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 In this Amherst home, no extravagance, no waste, no decoration for decoration’s sake

  • Maria Chao is shown inside the greenhouse attached to her space and energy efficient home May 2, 2017 in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Michael Hood is shown May 2, 2017 near the kitchen area of the space and energy efficient Amherst home he designed with his wife Maria Chao. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Michael Hood, left, and Maria Chao are shown May 2, 2017 in their bedroom at the space and energy efficient home they designed in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The house also has interior and exterior balconies enclosed by cable wiring rather than solid material, further enhancing the feeling of openness. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The living room and dining room are part of an open floor plan that stems from a central atrium on the first floor. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A Louis Poulsen no-glare lamp offers a uniform spread of light. Sun also floods in through banks of large, south-facing windows. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • An upstairs hallway that looks out over Maria Chao and Michael Hood's space and energy efficient home in Amherst is shown May 2, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A bedroom is shown May 2, 2017 in Maria Chao and Michael Hood's space and energy efficient home in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A bathroom is shown May 2, 2017 in Maria Chao and Michael Hood's space and energy efficient home in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The kitchen area in Maria Chao and Michael Hood's space and energy efficient home features a wall of windows, shown May 2, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maria Chao is shown alongside a bookshelf created in fiber cement paneling May 2, 2017 in the space and energy efficient home Chao designed with her husband Michael Hood in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The kitchen is separated from the atrium by an island where family and friends can sit and talk while Hood cooks. Gazette staff/Sarah crosby

  • Maria Chao, an architect, and Michael Hood, a biology professor, built their home to be efficient in every way, from energy consumption to use of space. Chaos calls the style modern, pseudo-industrial. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chao and Hood's home blends into its wooded surroundings. Gazette staff/Sarah crosby

  • An 8-by-8-foot glass greenhouse opens off the dining room on the south side of the house.



For the Gazette
Thursday, May 11, 2017

Barely visible from the road, even in winter when the trees are leafless, the Amherst house designed by architect Maria Chao for herself, her husband, Michael Hood, a professor of biology at Amherst College, and their children, Sophie, 13, and Joey, 10, blends seamlessly with its wooded surroundings. Visitors often compare it to a tree house.

Clad with horizontal, reddish-brown cypress siding and panels of pale gray fiber cement, muted tones that reflect the setting, the house has a clean, geometric look. The south-facing back side of the two-story structure is several feet taller than the north side, maximizing solar exposure and giving the roof a shallow, downward pitch.

The freestanding garage is covered with large panels of Corten steel, an industrial material that rusts to a deep mahogany hue that echoes the cypress siding of the house. The garage roof is pitched at the same angle as the house roof, but in the opposite direction. The consistencies and contrasts of the two exteriors create an intriguing visual dialogue.

This dialogue continues inside. A combination of industrial materials such as grayish-tan concrete floors, sand-colored concrete kitchen counters, mottled cork, and more gray fiber cement panels fastened with visible, stainless steel screws, create subtle, varied patterns throughout the house.

“Our basic idea was to stick with materials you don’t need to deal with,” said Hood. “You install them, and they require no painting or other maintenance.”

The interior colors are soft and neutral. This, too, is a deliberate choice. “We have white walls, and not a lot of color,” said Chao. “We want to let our things create visual interest. You can change your furniture and style when you have a simple backdrop.”

Banks of large, south-facing windows look out into the trees and flood the 2,500-square-foot space with natural light. An 8-by-8-foot glass greenhouse opens off the dining room on the south side of the house. On the second floor, a series of interior and exterior balconies are enclosed by cable wiring rather than a solid material, further enhancing the feeling of openness to the outdoors.

Chao described the house’s design as “modern, pseudo-industrial style.” But, she added, “It’s not too over the top, though.”

Open spaces

Chao, who has designed residential and commercial spaces, explained that her first challenge in designing a house is always to figure out how the client will occupy it. “For us, the daily flow of life is around the dining room and kitchen. That’s where we spend most of our time.”

The first floor consists of a central atrium that opens into kitchen, dining and living spaces. The children were ages 2 and 5 when the family moved in eight years ago. “We wanted the space to be open for easy communicating and just hanging out,” said Chao. “Now that the kids are older, the open plan still works well. There’s plenty of room for growing children and guests.”

The atrium, which rises to the ceiling, was inspired by annual summer trips to Italy, where Hood does research on alpine plants. “We love the feeling of Italian towns, where small, narrow streets are lively spaces on a human scale,” said Chao.

Hood, the family chef, designed the kitchen, which is separated from the atrium by an island. On the atrium side, the island serves as a bar where friends and family can sit and talk with Hood while he cooks.

The only separate parts of the house are the bedrooms, two on the first floor, three on the second.

The spaces are simple and every inch is well used. Chao uses several devices to conceal storage and utilities, thus preserving a less cluttered look. In the master bedroom, gray fiber cement panels conceal a linen closet. Laundry machines are hidden behind a door in the children’s bathroom. A closet near the front door has a sliding translucent panel on a sleek, stainless steel rail. In the living room, a simple white curtain on metal sliding barn-door hardware can be drawn one way to hide a closet stuffed with kids’ toys and games, or it can go the other way to close off the space from the atrium.

“When the kids were younger, we used the curtain to stage plays,” said Chao.

A purpose for everything

As Chao explained, her design philosophy reflects two important influences. First, as an undergraduate at the School (now College) of Design at North Carolina State in the 1990s, she studied the Bauhaus movement that originated at the Bauhaus art school in Germany, founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919. The Bauhaus emphasized form and function rather than decoration, blending industrial design with art to create a lean, innovative look captured in the mid-century modern style of the 1950s and ’60s. “I got that simple, clean aesthetic burned into me,” she said.

After earning a graduate degree in architecture at Syracuse University in 1999, Chao moved with Hood to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had taken a job in the biology department at the University of Virginia. There, she was hired by the architect William McDonough, a former dean of the UVA School of Architecture and one of the world’s foremost experts in sustainable development. “It was the perfect job, everything I wanted,” she said. “It was so inspiring to work with people who all had the same agenda: to save the world, one building at a time.”

Chao said she learned a tremendous amount about environmentally responsible design from McDonough, who championed energy efficiency and renewability years before those concepts were popular. “Now it’s the norm. It’s not a big deal,” she says.

McDonough’s vision also affirmed her commitment to Bauhaus principles. “With Bill, there was no decoration for decoration’s sake,” said Chao. “No extravagance or wastefulness. Everything must have a purpose.”

Working for McDonough for seven years instilled in Chao the importance of carefully analyzing the site, including the climate conditions such as sun and wind exposure, the topography and the vegetation.

“You need to ask, ‘where will the family spend most of its time in the house? What will they be looking at? Where is the best place for the house on the site?’” said Chao. “That is the basis from which I start.”

Meeting the challenges

Truly understanding their building site was particularly critical to Chao and Hood, who moved to Amherst in 2006, when Hood took a job at Amherst College. The couple eventually settled on the two-acre wooded site that posed considerable challenges due to wetness. In fact, before the couple purchased it, the property had changed hands five times in 20 years. Each previous owner had tackled one project — clearing a building site, putting in a driveway, complying with local Conservation Commission requirements for drainage — before throwing in the towel and putting the property up for sale again.

Chao and Hood loved the site and were determined to work within its limitations. For starters, the high water table meant that the house could not have a basement. “We don’t have an attic either. That means we can’t accumulate the clutter that ends up in those spaces,” said Hood. He added that he enjoys hearing the rain directly overhead. “With all these windows and no attic, you’re really attuned to the outdoors.”

Adhering to McDonough’s sustainability principles, Chao designed the house to maximize passive solar energy, with a south-facing wall that’s mostly windows. “We wanted as much natural light as possible.” The north side has fewer, smaller windows. “We wanted to keep our energy footprint small,” she said.

Hot-water radiant heat fueled by propane is embedded in the concrete floor downstairs and fastened under the bamboo flooring upstairs. In the winter, sun floods through the southern windows, adding more heat to the floors.

The south side of the house has a four-foot overhang that blocks harsh summer sun; it is also protected by mature shade trees. “We open all the windows at night and the cool air comes in, cools the floor and circulates through the house. Visitors sometimes comment on the air conditioning,” said Hood. “I tell them, we don’t have any.”

The house is LEED Gold certified, meaning that it meets rigorous energy-saving and sustainability standards. Chao said she enjoyed going through the certification process, although at the time she was consumed by statistics such as “U-values” that measure heat transmission through surfaces such as windows. “At first I saw the house as a technical structure. Now I’m able to step back and enjoy it as my home.”

To design and build a house is “an emotional process,” said Chao. “When I’m working with clients, I sympathize. There’s a price tag on everything. There are so many decisions to make. Everyone has different priorities. These can wear down relationships. I want to make sure they’re still excited and that they are still focused on the big picture and not getting bogged down in the details.”

Designing her own family’s house in the trees was, as she put it, “a good lesson for me in my career.”

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.