Broken China Farmhouse
The homeowner’s love for old farmhouses inspired the design for this project, set in a Trenton, N.C. beanfield. Ultimately, he plans to produce his own NC wine here, from vineyards he’s planted in the surrounding 50 acre working farm. He asked for a house that, when seen from the road, looked similar to other farm buildings dotting the landscape in this rural area of N.C. It is comprised of two simple boxes, a house and a barn, facing directly south, with roofs precisely pitched so that solar panels can be added to heat hydronic tubing in the concrete floor slab.
The owner first wanted to try building with rammed earth to acheive the character of the stone farmhouses he admired, but we were concerned about finding a local builder familiar with it. We decided that autoclaved aerated concrete block, or AAC, was a good altermative, and when our G.C. was able to locate a skilled AAC craftsman here in NC, we knew this would be the way to go.
The exterior walls are built of AAC, two withes thick (24 ” thick at the 1st floor and 16″ thick at the 2nd). It is a soft material, so we were able to carve openings and joints as we wished, using simple wood saws. It requires only plaster as a finish, both inside and out, which we colored to match the local “marl” of the roads here.
A truly green material, AAC is recyclable and airtight, simultaneously providing structure, thermal mass, and insulation. With “mass-enhanced” R-values between R 20 and R 30, depending on the wall thickness, monthly energy costs have not exceeded an average of $30/month over the course of a year.
Held within the thick exterior walls is an infill of wooden columns, beams, joists, floor planks, and walls. Bedrooms and bath are built as smaller, wooden “houses” within the larger house, with interior “roofs” of Polygal for acoustical privacy. Per the owner’s request, we used no drywall. Throughout the house, materials and exposed structure are easily read. Minimizing finishes, we used simple, off-the-shelf materials such as galvanized pipe rail, pre-fab roof trusses, and exposed fasteners. From the concrete floor to the trusses overhead, there is nothing “extra.” The structure is the finish.
Like any good home, it has a biographical quality. The owner’s talents and interests are apparent throughout: gourmet cooking, winemaking, entertaining guests, painting and scholarly reading. Rooms are organized along an open stairwell, animated by the changing light patterns cast by the sculpted south wall. A balcony, overlooking the library below, allows Paul to step out from his bedroom into this public spine of the house.
Powerfully framed views of the outside are key to the experience of the spaces. Walking up the stair is like being in a tall art gallery, with renderings of earth, plants, horizon and sky arranged on the wall. The building acts a frame through which to view the surrounding landscape, a surface for the sun to wash, and a way to capture the ever-changing “paintings” of the outside.