Inside the Box

A Vermont hideaway finds harmony with its wooded setting.

Every winter for the last decade, Bostonians Mark Garber and Vaughn Miller have driven to Vermont with skis strapped to their roof, carting duffel bags packed with cold-weather gear. But once their Vermont visits started to extend into summer and fall, the city couple—who call a South End brownstone home—decided it was time to ditch the vacation rentals and build their own cozy cabin.

A real estate developer for Niche Development, Garber wanted to invest in the resort-heavy Rutland-Killington area. He bought 40 acres in the tiny town of Mendon and planned nine residential lots, which he named Esquiline Hill—and kept four acres for Miller and himself. Then came the tricky part: Both men were trained as architects, and both were eager to work on the design for their new home.

Their collaborative solution: Garber would draw up the plans while Miller made the models. “I think all budding architects dream of building a house, and it seemed like a great way to do it,” says Miller, a designer at the architecture firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates.

The duo share a clean, contemporary aesthetic but knew they didn’t want a Philip Johnson–style glass box (the frequent knee-jerk reaction many designers have to a beautiful, wooded site). Instead, they made the house quite narrow, allowing them to see the outdoors from every room; each view would be carefully framed. To do this, the couple spent considerable time and effort placing and sizing the openings in the 1,800-square-foot home. In the living room, a large corner window drenches the space with afternoon sunlight. On the opposite wall, a low-positioned window frames a view of the rectangular artificial pond outside, where light often reflects off the water and bounces back into the room.

The window placements also maximize the house’s energy efficiency and enhance cross-ventilation. And beyond the wall of thermal windows on the building’s south side are deciduous trees that provide shade in the summer, eliminating the need for air conditioning. In the winter, when the trees shed their leaves, light streams in and warms the home’s walls and floors. The open, two-story living room encourages natural convection by drawing up the warm air. “On clear winter days, the heating system stays off,” Garber says.

Local builder Larry Young says he did a double-take when he saw the plans, especially the window designed so close to the ground. “At first I thought they were close to crazy,” he says. One thing Young did talk them out of was a flat roof. Instead, he sloped the metal roof so that it would drain toward the back and still look flat from the front.

Though the design is modern, the plans called for standard construction techniques, and the materials reflect those of the traditional Cape and Colonial homes in the area. The couple opted for local and green products whenever possible, using Vermont slate on the fireplace and unfinished cedar on the home’s exterior. By using untreated materials, they avoided introducing potentially toxic chemicals into the environment. They also fought the convenience of clearing the lot before beginning construction. “They’re Massachusetts tree-huggers,” Young says jokingly. An old oak tree, in fact, posed the greatest challenge, but the couple pushed to make it a focal point in the front yard. “I would have grabbed a chainsaw,” Young says. “They grabbed an arborist.”

Designers Vaughn Miller and Mark Garber Contractor Larry Young, Lawrence D. Young Builder