architecture craig buttner architect
“It was a leap of faith,” says the owner. But leap he did, and
after two blustery Martha’s Vineyard winters, he has no doubt
he made the right call. He built his house, the first in New
England, to adhere to Passive House standards.
Unlike green building strategies that revolve around
better ways to deliver heat, this approach, developed in
Germany in 1996 by the Passive House Institute, relies on
airtight construction, super-insulation, proper siting, and
thermal mass. With little extra building cost, a Passive House
typically reduces heating and cooling needs by as much as
90 percent. Goodbye, furnace. Goodbye, central air.
“It really works,” says Boston architect Craig Buttner, after
a winter visit to the house he designed in consultation with
the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS).
“There’s a log in the firebox, and nothing
else,” he says. “The house could not be
more comfortable.” It is so tight, he adds,
body heat generated by guests who come
for dinner can keep rooms cozy for hours after they leave.
Aesthetically, there is little to give Buttner’s energy-efficient tricks away. Tucked off a country road in West
Tisbury, Massachusetts, the house is a welcoming riff on the
classic New England Shingle Style. The tall wind turbine
hints at eco-consciousness (so do the chickens and hogs
feeding behind a stone wall), the light-filled, 4,000-square-
foot interior embodies serene modern understatement.
From the beginning, Buttner’s clients were insistent on
The benefits of building to the rigorous Passive House standards are
immediately apparent in the numbers. Using minimal energy, the house
remains at a comfortable temperature and humidity year-round: between 71
and 73 degrees, with humidity no less than 40 percent, in the winter, and
between 75 and 78 degrees, with humidity maxing out at 55 percent in summer.
Even if the house is left unattended for a long period during the winter, the
temperature does not drop below 55 degrees. Annual heating/cooling costs are
about $900 for electricity (which includes the power provided by the wind
turbine) to run the ventilation system and provide radiant heat in the kitchen
and baths, plus another $500 for a cord and a half of wood. The domestic hot
water system, augmented by solar panels, costs around $900 a year. That’s
$2,300 annually versus the $10,000 it would take to keep a conventional house
of similar size so comfortable, says the owner. The house does require some
management, such as drawing the shades on hot summer days and lighting the
wood stove on cloudy, cold days. “But so they should,” he says. “In fact,
‘management’ means just being in tune with the world in which you live.”