by eden muir

This essay was first published by Le Tour Sutton, Summer 2009.


In the hyperbole of the recent boom, the corporate media defined the ideal home as a grandiose "McMansion," a commodity to be "flipped" for quick profit, and a personal ATM for extracting home-equity cash.

Most Townshippers never bought into that myth, but now, like everyone else, they are planning their renovation and new construction projects with greater attention to the fundamentals of residential design, construction and economics. If we can discern a trend, it is a renewed quest for what could be called the "Essential Abode."

[1] A Frelighsburg deck is a response to views of nature, the Adirondacks and Vermont's Lake Carmi.

The Essential Abode concept includes the search for the highest level of efficiency, sustainability and quality of life that one's dwelling can reasonably provide. This involves a thoughtful, comprehensive design process whose goal is to custom-tailor the home to the family's actual needs; identifying, and not gratuitously exceeding, the essential. Careful and creative planning can result in surprisingly generous spaces within a greatly reduced physical footprint or floor area, thereby lowering the project's cost as well as its carbon footprint. Seeing the home as a long term investment in quality of life helps owners to justify high-quality materials and "green" technologies such as geothermal radiant floors whose costs take many years to recoup. But the Essential Abode is about more than the economics of shelter; it also involves the home's unique place in its environment.

by eden muir

Townshippers have always been connoisseurs of the relationship between architecture and landscape. Just as the ancient Greeks aligned their marble temples with sacred mountain peaks, our region's earliest settlers demonstrated an uncanny ability to site their buildings so that their pleasing geometries sat perfectly in nature. What factors encouraged that spirit of ancient architecture to thrive in our own bucolic region? Perhaps one link occurred in the 1800s when the Greek Revival movement captivated our New England neighbours, from whom we imported so many of our own settlers and master carpenters.

[2] Luminous vertical and horizontal spatial volumes intersect within a modest 40 x 27 ft. rectangular plan.

Since World War II, the mind-numbing banality of the suburban subdivision has been the norm in North American residential planning. A typical sad result: a developer's generic house model is unthinkingly replicated on both sides of the street -- if the west-facing house enjoys the sunset from its family room, its east-facing twin will not.

by eden muir

Today, in their search for the Essential Abode, owners and architects focus on the particular qualities of the property: its local context, topography, climate, vegetation, solar orientation, prevailing winds, boulders and rock formations, alignments to landmarks, and so on. These are a constant reference for all internal and external planning decisions, such as the placement of windows, doors, gables, balconies, fireplaces, bedrooms, terraces, and so on.

[3] The plane of an "interior bridge" continues as an exterior balcony with a dramatic view of Jay Peak.

With a greater sensitivity to the unique essence of the immediate natural environment -- the "soul of the site" -- there is a far greater chance to create memorable spaces, both interior and exterior. For example, an L-shaped house oriented to the southeast can create a delightful patio or garden protected from the west wind and flooded with morning sunlight. If it has a vine-covered pergola aligned with a mountain view, the owner is truly blessed!

by eden muir

Ideally, to celebrate its immanent relation to nature, the house should provide an internal "architectural promenade" that draws one unconsciously but inexorably toward vantage points that reveal something new about the structure and the site. Whether these insights are provided by a window framing an unexpected view of the landscape, or by a sun-drenched double-height atrium, they are by definition unique to the house and property. You can't confuse your Essential Abode with any other house!

[4] Downsizing to simplicity: 3D software evaluates shadow and light in a 3-bedroom Bedford cottage with a tiny 24 by 34 ft. footprint.

It is only by carefully analyzing, adjusting and balancing hundreds of these kinds of design choices and trade-offs that one arrives at the optimal solution for a particular owner, house and site. When the process succeeds, the resulting home can engender a profound sense of well-being and inspiration as well as a vital and integral connection to nature. In the end, today's search for the Essential Abode is the aspiration to achieve a satisfying contemporary architectural experience that both the ancient builders and the early Townships settlers would have appreciated.

by eden muir

[5] An 1859 Frelighsburg residence receives a corner window with mountain views that sweep from Jay to Stowe.

Projects and photos by Architect Eden Greig Muir who can be reached at Atelier Muir, 41 Principale, Frelighsburg, J0J 1C0, tel: 450-298-1212, web:

© Tous droits réservés 2009 Eden Greig Muir, architecte