On a dreamy tract of historic farmland in the shadows of the Adirondack Mountains and a skipping stone’s throw from Lake Champlain, a contemporary award-winning house has risen. Designed to replace an inefficient, 40-year-old home that was so awkwardly situated that it didn’t even take advantage of the dramatic landscape granted by Mother Nature, the new home in Shelburne, Vt., takes those magnificent vistas as its focus and inspiration.
Keith Wagner, principal at H. Keith Wagner Landscape Architects in Burlington, Vt., sited the house to take full advantage of the legendary Adirondack views, working closely with a design team led by architectural firm Birdseye Design with the help of Colby Hill Landscape Company, Treeworks Ltd., Church Hill Landscapes, and general contractor Birdseye Building Company.
The hills are alive
The designers created an expansive outdoor living space that seamlessly connects the home’s interior to the lake and mountain scenes with a rich use of natural materials including slate, stone, locally harvested wood, and even pebbles from Lake Champlain.
A propane-fueled outdoor hearth is the focus of the home’s exterior living space, which includes a kitchen, a dining terrace, and an evening terrace on the home’s southwest corner. The design garnered Wagner, who was responsible for the home’s exterior features, a 2012 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) award for residential design. The project’s designer says that, for him, using propane is a no-brainer. “Propane is the most efficient and safest fuel” for fire pits and decorative flame effects, Wagner says. “It’s a luxury to use propane as an aesthetic, but if you’re going to do it, you might as well be efficient with it.”
Further enhancing the exterior space is a propane-fueled fire pit, an ideal spot to while away the hours in an iconic Adirondack chair. Wagner explains that the square fire pit is table-height and surrounded by comfortable chairs, making it the home’s ‘perfect spot’ for outdoor entertaining. The fire pit, like the propane-fed Viking grill, is encased in concrete, a design choice made possible through the use of propane.
“Since propane doesn’t get too hot, you can use it in conjunction with concrete or other materials that you couldn’t use with a roaring wood fire because the materials are not heat resistant,” he says, adding that fire pits built with natural stone have to be lined with a special fire-resistant brick, which creates a whole different aesthetic. “With the propane fire pit, you can put concrete within inches and it won’t get too hot and pop the concrete.”
A practical choice
Propane can also be a very practical choice to make the most of the living spaces, Wagner says. Family or guests lounging around a propane fire pit don’t have to move their chairs once the wind changes, like they might with a wood-burning pit that could blow smoke and ash into their faces. Also, the only cleanup required after using a propane fire feature is complete with the flick of a switch; shoveling ash is not required.
“With the propane fire pit, you can put concrete within inches and it won’t get too hot and pop the concrete.”
Aside from its aesthetic and economic appeal, propane is also safe to use, Wagner says. “Igniting a propane-fueled fire pit is as simple as lighting a grill, which millions of people do every day,” he says. “A lot of our clients are choosing propane because they don’t want sparks or embers coming from a wood fire so close to their house.”
The interior features four gas fireplaces, a luxury amenity that wouldn’t be possible without propane. Since the home is in a rural area, it has no natural gas access. “You’ll find natural gas more in the suburbs or the big cities because homes can just tap into an existing line,” Wagner says. “In a rural setting like this, you’ll find a lot of people using propane because it’s so much more convenient and cost-effective.”
The home is heated with geothermal and uses solar photovoltaic power to keep its carbon footprint as small as possible, a fitting goal given the land’s historic context. The home is built on a parcel of land that used to be part of Shelburne Farms, a model agricultural estate created in 1886 by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb. Architect Robert H. Roberts and none other than landscape architecture pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted helped the property grow to almost 4,000 acres, and it became renowned for landmark agricultural and ecological practices. Generations later, the property was the site of a nonprofit organization that demonstrated sustainable farming, forestry, and conservation principles.
With its low-emission indoor and outdoor features, as well as meadow restoration efforts in the field below the house, the new home continues Shelburne Farms’ mission of educating the public about conservation and sustainability.