Sustainable Urban Villa

Cambridge, Massachusetts

This LEED-Silver residence on a small urban site maximizes the owners’ sense of living in a garden setting within the city, close to public transportation and local shops and restaurants. The starting point was an existing, poorly-designed and poorly-built residence that happened to be located on a tiny, but secluded and attractive urban lot, off a cul-de-sac. The existing house had small windows, low ceilings, a tight awkward stair, and an odd, half-level entry at the back.

This “green” renovation was designed so that the house’s height minimizes its footprint, while its irregular massing breaks up its volume for private decks, planters, green roofs, corner views and openness to breezes. Our close collaboration with the landscape designer results in a unique, peaceful place where nature and architecture come together.

A vertical “green wall” at the entrance combines with green roofs at two different levels to emphasize the garden theme and sustainability; the lush landscape design offers sitting areas, an extended sculptural water course of Corten steel, and a meditation hut. Outdoor decks at each story of the house place the occupants “in the trees.” The permeable driveway reduces run-off; underground storage recharger chambers retain run-off on site. At the highest roof, photo-voltaic panels capture the sun’s energy. Below grade, a ground-source (geothermal) system provides pre-heating and cooling.

Milling the exterior siding from reclaimed lumber—harvested originally in the 19th and early-20th centuries—results in unique custom cladding of a higher quality than the equivalent wood species today. The materials and colors allude to the client’s Swedish heritage.

Inside, birch bark wraps a column in the vestibule to introduce the emphasis on nature into the house. Sliding screens on the main level continue that theme with laser-cut leaf shapes taken from leaves of nearby trees. Heart pine floors throughout come from reclaimed lumber. The fireplace wall and kitchen counter tops are of Vermont marble. Furnishings include custom designed wood pieces by regional furniture makers. An elevator, with veneer panels similar to the screens, will allow the owners to age in place here.

Wolf Architects, Inc. uploaded Sustainable Urban Villa through Add A Home.
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The house from the south, with its irregularly spaced board and batten siding milled from reclaimed lumber. Photo  of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The house from the south, with its irregularly spaced board and batten siding milled from reclaimed lumber.

The green wall and entrance, with its blue ceramic tile facing and planters. Photo 2 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The green wall and entrance, with its blue ceramic tile facing and planters.

The meditation hut set in the garden designed by Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio (JMMDS). Photo 3 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The meditation hut set in the garden designed by Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio (JMMDS).

The entrance vestibule, with birch bark column and marble flooring. Photo 4 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The entrance vestibule, with birch bark column and marble flooring.

The stair of reclaimed heart pine risers and treads and a cherry railing, between irregularly spaced steel rods. Photo 5 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The stair of reclaimed heart pine risers and treads and a cherry railing, between irregularly spaced steel rods.

A dining nook in the kitchen, with wife's office at the left. Photo 6 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

A dining nook in the kitchen, with wife's office at the left.

Sliding screens of veneer with leaf cut-outs between the dining room and living room. Photo 7 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

Sliding screens of veneer with leaf cut-outs between the dining room and living room.

The living room, with a Vermont marble slab at the fireplace wall. Photo 8 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The living room, with a Vermont marble slab at the fireplace wall.

The stair at the second floor, leading up to the husband's office at the third floor. Photo 9 of Sustainable Urban Villa modern home

The stair at the second floor, leading up to the husband's office at the third floor.