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Home: Yurt inspires Bristol couple to build unique round house

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Posted on May 16, 2019 |
By Christopher Ross



HOME IMG_6425.JPG
AFTER MORE THAN 40 years working in theater, Mary Adams-Smith and Gary Smith have developed a sophisticated (and at times philosophical) relationship to space, which came in handy when they co-designed their Bristol home in 2015. Just as important to the design is their relationship to the environment, which influenced their choice of materials, siting and energy sources. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

BRISTOL — One of the most striking things about Mary and Gary Smith’s round house in Bristol is the way the elements lead into one another, providing an open, continuous feel.

“There’s a flow, a constant energy that’s inviting you,” Gary said.

To Mary, it feels like a hug.

“It’s a satisfying place to live, very nurturing,” she said.

VIEWED FROM ABOVE, the Smith home off River Road in Bristol seems to have been designed by nature itself. In planning the layout, the Smiths drew inspiration from the yurt they purchased and assembled in 2005. Their lead designer and builder, Jeff Dardozzi, drew inspiration from, among other things, “A Pattern Language,” a classic of architectural literature. Below, (photo courtesy of Mary Adams-Smith) natural light figures prominently. Small square skylights at the top of the ceiling, as well as south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, capture sunshine regardless of the time of day.

Photo courtesy of Ian Albinson

 

The Smiths, who co-designed the house, broke ground on a hill above the New Haven River in the spring of 2015 and spent the next 18 months helping to build it. But they didn’t just sit down one day and decide to build a round house.

Ten years before, while running a theater company in Lancaster, Penn., the Smiths had bought some land and built a yurt on it, a place to get away when they needed to.

Yurts are round dwellings that use a tension band to hold the walls and roof in place. Traditional yurts, which originated in Central Asia more than 3,000 years ago, are designed to be portable, like tents.

“It was our first experience with ‘living in the round,’” Gary said.

“And with being in the country, really,” Mary added.

The Smiths were hooked.

RELATIONSHIPS

But the story goes back even further, to 1970s New York City, where the Smiths pursued theater careers and developed a keen sense of the relationships among actors and the spaces they use. These relationships were integral to the “Meisner approach” to acting they had trained in, which calls for actors to “get out of their heads” and to behave instinctively to their surrounding environments.

Forty years later, Gary would find parallels between this theater training and the process used by Jeff Dardozzi, the Smiths’ lead designer and builder on the Bristol house.

“For Jeff, it’s not just about the product, but the process, the how of making it,” Gary said. “I connect that very much with the Meisner method I learned.”

After the Smiths purchased their land in Bristol, one of the first things they did was pack up their Pennsylvania yurt and bring it to Vermont.

“The design-build process evolved while we were living in the yurt,” Gary said. “It was experiential, rather than cognitive.”

Dardozzi painted the yurt’s footprint on the new home’s foundation and the design process went from there.

At one point, so they could play with possible layout ideas for their new home, the Smiths emptied the yurt of their belongings and laid out tape on its floor — another theater trick.

“We were always working in real space at real human scale,” Gary said. “The blueprint evolved continually.”

MATERIALS

The Smiths used the timber on their own property and milled it onsite.

For walls they made blocks of what Dardozzi called “EPS crete,” a do-it-yourself insulation-infused concrete made of Portland cement, sand, recycled Styrofoam and recycled latex paint. The blocks have a high “R-value,” which means they’re good at keeping the heat in.

WHAT MAKES MARY Adams-Smith and Gary Smith’s Bristol home so extraordinary isn’t the depth at which it manages to express certain design languages or the way its materials communicate with the surrounding landscape — or even the way its round shape fosters a sense of flow, continuity and timelessness — but the way the building itself seems at some point to have learned what it was meant to do, and to have deployed its own intelligence in the service of it.

Photos courtesy of Mary Adams-Smith

Though the house would end up being round, the blocks were built square.

“Because of the material they can be worked easily with regular woodworking tools,” Gary said. “We sawed the edges to the proper angles and rasped them to be as close as possible to the necessary contour, then build them into the circle.”

Lime plaster was applied to the interior and exterior to finish the curve.

Central to the 1,200-square-foot house is the Russian masonry woodstove, which has two doors—one for heating, one for baking. Heat vents through a series of channels that warm two stories of masonry, radiating heat throughout the house.

The Smiths’ 20-panel solar array, sited nearby on the property, takes care of their electricity needs.

INVITATIONS

And then there are the windows.

When the winter sun rises above the nearby Green Mountains it “shoots right through the whole house,” Mary said. At other times, the outdoors seems to beckon. “You’re invited into the house and then the windows invite you back out again.”

For Gary the house feels like an expression of personal agency.

“So much of this house is about connecting and expressing it artistically,” he said. “We dreamed about it and then we did it. Craftsmen’s hands have been on everything here.”

Photo courtesy of Ian Albinson

Would they do anything differently, if they had the chance?

“Yes,” Gary said with a laugh. “We would have built it 40 years earlier.”

Still, a lot had to fall into place for their dream home to happen. Fortunately, it did.

“It feels centered and balanced,” Mary said. “It’s peaceful. All of my feelings about Vermont, this community and this house all blend together.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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