By Jack Coraggio
Indoor designs by Green View Building & Design Company, Inc. of Cornwall. Photographs courtesy of the firm.
Fashion is cyclical. Music is cyclical. It happens over and over again. Styles and concepts from years past get often dismissed as antiquities, until a new generation of innovative minds rediscovers and reexamines them, salvages the key elements and creates an often worthwhile resurrection.
Building concepts are cyclical too.
Will Calhoun, who with his wife, Alexa Venturini, owns and operates Green View Building & Design Company Inc. out of Cornwall, recalls finding work in the restoration of old homes in southern Maine and Martha’s Vineyard after some time bouncing around universities. This was a few decades ago, but even then he recognized in these antique New England structures a certain quality absent in contemporary subdivisions.
Maybe the houses were a bit porous, but these structures from generations ago endure. It’s as if those old-time builders had this radical notion of making things that would last.
For Mr. Calhoun it was astonishing, even romantic, how well architects and contractors from a bygone era understood the notion of sustainability. Unfortunately, during the height of suburban sprawl, lasting development became something of a lost art, another one of those concepts waiting for some innovative minds to rediscover, reexamine and resurrect it.
Now the revolution is upon us, and Green View stands with it as a company whose mission it is to provide quality construction with integrity that’s mindful of the native environment and overall impact.
“I was originally drawn to construction as a way to build to last a long time,” Mr. Calhoun explained. “The principle’s still the same: build something that lasts that you don’t have to fix all the time—these are the things that drove me to be a builder in the first place.”
A New Hampshire native with familial Connecticut roots, Mr. Calhoun came to Cornwall in 1984 and created his former but similarly intentioned building company, Renovation Specialists. He met Ms. Venturini, who ran an independent landscape design and contracting company of likeminded tenets, 22 years ago.
They married in 1991 and now have two adolescent children, but it wasn’t until 2008 that their once technically separate businesses merged to form Green View. It appears to be a perfect marriage, business and otherwise, as her ideas of landscape architecture outline how the beautification of a property can be made sustainable and environmentally astute if approached thoughtfully.
“What I love about this discipline, instead of looking at landscape design as making a place, ecological landscape design uses a combination of understanding nature, human culture and architecture,” Ms. Venturini noted. “We can’t divorce one thing from another anymore, we can’t divorce building practices.”
There’s no such thing, of course, as entirely self-sustaining landscapes. But instead of simply imposing a structure on the land, Ms. Venturini goes to lengths to first understand the earth, the habitat, the native species, the hydrology, even the conditions of the climate. Don’t just throw in some boxwood shrubs and walk away, make sure the land is planned and designed in a manner that lets these living entities work symbiotically.
“Whatever the process is, it has to have a beginning and an ending, so if I’m planning a meadow I’m going to invest in its maintaining, not just throw some seeds in and walk away,” she thoughtfully explained. “If you come in and plunk down some trees that don’t belong the site, you have to remember the end result is not a fixed thing, it’s going to change.”
And it could change negatively, as plants and trees grow and shade out other trees and plants, or encroach on other species, or attract undesirable wildlife, or any other thousand-plus scenarios that could have an adverse and costly impact on the land. It’s part of what she calls the “green meatball project” phenomenon.
Mr. Calhoun, meanwhile, promotes the use of materials and products and systems that last. Homes these days can be made fuel neutral, structures that at the end of the calendar year have used zero energy. In fact, he’s done it.
There’s one in the Northwest Corner for which he was hired to help “focus the project.” For these particular clients, with whom Mr. Calhoun has had a long working relationship, focusing the project meant creating a home as low impact and energy efficient as conceivably possible.
It’s fairly sizable country home with two stories, a full basement and space enough for four bedrooms, and yet it still a net neutral energy bill.
First, it’s southerly positioned for maximum sunlight exposure, the rooftop photovoltaic cells absorb enough sunlight power to, at times, spin the meters backward. This is not a myth; people sell power back to the electric company.
And the home sucks heat in from two polarized directions, beneath the earth and above the atmosphere. That is, the structure harnesses both geothermal and solar thermal heating. The latter warms a stored reservoir of water in the basement, the former, believe it or not, is found to be more useful for cooling the home in the summer months than heating the home in the winter.
The house does have a specially designed furnace that runs at between 96 and 97 percent efficiency. Mr. Calhoun chuckles a little, thinking of the typical furnace that performs at a comparatively dismal 80 percent efficient.
And perhaps the most important feature necessary for maximum greenness: the insulation. In order to preserve, the home must be built airtight. There may be more than one school of thought on the subject—some builders prefer the spray-on wet cellulose—but Mr. Calhoun goes with the dry cellulose (mostly recycled newspaper) and foam.
Then again, maybe the insulation isn’t the most crucial aspect for sustainable development. To build a home that meets the highest standards of energy efficiency (and this home, at an undisclosed location in Litchfield County, has an Energy Star rating to prove its environmental credibility) it requires an open line of communication between builder and client. There must be an understanding that this is a special project that requires special attention and detail and effort.
“Everything today is go, go, go. We’ve lost an innate sense of what it actually takes to make something,” said Mr. Calhoun. “It’s a rare client that appreciates the process.”
But between sustainable renovation and new construction, efforts that Mr. Calhoun said takes up equal parts of his time, he understands there is a comfort level that might not mean living in a zero-energy house. Mr. Calhoun and Ms. Venturini are no zealots. Certainly, the renaissance of sustainable architecture they find very exciting, but Green View understands that some may be overwhelmed by the concept.
“Maybe you can’t afford all the expensive plans and systems, but at least you have prioritized,” Mr. Calhoun commented.
It’s a concerted effort regardless. From landscape architecture to home building, from choosing which plants would best promote a lasting landscape to which insulation is most suitable, priorities in the right order have great cache in the energy-climate era.
Consider this simple slogan, coined by one extraordinary man, and utilized by Green View. “We shape the spaces,” said Winston Churchill, “and then the spaces shape us.”
To learn more, see the Web site at www.greenviewco.com.