A Finely Crafted Home Serves as Work Studio and Laboratory for a Designer who Creates Everything from Furniture to Shelter

by David Sleeper

photos by James Burde

JAMES BURDE was tired of building miniature buildings for other architects. It had been a lucrative, decade-long occupation, one that had taken him from the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, where he studied art history, architecture, and design at Hampshire and Smith Colleges, to London, Paris, and Jerusalem. He had made a career of creating highly detailed architectural models for wonderful projects including historic buildings, museums, and large civic buildings, but he had never built a structure at a scale of one - in other words, at life size. So he and his wife, Kay, came to Vermont to do just that.


James had several goals in mind as he began designing a home to fit neatly onto the 30-acre wooded parcel in Essex, which has a stunning view of Camel's Hump to the southeast. First, unlike many practicing architects (James is not a licensed architect, but earned his undergraduate degree in architecture and art history, followed by an internship and significant professional experience working in architecture firms), he wanted the experience of building a structure himself. "It's a sad fact among architects and designers," he says, "and one that engenders conflict between these professions and the buildings trades, that few have actually ever built anything." He addressed that issue by insisting that all the subcontractors - framers and carpenters, plumbers, electricians, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) contractors, and masons - put him on their teams so that he could learn on the job. By the time he was done he knew "the true meaning of 16d nails and the actual size and stock lengths of dimensional lumber." Among those particularly helpful to him during his unique home-school project were Goodridge Lumber in Albany, Vermont, among the state's best sources of eastern white cedar; Sheldon Slate Products, of Monson, Maine, a fine source of slate quarried in Fair Haven, Vermont; Bob Sham of Vermont Custom Sheet Metal, and Queen City Steel, both of whom supplied the metal work in the house; Wilfred E. Verchereau & Son, of Essex Junction, masters in the craft of stucco construction; and various members of Building for Social Responsibility, a trade group of building professionals headquartered in Hinesburg.

His second overall goal was to build an environmentally friendly house that practices "sustainable design" -commonly defined as a structure that provides for our immediate needs without endangering our future existence. He accomplished that, among other ways, by carefully choosing construction materials, many of which originate locally; by landscaping with native vegetation; and by using energy-saving devices and technologies such as compact fluorescent lighting, a sophisticated heat-recovery ventilating system, a central vac which exhausts to the outside, and a European-made appliance that combines a washer and dryer into one unit. The finished house has been certified as a "5-Star Home" by Energy Rated Homes of Vermont, which means it is very chary when it comes to heating and electricity needs, even in Vermont's severe northern climate. For example, if all the compact fluorescent lights were turned on, which could easily light the entire house, it would be equivalent to burning one 200-watt incandescent bulb. Over the past two years, the house's average total energy cost has been $1 ,470 annually.

Finally, James wanted his home to serve as a laboratory for what's known as "total design," which is the practice, championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, of designing everything within a living space - furniture, stairways, doors, color schemes, and finish woodwork, as well as the structure of the house itself. In order to fully appreciate the extent to which James succeeded at his total design, you need to experience the house first hand. Walking through the building is like immersing yourself in a work of art.

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FROM THE OUTSIDE, the house presents the appearance of Vermont vernacular architecture, featuring traditional materials and lines. Built into the side of a hill, the 16-by-36-foot rectangle has a steeply pitched metal roof and an enclosed staircase tacked onto one side and finished on the outside with white stucco. But once you enter the front door (which includes a stained-glass window with rectangular panes designed by James), a completely different feeling pervades. Inside, you find the warmth of naturally finished wood, clean lines, and soaring spaces: European Modern meets Far Eastern Zen.

The living room exemplifies James's total design philosophy. My eye is drawn first to the specially built windows (reminiscent of the front-door design) which frame a perfect Zen view of Camel's Hump, and then upward 27 feet to the peak of the roof, finished with white cedar in a tongue-and-groove herringbone pattern (which I begin to realize repeats itself inside and outside the house). My gaze is helped upward by an 18-foot-tall bookshelf with an attached rolling ladder, all of it constructed by James from off-the-shelf aluminum I-beams, brass rollers, and oak treads. The aluminum components of the ladder are painted "Country Redwood" from Benjamin Moore, as are other accents throughout the house such as metal picture rails, triangular steel braces, and even the round metal bolts holding the house's wooden frame together.

As I tour the rest of the 1, 700-square-foot-house (which includes a kitchen, comfortable dining room/family room with a woodstove, master bedroom, home office overlooking the living room, and third-floor loft), it becomes increasingly clear how much thought has gone into the details. Each time I remark on yet another repetitive design feature - scalloped curves in the woodwork, slate window sills and kitchen counters, brass doorknobs and hand rails - James beams like a proud father. He is obviously proud, too, of the furniture and other building components on display, prototypes which emerged from his design studio: kitchen cabinets; light fixtures; flat storage files for his architectural drawings which function also as a built-in seat; a magnificent work table and computer desk; a bookshelf which is also a banister; a sliding door opening to a three-season porch with a glass-block floor; and a wood-and-glass surround which completely encloses the top of a clawfoot bathtub, thus making showers an aesthetic as well as practical possibility.

"Design is a fine art that needs slow cultivation," James says, "and this building is always changing." It's clear from the glint in his eye that this designer/craftsman clearly enjoys what Le Corbusier might call a "model for living in," built at a scale of one.

For more information about this and other projects, contact James Burde, Teiki Design Studio, P.O. Box 272, Jericho, VT 05465-0272; 802-899-2497. The trade organization Building for Social Responsibility can be reached at RR 1, Box 1953, Hinesburg, VT 05401.

All text and images for this article were taken from Vermont Magazine.