Tuned in

Essex home goes national on Discovery Health Channel

By Debbie Salomon, Free Press Staff Writer

For an architectural designer who was born in Polynesia, raised in Plattsburgh, N.Y., educated in Massachusetts and Scotland, worked in Europe and the Middle East, James Burde's Essex home embodies Vermont: A wooded hillside site surrounded by snowshoe and cross-country ski trails. Energy-efficient environmental design using native woods and slate. "Safe" paints and finishes. Odd-shaped, irregularly placed windows, each framing a view, topped off by a five-star energy rating from Energy Rated Homes of Vermont.

Burde's clapboards, slate, shelves and site will be featured Thursday on "Healthy Home," a new program on Discovery Health Channel. A crew came to tape the segment in October. Also featured next week: the homes of William Maclay of Waitsfield and Ted Montgomery of Charlotte.

Claire Vande Polder, a Discovery Health Channel executive, explains the Vermont draw: "We went to Vermont because it's a progressive, forward-thinking part of the country. The notion of healthy homes is not as new to Vermont as elsewhere. Our home-show audience wants to be inspired."

They found the right place. Burde designed the house and almost everything in it. He acted as general contractor and construction-crew member. He built much of the furniture, including an 18-foot bookcase and rolling library ladder. He designed and fabricated stained-glass windows.

"I've always been nature's boy, a hard-core environmentalist," says this slight, sandy-bearded 40-year-old dressed in a fine-knit turtleneck and well-tailored twill slacks.

Only wife Kay Burde's purple orchid plant on a shelf facing Camels Hump interrupts the design/color unity created by the self-described quiet, passive man who teaches by example and thrives in peaceful surroundings.

At first glance, the Burde's inspirational three-level house with loft appears finished and furnished but unoccupied -- that perfect.

"James and I are both tidy and methodical," Scottish-born Kay says. Yes, a half-full bottle of red wine sits on the counter and flannel pajamas hang from a peg rack in the single, smallish bedroom with slanted ceiling and square casement windows placed high on the wall. But each painting, book, rug and tabletop accessory looks chosen -- because it was. Every recessed light illuminates an area, and each area serves a purpose -- from the L-shaped balcony where Kay watercolors to the reading loft accessed by a steep ladder. A spare, angular dining nook seats six, no more, at a custom-made table and banquettes. Angles, James believes, are easier to work with, to fit furniture into. Besides, six is a congenial number.

A television for videos is concealed behind doors. "Part of having a healthy home is not having TV," James states.

The galley kitchen has Vermont slate countertops, a convection oven, side-by-side refrigerator, tiny cold pantry, open shelves, a trendy 19th-century-style farmhouse sink reproduction, recycling drawer but no dishwasher.

"There's just the two of us, and we share everything," including housework, Kay says.

Aided by a built-in vacuum system, the couple cleans the entire house in one hour.

Wood, wood, everywhere -- some cut from their 30-acre parcel. Diagonal tongue-and-groove pine with visible nails create the look of exterior sheathing. Floors are red birch; James and cabinetmaker Dave Pell used leftover flooring to fashion kitchen cupboards. "James broke a few rules, doing that," Pell says. Flooring is usually a lower-grade lumber than cabinet material. "We argued about it, but we had a fun time -- and it worked," Pell admits.

When plywood was needed, James chose Baltic birch, sealed to prevent outgassing. The cellulose insulation is manufactured from newspaper. Untreated cedar clapboards and shingles will weather barn gray.

Oddly, the bathroom has a glass enclosure built around an antique claw-foot tub with old brass fixtures collected in London. Wood stove and radiant LP heat warm the open floor plan. A steep-pitched cathedral vaults 25 feet over the compact "sitting room" with window wall. Here, James and Kay read Anthony Trollope novels aloud to each other.

Subtle homages to Frank Lloyd Wright and Shaker functionality are everywhere.

Each piece of furniture contributes a story. James acquired two handsome sitting-room chairs -- one suede, one leather, both intended for judges -- while working on the new Israeli Supreme Court building in Jerusalem.

This Rome was not built in a day, either.

Young James laid the foundation with Tinker Toys and architectural building blocks. He played musical instruments ("I see music and design related."), did well in math and adored building models. But instead of pointing toward architecture, he majored in art history, then worked in architectural offices. Paris beckoned. "I wanted to learn French and get in on some grand projects," James says.

His model-building skills led to prestigious assignments in London, Jerusalem and elsewhere. During these years abroad -- and through Kay -- James absorbed the ethic of rationing space while utilizing every inch to the fullest.

"I like efficiency," he says. "From the perspective of living in Europe, I see lots and lots of waste in the American lifestyle."

His clever spatial arrangements make the house rising from a 16-by-36 foot footprint feel larger than 1,700 square feet.

James and Kay returned to New England in 1993. "I had this romantic feeling about Vermont" from summers at Camp Abenaki in North Hero, James says. They found land after a six-month search. Kay recalls the moment:

"James said 'Come over here.' He was at the spot near the boulder that's by our front door. By his demeanor, I knew he had found a special place."

They camped and tramped the land, making it their own before drawing plans.

Until now, James and Kay had lived in small apartments. Kay, from a family of seven, grew up in a one-bathroom house.

Like many architects and designers, James had never actually built a residence. For him, this would be both a practical and a spiritual experience. Husband and wife worked together with James conceptualizing and building models and Kay offering opinions (including a second bathroom) and the occasional veto, when "something didn't feel good."

Their sole purpose was a house to suit personal needs with minimum environmental impact. Re-sale didn't matter. Satisfaction did: "We chose these acres in Vermont so I wanted a house that was part of Vermont -- to bring in the views, the sounds of nature. Every part of my being, my aspirations and dreams (formed) the inspiration for this house," James explains.

Construction began in October 1995. James became involved with Building for Social Responsibility, a local organization of environmental builders. As soon as the walls were up and a camp stove running, they moved in.

Kay recalls that moment, too: "I had a feeling of finally having someplace that was home -- a home for ourselves, two people who don't keep a lot of clutter."

James talks more theory than hard numbers. He cannot put a price on the house. "Our budget was airy-fairy," he chuckles. Sweat equity kept construction costs below the $100-per-square-foot typical for a house with similar features. Custom-made windows were a major expense; in retrospect, James says he might have done more with ready-made.

Because the house is a prototype for Teiki-Techture, his business "creating quality designs with style for healthy living," James expects a return on the investment from clients seeking a residence fine-tuned to the environment.

Waitsfield architect Bill Maclay has had moderate success with Vermont Healthy Home mail-order plans for houses using specified materials and systems which he began marketing in 1994. "We haven't sold tons of the plans, but we incorporate (their features) into everything we do," Maclay says. "In general, people are more aware of health and indoor air quality.

Healthier building supplies are certainly easier to obtain than in 1990, when Steve Van Dusen built a home for his wife, Annie, who had multiple chemical sensitivities. "I had to order (paints and joint compound) from the West Coast. Today, you can get really good paints at local stores and the price isn't as prohibitive," Van Dusen finds.

Evaluating James and Kay Burde's finished product, British-born architectural designer Chris Carley, who practices in Burlington, says "Craftsmanship impresses James. He has the skill to make custom pieces with great simplicity and beauty.

"There is no compromise in this house either," Carley continues. "In designing you own home you can carry an idea as far as you want to go."

Through national exposure through Discovery Health Channel, this idea, although hardly new, may go further than an Essex hillside. But for now, Kay Burde says, "It just feels comfortable. It was designed as our home, not a showcase. We live in it."