If you feel disconnected from the seasons, architect Carrie Meinberg Burke thinks the little device strapped to your wrist is partly to blame. “We’re part of a natural system, but we’ve somewhat forgotten it, thanks to clocks and calendars and other artifices like packaged foods,” she says. “They’re layers of removal from what we’re deeply connected to.” To reunite with Earth’s rhythms, she designed an ingenious house for herself and her family (husband Kevin and daughter Ava) in which one of the main living spaces acts as a giant sundial.
Altering perception with sunlight had captured the 49-year-old’s imagination ever since she was a graduate student in architecture at Yale. So when the Burkes decided to build their home in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, Kevin “wanted me to be able to build my theory. I hadn’t figured out how to build these ideas — they were literally paper-thin.”
Timepiece House is located in a historic district, where the streets are lined with Victorian homes. In 1995, when the Burkes first saw the empty half-acre lot, it had been on the market for five years, which Carrie attributes to community anxiety over shoehorning a McMansion between the older homes. Immediately, Kevin (also an architect) imagined a solution: hiding the structure from the road and making it look like a barn or carriage house for one of the mansions. To afford the land, the Burkes purchased a quarter-acre of it while neighbor Marla Ziegler bought the road frontage.
The house’s exterior marks the passage of time. It is clad in recycled copper, which matures from a shiny-penny surface to the color of purplish earth. Since the Burkes finished the cladding several years ago, streaks of green have formed where rainwater drains from its surface; ultimately, this verdigris patina will let the house fade into the landscape. Since the panels released copper before developing the oxidized coating, the Burkes transformed part of their property into a wetland, where native cattails — which clean up heavy metals — thrive.
The day-to-day timekeeping, however, takes place inside. In the observatory room, located on the second level of the house, light filters through an oculus, a 24-inch-diameter circle of clear glass suspended from a 9-foot-long skylight. A beam of sunlight tracks through the room around midday. Using the precise latitude and longitude coordinates of the site, Burke placed the house along the true north-south solar axis, and calculated the unique roofline, placement of beams, and floor plan so that, at winter solstice, the rays skim the surface of the ceiling. At summer’s peak, the oculus projects a beam of light into the stairwell.
Planning the interior of the 2,000-square-foot Timepiece House was, she says, like scripting the day’s activities according to the sun’s movement. Bedrooms and baths are placed on the ground floor, where morning light creeps in to wake the occupants, who ascend to the kitchen, where the sun shines throughout the day. In addition to the kitchen, this main level, which is overlooked by a mezzanine work area, includes the observatory.
“I started realizing that living a sustainable life is all about the incremental details of one day,” Burke says. “Habits tend to accrue into larger issues.” Indeed, the Burkes are vegetarians, and they enhance their connection to the outdoors by growing herbs and vegetables on a roof garden. The garden sits atop the concrete mechanical room, which itself is a showcase for the house’s environmentally friendly features.
Inside is the heat pump for the geothermal system; a control panel for the radiant floors, which are warmed by hot water running through embedded tubes, and heat the interiors more efficiently than forced-air systems with ducts; and a gas-fueled water heater, which Burke hopes to power someday with solar panels. There’s even a worm composter for the family’s food scraps. “Especially having our daughter grow up in the house, it’s been really important that this affects her decisions about the way she lives and acts toward the environment, and even generates solutions we haven’t thought of.”
Timepiece House continues to be a laboratory for green living. When the Burkes became annoyed by the hum of their air-conditioner, for instance, Carrie began collaborating with a couple of friends — one an engineer, the other a contractor — to develop a prototype radiant cooling system, with panels installed on interior walls for this purpose. So far it’s worked well, thanks to Burke’s resourcefulness: Where some might see the condensation that collects on the panels as a problem, Burke sees filtered water that could be channeled to the roof garden.
Story by David Sokol. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.