Most houses with spectacular views are at the end of a very long road. But the payoff, in both prospect and refuge, is often worth the extra challenges in construction and access. Architects Lonn Combs and Rona Easton know this particularly well. Two of their most recent projects are, coincidentally, at the terminus of the same winding rural road in southern Berkshire County, a verdant and culture-rich corridor in western Massachusetts. One, dubbed House Four, was completed in 2018. The most recent, House Six, followed. Call it a mini-compound, EASTON COMBS-style.
That style, while not adhering to any formal signature, is one that the husband-and-wife team, a 2012 Design Vanguard firm, has been chiseling with precision since the founding of the studio in 2004, focusing on material innovations, passive systems, bioclimatic design, and refined detailing. Following a few years at the American Academy in Rome in the early 2010s, the couple settled in the Berkshires. They purchased a property with a 1970s house and reused the foundation, designing their own home and studio (House Five) as a model and a calling card. Since then, they have deepened their roots in the community, with local residential commissions that reflect the clarity of the studio’s mission. The net zero House Four, comprising two black metal-clad volumes connected by a bridge, was designed for a client who wanted to cut her dependence on fossil fuels.
House Six, a few lots away, was a natural evolution of the architects’ ideas about craft and efficient use of space and materials. Combs and Easton took advantage of the inclined, previously cleared site and built into a slope. What appears upon approach to be a single-story bar volume clad in a black-stained eastern cedar performs a visual and structural trick inside, revealing a two-story perch. (Down the hill to the east, rescued ponies and goats gaze back up at the house from a barn just added.) The judicious use of extra-large windows defines the house’s elevations and provides rolling views over treetops, the Berkshire Hills, and, on the horizon, to Monument Mountain, the highest point in the state. “The configuration and geometry was as much aspirational as about the landscape and the site,” says Easton. “The house occupies the edge condition—it opens up this view—but it creates something low-slung and intimate upon approach.”
As one approaches the house, the glazed entry (1), along with a stair-hall window (2), provides a hint of the dramatic views beyond. Photos © David Hiepler, click to enlarge.
The clients, who own a publishing company focused on sustainability and have grown children, were looking to move from the Springfield, Massachusetts, area and found themselves lured to the Berkshires on day trips to Jacobs Pillow or Tanglewood. They had a programmatic brief that Combs says is common and yet deceptively tricky to pull off: an intimate space that can also comfortably accommodate family for extended periods of time. “Our conversations with the clients always centered around space, light, sequence, interior intimacy, openness, and the communal aspect,” says Combs.
To achieve this balance and avoid a corridor of empty guest rooms and closed doors, the architects torqued the southern end of the upper bar volume, creating an embracing gesture on the exterior. Inside, this delineation subtly separates the main living space from a more private wing containing a bedroom, bathroom, and office—a visitor barely realizes that the house doesn’t end but, instead, turns a corner. This is aided by a black wood wall that, with another at the entry hall, forms a set of visual parentheses framing the public areas of the house.
Multifunctional spaces include a “pop-up” loft, defined by a floating stair anchored with vertical metal rods, which also animate the entry hall. In the loft, a deck, carved into the roofline, obscures the view out and instead focuses it skyward. Like the southern wing, it privileges other, more intimate views—a necessary respite from the drama of the main living area.
That drama is otherwise hard to resist. In the dining area, a 9-by-14-foot fixed-glass unit, the house’s largest, creates an oblique sight line from the entry to the eastern viewshed beyond. In the slightly sunken living room, which flows from a jewel box–like black oak kitchen volume and open dining area, another generously sized window meets a 25-foot-long sliding glass door, forming a prow-shaped corner.
Generously sized and carefully placed windows, the largest of which is in the dining room, frame the landscape. Photo © David Hiepler
A varied roofline is a response to the undulations of the landscape and the choreography of the house. It forms an interior crease that runs from the primary bedroom in the northern wing, through to the main living space, and then diagonally through the ceiling plane of the guest wing. Combs and Easton achieved this with 120 prefabricated scissor trusses, each one unique in geometry and dimension.
Skylights, including the one above the hearth (4) and the primary bedroom (3), help define different living zones. Photos © David Hiepler
Also central to the architects’ design philosophy is taking advantage of daylight. “Window placement is key,” says Easton, “but natural light from above is in many ways more important in creating a dynamic interplay within the life of the house.” At House Six, skylights help define different living zones, as with the one incorporated into a three-sided wood hearth, or those placed meditatively (and somewhat spiritually) above the showers. Each is positioned adjacent to a wall on the north side, creating a wash of diffuse light. Due to the deep roof trusses (and requirements for high insulation value), they form a kind of lantern, with the incorporation of electric lighting for nighttime and dark winter days.
The wood-frame house was designed according to Passive House principles, though it is not certified. The windows are triple-glazed and the structure highly insulated—achieving above R40 for the walls and R60 for the roof—without dependence on petroleum-based insulation, using instead a combination of wood fiber and dense-pack cellulose. The thermally efficient envelope allows for a modest geothermal heating and cooling system. With the installation of photovoltaic panels, planned for the near future, the house is expected to be net zero operationally.
House Six has already inspired Combs and Easton to continue their experimentation in construction and performance—this time with mass timber. House Seven will begin construction this summer in the Berkshires; House Eight is planned for Teton County, Wyoming.
Click drawings to enlarge
EASTON COMBS Architects — Lonn Combs, Rona Easton, design
Taconic Engineering (structural); Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture (landscape); Derek Porter Studio (lighting); Aztech Geothermal Heating and Cooling (m/e/p)
Eric Zahn Builders
5,000 square feet
Glazed Windows and Doors: