Blue Ridge

written by Cathi Bond
photography by Elizabeth Felice

A Voorsanger building is marked by yaw ning spac e and spraw ling glass. It offers a wide window on the nat ural world through a distinctly angular design – and usually in an urban setting.

Here’s what hapens when two Virginians trav el to New York to ask Bartholomew Voorsanger to come into the woods and bring his modernist vision to their rural home.

The clients had purchased a 200-acre parcel of land on a woody incline deep
in the heart of Virginia. They asked New York architect Bartholomew Voorsanger to build them a house overlooking the majestic Blue Ridge mountain range. The three quickly put their heads together. They’d build as high as Virginia’s strict building codes would allow, maximizing the view of the mountains and pastures. The home would be almost all glass, completely modernist in design.

Then, Voorsanger asked them what turned out to be a defining question.

“How big a garage would you like?”

The clients shrugged and decided that a two car garage would be plenty. “But you’ve got to think of resale,” Voorsanger replied.

“Mr. Voorsanger,” the clients sighed. “You must understand, if you build this house, it will be virtually unsellable.”

The clients were referring to Virginia’s deeply entrenched colonial style, firmly cemented in the architectural traditions of the South. Thomas Jefferson was not only a president of the United States and key creator of the Declaration of Independence, he was also an influential Virginian architect who ushered
in the neo-classical, palatial estates that we still associate with the region.

The enormous white columns, colourful gardens, vast formal dining rooms, and grand foyers – remember Scarlett O’Hara sweeping down the staircase in Gone With the Wind? – that’s Jeffersonian, and that remains the rage in the South. If you want to build a house that will be admired and resell, that’s
the model you follow.

Voorsanger’s new clients wanted something different. What appeared at first to be a foolhardy approach to home design – at least from a resale point of view – has turned out to be a very smart decision indeed.

Voorsanger advocates sustainable building practices and from the start he was determined that this house should leave as light a footprint on the earth as possible. The immediate challenge: How to heat and cool a glass house in the most energy efficient manner possible. To deal with all that glass,
Voorsanger chose Low-E, “low emitting” all insulating glass. Automatic shades were installed throughout the entire house to keep the heat out, as well as save the art and furniture from the relentless bleaching effects of the sun.

Eight-inch thick rigid – not blown in – insulation was fitted to keep the walls as airtight as possible. “We tend to think of insulation as a part of every home. But as recently as the 1970s, before the last oil crisis, 90 percent of homes in this region had absolutely no insulation at all.” Correct insulation and proper installation is a must in any Voorsanger structure, as are geothermal heating and cooling sources.

For the construction of the home, Voorsanger also chose renewable, sustainable materials. Mahogany, maple, and oak were used for the floors and ceilings, and a soft Tennessee limestone – normally used for exterior
pathways – was put to marvelous use for hallways and the fireplace hearths, among other uses.

The home consists of several slipped pavilions that gently step down the hill. The roofs have slight swoops which reflect the spatial dynamic of the surrounding landscape. They very nearly appear to fly while one is appreciating the exterior of the house. However, once inside the home, the undulation of the roofing releases the eye from the static confines of established rectangularity and joyfully propels it through the house.

Houses should form a firm friendship with their natural habitat, Voorsanger believes.

“The art in this house really is the visible landscape,” he tells us. “I believe that the more we appreciate a thing, the more inclined we are to take care of it. When you think back to older homes with smaller windows, we were keeping nature at bay. This home allows the owners to commune with it continually. Light is also crucial to consider in terms of people’s emotions. More light translates to a happier mood. When people walk into this house they feel optimism as opposed to intimidation.”

This is a home literally warmed and cooled by Mother Earth. A glass house where you can wander in every direction and admire trees, pastures, and the pewter-hued Blue Ridge Mountain range, without ever being thwarted by a concrete wall.

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today and facing the 21st century’s environmental challenges, perhaps he’d chuck the Doric pillars and be out in the back, digging geothermal wells and constructing a smart house just
like this.


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