Small City Dreams
by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Trent Bell | Styling Janice Dunwoody
Two designers create their sustainable home in Belfast
In his book Delirious New York, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas writes, “The City is an addictive machine from which there is no escape.” While the words are a celebration of New York, they could arguably be applied to many great cities. The book, an urbanist’s elixir, was published in 1978, decades before architecture students Ian and Zofia Weiss would meet while sitting on the floor of a lecture hall where Koolhaas was speaking to an overflowing audience. It was well before they would seek urban life in their own New York and before they would get married and find themselves one winter day in a much smaller city, but a city no less.
It was 2007. The young couple was visiting family in Maine for Christmas—she grew up in Gdynia, Poland, and he in Arrowsic, Maine—and they had just hiked Mt. Battie before taking a drive north to Belfast. Even though Ian had grown up only an hour and a half away, it was his first time there. In the last light of afternoon, they walked downtown, got a bite to eat, read posters for upcoming events, and took in the sights of a tiny city aglow. What they saw stuck with them. The following spring, back in New York, they
wrestled with how to make a move to Belfast a reality. Their biggest concern was whether they could find architectural work. Rather than wait for an opportunity to arise, they created one: they would build a house, launch a design firm, and work for themselves. Today, they call their venture Locative DRD.
For the two urbanists, finding a site within walking distance to downtown Belfast—the eateries, the Co-op, the galleries—was a must. “We can’t overemphasize how strongly we felt, even at the beginning, about being downtown, even in a city of less than 7,000,” says Ian. Wanting to have their hands in every aspect of the process, Ian and Zofia took on the varied roles of designers, builders, and owners, a feat challenging for any pair, let alone a married couple designing their first home together. Armed with advice from an aunt on their wedding day (“All conflicts should end before bedtime”), the two mastered compromise early on. “If we each held tightly to respective ideas ‘A’ and ‘B,’ we found new idea ‘C’ that not only was better, but made us both authors of the outcome instead of winners or losers,” explains Ian.
When designing for yourself, it’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing in too many eccentricities custom-tailored to your needs. During the process, the couple strived to incorporate a broader perspective, designing not only their personal vision but a space that would appeal to future homeowners as well.
When the Weisses asked themselves the question “What should a house in Maine be?” two answers emerged that would serve as their main inspiration going forward: the house should be at once “rational” and “emotional.” Sound more like the ingredients to a perfect marriage than a perfect house? “The rational house is designed and built to efficiently endure Maine’s climate for the next century,” Zofia explains. “The emotional house is designed to serve socialization between people and interaction with place.”
In other words, if the rational house is how it works, the emotional house is how it feels.
To bring the rational side to life, Ian and Zofia found common-sense ways to maximize the home’s performance and reduce the long-term energy burden. Because heating is the primary energy demand in Maine, if the Weisses could eliminate the need to heat with fossil fuels, they would not only have a more efficient house but they would be better prepared to face the uncertain future of fossil fuels. To that end, they began by detailing a superinsulated shell for the house, with one foot of insulation in exterior walls and more in the roof. They then worked with ReVision Energy to create a solar hot-water array that—along with passive-solar gain—provides most of the heat for the home.
The emotional house, on the other hand, was much harder to describe in concrete terms. For inspiration, Ian referred to Christopher Alexander’s book The Timeless Way of Building. In it, Alexander writes, “Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there. The more living patterns there are in a place, the more it comes to life…the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.” The emotional aspects of this house, according to Zofia, would come from its interactions between people and place. A window seat, for example, where a person could interact with the architecture. Angles of sunlight in the morning and afternoon. The warmth of a kitchen. These are the less tangible “moments” of a home that connect owners and architecture.
Fulfilling the emotional house began with materials, which Ian and Zofia selected in their rawest states. The two worked with local independent carpenters Peter Stewert, Bob Klein, and Thomas Torrey. The colors of the house reflect the colors of the materials, offset against white walls. Poured concrete floors were left gray but finished smooth to be cool or warm underfoot depending on the season. Concrete blocks are exposed and joined with white mortar. Knotty white pine, grown and milled locally, serves as siding and interior trim. Steel was left bare. Interior doors were made out of the wood used to frame a garage that formerly occupied the site. “The closeness to the true nature of each material brought comfort,” says Ian. “Minimalism appealed to us as both a physical equivalent to emotional calm and as a powerful antidote to the clutter of our lives.”
Careful space planning also contributed to the design of the emotional side of the house. Ian and Zofia wanted an open floor plan but understood the limitations that can come with it—primarily the lack of
specialization in certain areas. “If natural daylight is important, an open plan makes a lot of sense because the light can penetrate deeper into the house and activate more areas,” says Ian. “We insisted on the kitchen being a connected counterpart to the living area, with only enough distance between the two to make sitting at the dining table not feel the same as sitting at the coffee table.” The home office is connected to the rest of the living space by a bridge but not cordoned off by walls. The physical separation of the office helps keep work and living spaces distinct, but the visual and audial connection integrates the two. The bedrooms were kept small to encourage use of the main living area, with just enough room for the essentials: a bed and nightstand.
On a snowy day in December, the same time of year Ian and Zofia first laid eyes on Belfast, their home is warm and welcoming despite its minimalist aesthetic. The solar array provides hot water and heat, which are supplemented by a small woodstove. Indeed, the warmth of this house comes as much from its tight construction as from the carefully thought-out design behind it. “The chilling feeling of modernist design often comes from a deficiency of imagination about how people use spaces and how they feel comfortable in spaces,” says Ian. “Clutter can be warm because it shows life.”
And a house located in a small city in Maine can be an urbanist’s paradise.