An interview with Harry Hunt: Residential architecture and energy efficiency

Harry Hunt Architects, Stowe, Vermont

Efficiency Excellence Network member Harry Hunt, owner of an architectural firm in Stowe, spoke with us about himself and his company, whose mission is "to transform the built environment of today into one that mirrors the natural world, embodying sustainability, beauty, and soul."

Where did you grow up?

Harry Hunt: I started out in Burlington; my father was a professor at UVM. My family also had a retired dairy farm in Bakersfield, and we spent weekends and summers there. I was fascinated by building from a young age. At 14, I started working with a local builder up there building barns, corrals, and other structures.

Do you tell new clients you're a native Vermonter? And if so, what reaction do you get? Depends on the client. Most of my clients are people from outside the state building homes in Vermont.

HH: It's a part of my marketing message, because my designs are based on core Vermont values like integrity, simplicity, and frugality. I try to keep the building forms, the massing, very simple. That also relates to the vernacular of existing buildings in Vermont, buildings that look they are part of the landscape and they belong. Luckily, that also makes a ton of sense from an efficiency standpoint! The building shell needs to be simple in its massing. Building a high-performance home is tough to do cost-effectively with a complicated shape, with dormers or lots of corners. Every corner costs money. Every corner is a thermal bridge.

Where are your clients?

HH: I'm doing houses all over Vermont, and some in New Hampshire. I might only need to see the site once, but I need to see it.

So you would not design a house without a specific site in mind?

HH: I would not want to do that. There’s a huge amount of value to designing a house specifically for a particular site. For example, where is the path of the sun, what is the shape of the land? There are aspects of passive solar that come into the shaping of the form. Every site has its own unique opportunities and constraints.

Do you focus only on residential work?

HH: I’ve done a fair amount of commercial work in the past. I'm focused on residential work now because I think my clients benefit. I can provide better solutions if I focus. It's such a rapidly changing field that it's hard for an architect to keep up with multiple building types. There's so much to learn, and the technologies are changing all the time. Efficiency Vermont has helped enormously with that — it is tapped into a broad array of projects around the state — it helps me learn more about the innovations that are happening and what's working well.

Do you work at home?

HH: In 2005 I started in the basement. Now I have my office in a separate structure on my property in Stowe.

On a typical day, do you go into that office and work 9 to 5?

HH: It's more like 8 to 8, but yes, I’m in that building. Very soon I'll be hiring some people. I've always had a dream of like-minded people working together, promoting a new way of designing and building homes. My goal would be to make this a collaborative team environment, with new architects, sharing ideas to take sustainable architecture beyond residential.

You use the word soul a few times on your website. What does soul mean to you in an architectural context?

HH: It really comes down to the intangible value of design. We talk about the energy efficiency of buildings, durability, health, comfort, and other benefits of modern green homes. But that doesn't really cover it. In art, you have something called emotional transference. When you look at something created, you, as the visitor, feel something that was felt by the owner or artist. Through the design of the home, emotion is conveyed from the designer to the visitor. When I think of a building having soul, it's the difference between a building and a work of architecture. It's that emotional transference. And that itself has sustainability. Some buildings last for decades; others last for centuries. It's often that intangible value that causes them to last: No one can bring themselves to tear that building down, because there's a soul there. And I believe we can build buildings today that will be around for centuries.

Residential architects are a relatively new group represented in the Efficiency Excellence Network. Can you tell us more about your connection with the EEN?

HH: It's a huge help to me to have someone else doing the promotion of modern green home concepts. Efficiency Vermont has always done a lot of work with contractors and builders, but I've always felt that it could work more directly with architects — which now it does. Architects have so much influence early on. It's almost incomprehensible to me to start with a non-efficient design and then try making it efficient. Then homeowners will think efficiency costs more. Architects need to understand the thermal efficiency of buildings and integrate it from day one.

Courses the EEN offers are also helpful. I recently took a workshop on heating sources for low-load homes. One of the primary challenges I face on every project is, OK, we've got the super-efficient shell and house design, now what are we going to do for heating and cooling? Commercial architects hire a mechanical engineer to design that system, but residential engineers are hard to find. Efficiency Vermont is out on the forefront in terms of residential new technologies for heating and cooling, heat pump systems, when to use biomass, strategies for delivering domestic hot water.

Do your clients expect that from their architect? Recommendations on hot water and heating and cooling systems?

HH: It's not so much that they expect it, but if I don't provide it, it's a high-risk scenario, because it's up to the contractor. If you're lucky enough to get a contractor who's worked with Efficiency Vermont and will choose efficiency, OK. If not...it's astounding how much both plumbing and heating and cooling affect the annual cost of the house. The design of those systems is vital.

How do clients find you?

HH: I've had some great mentions in publications, including Vermont Ski and Ride and Seven Days and Design New England. Also, word of mouth. Somehow, they've heard about me, they have checked out the website [harryhuntarchitects.com], and we go from there.

Do the people who contact you already have an interest in sustainable architecture, or is there still an educational component to your work?

HH: Well, most people who come to me usually saw a picture they liked, then they read about the modern green buildings idea on my website. I still do have to educate them. I had one client who knew quite a bit about Passive House, but nine out of 10 are just curious.

What do you see in the future for green building?

HH: Even today, anyone who's considering making an investment in renovation or construction would be wise to understand the benefits of modern green homes. I feel we're at the cusp of a paradigm shift. To me, it doesn't make sense to build houses any other way. There's a higher resale value for green, sustainable homes, anywhere from 8% to 35% higher. I see a huge potential for growth of this market. It's just a matter of increasing awareness.

People kind of have a fear of the Passive House standard as being "extreme" and not cost-effective. The high-performance home tier is a cost-effective, near-Passive standard. All the houses I do are in the high-performance tier. Efficiency Vermont defined and established that standard, and the $3,000 incentive is motivating for the client. It adds legitimacy for clients. It's also just helpful for me that Efficiency Vermont has thought through the cost-benefit ratio of various efficiency measures. With this standard, my clients are realizing up to 70% annual energy cost savings over conventional homes. There are health advantages, greater comfort, lower operating costs, and higher resale values. And that's all setting aside the benefits to the environment! There are so many benefits to the owner.

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