The House Next Door
On a lake in Acton, a family builds a super high-performance house next to longtime friends
There are the houses you grow up in, raise children in, think of as “home”—and then there are places that are like second homes to you. Where you walk in unannounced, help yourself to whatever is in the fridge, maybe even have your own spot at the table.
For Ted Wilton,* his “like-a-second-home” sits on a lake in Acton and is owned by the family of two of his friends from college. It all started two decades ago, when Ted began staying at their lakehouse every summer. When you spend that much time in a place, you get to know the land, the way the lake changes day to day, the neighbors. Over the years, Ted befriended the woman next door. “Up until the very end, she was a larger-than-life character,” he recalls, “out walking in the woods, gathering kindling, shoveling her driveway herself.”
When the woman died in her 90s, the future of her property hung in the air. With his longtime connection to this corner of the lake and his good friends’ family still next door, Ted and his wife, Annie, were given the right of first refusal. “We were humbled, and appreciated that it would be in good hands with us,” says Ted.
At first, the Wiltons thought they could do something with the existing house, but when it was deemed structurally unsound and noncompliant, they came to the hard realization that they would have to rebuild. “It didn’t sit well with us, but we understood it was necessary,” says Ted. Nevertheless, the Wiltons found ways to honor the woman who had lived there before. “She used to drive around in her Cadillac and pick up these stones she’d find on the side of the road,” says Ted. As a result the property had been lined with intricate stonewalls. The Wiltons reused most of the old stones in their new home: in the chimney and new retaining walls around the property. And when they had to cut down a few trees, they decided to keep the wood to someday create a bench as a link to the lot’s past.
With their great respect for and responsibility to the land, the Wiltons needed to find a like-minded architect. An Internet search with “energy-efficiency” as a keyword led them to Kaplan Thompson Architects. Ted and Annie were sold after Phil Kaplan took a Saturday out of his schedule to come and meet with them. “We could tell he really wanted to work on this property,” says Ted. “Having him respect the land as much as we did and understand that it’s not just another lot meant so much to us. The fact that his firm is at the forefront of the green movement was also a plus.” They chose a builder with a similar passion. “We delivered specs at seven-thirty at night, and at eight the next morning Tim and Clayton Spang of Spang Builders showed up. They had been at breakfast nearby, already working out cost and questions to ask,” recalls Ted. “I had this gut feeling they were people I wanted to work with and could trust.”
When it came to the program, with four children and frequent visitors, the Wiltons needed generous living spaces. At the same time, they wanted to be conscious of building to fit the context of the neighborhood. “We didn’t want the house to stick out like a sore thumb and be this ostentatious building on a lake with relatively modest seasonal camps,” says Ted. For Kaplan Thompson project architect Richard Lo, the question became, how do you provide a lot of square footage but make it look like a modest house? The answer invokes the British sci-fi series Doctor Who: create a TARDIS house—a house that reads small on the outside but big on the inside. In other words, create an optical illusion.
For Lo, this meant first using the existing grades to nestle the building into its context so that, from the street, the house looks like a typical single-story cottage, belying its 6,500 square feet. “It isn’t until you walk in that there’s an opening up toward the lake and you step down into the living area,” says Lo. Window placement was also key. Lo chose views for privacy from the neighbors and used the concept of “borrowed landscape.” Through its views of them, the house claims the adjacent property and woods, without actually owning them. Bay windows also extend the living space out toward the trees, and window seats create a sort of “room within a room,” extending the dining area and creating more flexibility between spaces. The use of built-ins also extends the living space: bookshelves in the living room conceal mechanicals for heating, while the bunkroom with four built-in bunks maximizes sleeping space and storage. Finally, generous porches integrated closely with the house create the feeling of extra rooms.
With entertaining in mind, Lo created a floor plan that includes five bedrooms arranged so that multiple families can use them comfortably without getting in one another’s way. The main floor contains the combined kitchen/dining/ living area plus three bedrooms and two bathrooms. An upper level serves as a self-contained suite with two bedrooms, a bathroom, bunkroom, and separate living space/TV room. The basement level features a large playroom and TV room.
For senior project manager Norm Laliberte of Spang, building a net-zero- ready house was a learning experience. “Kaplan Thompson taught us a ton when it comes to energy-efficiency,” he says. The team performed multiple blower-door tests and air sealing before the insulation went in. “For a net-zero house it’s all in the air sealing,” says Laliberte. “We created a balloon starting beneath the slab to create an entirely closed-in envelope. Every penetration— including vent pipes, every wire, every mechanism—had to be closely watched to achieve net-zero.” Assistant project manager Clayton Spang, who was also in charge of the sitework, says the team had to move nearly 1,000 yards of dirt justtoputthefoundationin,anderosion control was a major concern given the steep slope of the site. The biggest challenge, however, was the time frame. Construction began in November and continued through the winter, with the goal of getting the family into the house by mid-June. The team met the fast-paced schedule, in time for another summer on the lake.
For Ted, who now can call his second home “home,” the project is proof that you can build a larger house in an environmentally conscious way. “It’s not necessarily just about reducing your carbon footprint,” he says, “but blending into the environment as best as you can.” It’s also about building something that will last for generations to come. “Growing up next door and seeing how our lives changed from just a bunch of college guys sleeping on the floor to all of us having kids now, I wanted this house to accommodate those life changes. After all, it’s going to be our friends and our kids and their friends—and eventually our grandchildren—someday.”