May 2011: Turn the porch life on

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Imagine standing in a house’s second-floor corridor. What comes to mind? How about large windows overlooking the house’s biggest vista, smaller windows into one bedroom, and clerestory windows overhead? Now throw in a tall, sloped ceiling, exposed trusses, and a view over a railing into the kitchen below. Then add various inspirations and references: Caribbean island houses, European monasteries, and barns, among them.

At this point, you’ve got something like the upstairs corridor in Bill and Nicole Sherman’s Free Union house—as unlike a standard closed-in hallway as it could be. “This is another volume of space. You don’t just pass through,” says Bill Sherman, who designed the house with input from Nicole. “You end up hanging out and talking.”

In other words, you spend time. And time is probably the key element in this house’s design. Natural processes that extend over hours, days and seasons—from changing light to changing weather—are as much a part of the home as concrete, stucco and wood.

What’s more, just as there are endless variations on how a spring night or a winter noon might feel, the Sherman house admits many possibilities as to what a room can be. “Enclosed box” does not top the list. Most rooms here are connected with the outdoors, other rooms, distant views, and even the possibility of some new form in the future, as the family continues to refine their dwelling 12 years after beginning construction. For Sherman, the question is this: “How do you live in this landscape?”

To the elements

The house’s first answer to that question: Pay attention to the weather. That means designing for the climate (a key strategy that Sherman imparts to his students at UVA’s School of Architecture). And, more simply, it means to look outside a lot, sniff the breeze through open windows, and listen to the rain—all of which the house encourages.

An addition begun in 2001 gave the Shermans two more bedrooms plus this downstairs "great room," divided into two separate spaces by four steps and a walk of built-in shelves.

“It’s like living on a porch,” says Sherman. That’s due not only to an abundance of windows and doors (18 exterior doors altogether!), but to careful consideration of siting, orientation, ventilation and views. “There’s a porch in just about every direction. The idea was to be able to live outside, and to take the long spring and fall seasons in Charlottesville and extend them.”

Thus, the southern side of the house is defined by two long porches, one on each floor, with roof overhangs that admit sun in winter, provide shade in summer, and protect from rain. This encourages gracious living—think winter lunches outside, overlooking a courtyard, warmed by a concrete porch floor and dark house walls that collect the heat. And in summer, Sherman says, A/C is only needed on the very hottest days. Instead, “It’s designed for cross-ventilation and lots of shadows.”

The house is certainly modern, but there’s also a sense of time-honored architectural tradition here. Porches are a very traditional way to regulate light and temperature through the seasons. Eating breakfast on an east-facing porch, like the one off the Shermans’ dining room, is an old pleasure.

What’s new, perhaps, is the sheer number of spaces devoted to outdoor living. Seventeen-year-old Arianna’s bedroom (in the house’s newer wing) has its own tiny porch. A kitchen garden extends from the main front door. A screened porch abuts the kitchen. And even indoor spaces feel half outdoors.

Take the master bedroom. “In the summer we can open this room on three sides, and it feels like you’re on a sleeping porch,” says Sherman. Like other upstairs rooms, the master suite takes advantage of clerestory windows on two different levels (seen from outside, the roof structure is, Sherman says, “like an airplane wing that unfolds when it lands”).

With so many openings of different kinds, the house is constantly inviting natural light from every angle. The complex forms of its interior are made even more interesting by this continual evolution of light throughout the day.

As the center of the home, the kitchen is open visually and physically to many other spaces, from the front garden to a screened porch to the dining and living rooms.

It can be a dramatic effect. “In a thunderstorm it feels like the house is exploding,” says Sherman, who was partly inspired by experiencing afternoon storms from a house on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

In the field

When the Shermans bought the open, sloping 8.5-acre lot in 1996, they figured a way to site the house that other potential buyers might have missed. Instead of building near the road, which would mean living under a powerline, they located the house near the upper corner of the lot, and had the driveway follow the powerline.

This brings several advantages. For one, the house sits on a high spot, a flat area carved from the hillside. For another, it leaves room between the house and road for layers of trees, which provide screening and privacy. And finally, the house is near the woods, which give shade and encourage encounters with fox and other wildlife.

When she first saw the land, Nicole says, “I liked it because of the trails and the river”—that is, the Moormans, which lies to the east. Since moving in, she and Bill have carved a multifaceted landscape around the house (they joke that it was a collaboration with his landscape architect colleagues during dinner parties here).

The different types of outdoor spaces include a colorful hillside garden behind the south courtyard, a group of Chinese pistache trees screening a parking area, and a horse barn that, like the house, makes use of passive solar principles. Though the acreage is quite open, there’s very little to mow. Instead, there’s a sense of cultivated beauty, both on the near scale (blackberries growing steps from the house) and the far (a barn on a neighboring lot framed by the view from the courtyard).

“I believe really strongly in the connection between architecture and landscape architecture,” Sherman says. And if barns lie somewhere between the two, then it’s appropriate that the house, when seen from the road, could almost be mistaken for another of the barns that dot the fields here.

Buildings within a building

Indoors, that sense of ambiguity continues. Back in that upstairs corridor, for example, a guest room opens not only a door but three windows (salvaged from Nicole’s childhood home in Connecticut) onto the hallway. “It’s this sense of a house within a house,” says Sherman. “The house is a city…You get a sense of little houses [lining the corridor].”

The family’s eclectic aesthetic combines modern forms with antiqued furniture.

Throughout, rooms are porous: open to other rooms and even other floors. Nicole’s jewelry studio looks down into the dining room, for example. A table in the kitchen lies along an open line of space that runs the length of the house. “It feels like you’re in a field of connected spaces, not in an object. You’re not sure if you’re in a room or an adjacent space,” Sherman explains. “You never feel contained or enclosed—you’re always moving in and out of spaces.”

In 1999, when the family moved in, the house was far from finished (contractor Greer and Associates had built the core of the structure, but much work remained to be done). The Shermans knew they’d later be designing an addition, on which they broke ground in 2001, and that new space gave them two more bedrooms for Arianna and 13-year-old Porter.

They also gained a large first-floor living space, which Sherman calls “one big room with separate areas”—a family room divided from a living room by a 2′ height difference and a bank of built-in shelves. “It’s almost a great room,” says Nicole. But, Bill adds, “by having these different spaces, it gets a lot more interesting.”

Up for revision

The Shermans have an inclusive aesthetic and a can-do spirit. “It’s not been a linear project,” says Bill. “We’ll get out there with a Sawzall and cut a new hole.” Nicole agrees: “It is very much a house of process. I’m the daughter of an architect, married to one, and we’d both be bored without a project.”

Sherman says that though the house is meant to be dynamic, its evolution is not a haphazard process. “Rather than The Statement, it’s a set of experiments. I didn’t want to do the house that would define me as an architect. [My houses are] places to live in, not to look at.”

Indeed, the eclectic process of living is amply reflected here—in the collections of old Brownie and Rolleiflex cameras on the living room shelves, in miles of books, in beautiful small objects and artworks, and in the many different architectural notions that are somehow unified by a simple palette of white and blonde wood.

Double porches run the length of the house’s south side, overlooking a courtyard with edible and ornamental plantings. The roof structure, Sherman says, is "like an airplane wing that unfolds when it lands."

“We like collecting old pieces and mixing them with new,” says Sherman. Thus a grand piano finds a place in the dining room, under a ceiling that’s simply the underside of a structural insulated panel (SIP) forming the roof. In the kitchen, a salvaged utility sink fits comfortably with tall modern cupboards and a collection of orchids; in the master bath, a modern-style sink cabinet mixes with a clawfoot tub painted the same light blue as the floor tiles and a handmade ceramic sink.

It all speaks to a type of ease and generosity that’s in tune with the essentially Mediterranean spirit of the house. When you’ve got this many ways to get in touch with the world outside, perhaps curiosity and inclusiveness are the inevitable result.

Even when they first moved into a then-unfinished house, Nicole Sherman says, “It was lovely to live in. The feeling of the house has always been wonderful.”

A note on efficiency

The Sherman house is not only designed to let the outdoors in, it’s designed for energy-efficiency—both in its materials and in working with, rather than against, solar heat and light. Its roof is made of SIPs, its walls are built of 2x6s with blown-cellulose insulation, and it has high-efficiency windows.

It’s efficient, too, in terms of cost. The materials are not luxurious: plywood, exposed trusses and joists, concrete and 2x4s. “Character-grade” cherry floors make up most of the first floor, while a modern-style railing is constructed from simple plywood panels mounted on 2×4 posts. The Shermans also saved money on construction by taking on much of the work themselves once their contractor had gotten enough done to secure an occupancy permit. 

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