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Indoors, outdoors

A new house in Amherst has windows and windows and . . .

House with many windows
By Jaci Conry
November 28, 2010

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“My kids always said they wanted to have a treehouse,” says architect Maria Chao. “In a way, they have one now.” Chao is referring to the Amherst home she shares with her husband, Michael Hood, a professor at Amherst College, and their children, Sophie, 7, and Joey, 4. Hidden from the road, the house is surrounded by trees. “When you look out the windows, all you see are leaves and trunks. It really feels like you’re in the trees,” says Chao.

The architect, whose firm is Chao Designs in Amherst, didn’t set out to design a treehouse when she began drafting plans for her own home about four years ago. She was intent on creating a light-filled haven that also treaded lightly on the earth. The home, built in the fall of 2008, is virtually all glass on its south-facing side. “We wanted to allow natural light to fill every space in the house,” says Chao. The expansive south windows allow for passive solar heating, which, combined with a propane-fueled boiler and radiant-floor heat, has resulted in dramatically low energy bills.

Another key was an open plan. The entire house, which is 2,500 square feet, is open to a central atrium that promotes a “stack effect” air exchange: In spring and fall, cool air from low, north-facing windows is pulled in when hot air rises and is drawn up and out the highest south-facing windows.

The kitchen is in the double-height atrium. Running its length are horizontal banded windows that frame the view of the trees like paintings.

Very little color was used throughout the house, a decision made because Chao wanted the decor to be “a backdrop for the light.” And the trees, too. All it needs are a rope ladder and trap door.