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A "Renegade" House Rises in Burlington

State of the Arts


Published July 14, 2010 at 8:20 a.m.

Vermont is not exactly known for aesthetic breakthroughs in house design. A general fondness for the vocabulary of farm buildings, pitched roofs and wood clapboard siding means that even new homes often look, well, kind of quaint.

There have been a few wild cards. Marcel Beaudin designed Bauhaus-influenced International Style houses in Burlington starting in the late 1950s. David Sellers and his cohorts experimented with design/build structures in Waitsfield and Warren in the mid-1960s and ’70s. And in Hardwick stands the startlingly postmodern Falk House, a 1970 composition of multiple white punctured façades by New York architect Peter Eisenman.

Now a new house joins those renegade ranks: the Chase Street House in Burlington. Boxy, metal clad and raised two feet off the ground, this ultramodern home — collaboratively designed by Jericho architect Christian Brown, Burlington metalsmith Kirk Williams and Colchester builder Mark Bonser — throws the Vermont vernacular out the window. Situated on a skinny lot on a cul-de-sac bordering the Winooski River, it stands out like a gleaming miniature skyscraper among its mid-1800s neighbors.

“This is a very old enclave, and I’m the new whippersnapper,” jokes house owner Williams, a 48-year-old from Austin, Texas Standing on his floating entryway during a recent open house, he recites some neighborhood lore: The 168-year-old house across the street used to be a tinker’s, and the one at the end was a bakery before Williams’ 94-year-old neighbor (“Mrs. Trono, the matriarch of Trono [Oil &] Gas”) was born there.

Now those neighbors face a 2000-square-foot, narrow, elongated box with a nearly flat roof. The whole is balanced on three horizontal steel I-beams welded to precast concrete piers poking out of the soil just far enough to store a canoe underneath. If a scrim of morning mist collected at ground level, the building would look like it was hovering. Not even the front steps anchor the thing: Williams modified the ends of two I-beams into cantilevered stairs. He also made the sleek steel handrails and angled support columns that accent the front porch.

There isn’t a hint of clapboard. “I wanted to use materials that are not reminiscent at all of anything in Vermont,” Williams says emphatically. Instead, the reigning aesthetic is one of repurposed modern construction materials. The shiny metal siding is commercial floor pan, normally used to hold a poured-concrete floor. The other exterior siding, of a contrasting golden hue, is highway signboard backing — a conveniently weatherproof material.

Inside, built-in bookshelves are made from laminated strand lumber, the usually hidden stuff of house framing. A kitchen island made from plywood is cut on an angle to show off its underlayers. “We’re showcasing the substrate as opposed to covering it up,” explains Bonser, whose company is Redhawk Construction, Inc.

Williams continues this motif in his interior metalwork: A second-floor railing at the top of the stairs is a funky repurposing of factory roller plates, which he found at Queen City Steel. After much effort, he sourced the deck railings’ grid-like cattle wire — a ranching- and home-construction staple in the South — at a farm-supply company in St. Albans.

There isn’t a superfluous detail inside or out, and the Texas native likes it that way. Having grown up with an interior-decorator mother in a slightly “stuffy” house and subsequently moved more than 30 times, Williams now considers possessions a burden. “I like to joke that I spent the first half of my life acquiring crap and the second half getting rid of it,” he declares.

Williams arrived in Stowe nine years ago after earning a degree in metalsmithing in southern Illinois. Within a few months he moved to Burlington to become head lighting designer at Conant Custom Brass (now Conant Metal & Light; Williams no longer works there). He had been envisioning his dream house for years — a bachelor pad with an accessory apartment for his elderly father — when he got the chance to buy one of Burlington’s last undeveloped lots in August 2009.

Having worked with Brown on the Harvard-trained architect’s own house in Jericho, Williams says he gave Brown “a few parameters” for the design, including a strict budget and the stipulation that it be “contemporary like nothing else around here.”

Brown positioned most of the windows to face the river in back and an adjacent wooded lot owned by Green Mountain Power. On the other side, next to an apartment building, he put a storage room and access to the utilities. That means the main upstairs living space — an open-plan bedroom with exposed metal ducts lining its lofty ceiling — feels private and secluded. “It’s an urban tree house,” Brown quips.

The open house, says Williams, was not just intended to showcase the talents of “this little, informal triumvirate that we’ve formed” — and satisfy the curiosity of the neighbors, who watched the structure go up in less than six months. He also wanted “to expose Burlington to a certain vernacular that is common in other places in the country” — such as his native Austin — “and educate people as to what the possibilities are.”

While the Chase Street House may be out of the range of some — Williams estimates its cost at $325,000, not including the $35,000 of metalwork he put in — it may encourage others to break out of the Vermont mold. “Here, there’s not a lot going on in terms of people reflecting their own personal styles,” he notes. “I’d like to see more of that. That would be really exciting.”