for the ambiance of radiant, additional heat with a bright fire blazing behind its glass door. The Piazzetta SC Lia (bit.do/sc-stove) has a programmable thermostat, remote control, humidifier, and is eligible for rebate incentives.

Thick insulation creates deep window wells for the energy-efficient windows.

To keep the outside out and the inside in, their air-sealing efforts have yielded a blower door test of 0.57 ACH50 (a Passive House level!) before the insulation and drywall were installed. The house is enrolled in Efficiency Vermont’s highest tier, bit.do/evt-hph-inc, with significant financial incentives. (By the way, these incentives are so to speak,“your tax and utility dollars at work,” helping people be more responsible about their energy uses.)

On an environmental and personal note, the owner of this home grew up in the house next door to it. Some of the interior features, such as countertops, have been brought over, refinished and installed in the new home. An old wood stove will be moved from its original spot next door to the patio of the new home. There is a continuity here and a wish to preserve elements of the family’s history.

Haedrich said, “The owner, builder and I are all proud of this project. We consider this house to be a template for the homes we should be building: compact, in an existing town, efficient, and all-electric.”

The Whitchurches are owners of LEAF and Niro EVs and a net-zero Passive House in Middlesex, VT (bit.do/phc-vtbiz2). They are Board members of VT Passive House bit.do/mdx-mec-bldg, LinkedIn.com/in/GregWhitchurch/.

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