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Downsizing, Snugly and Sustainably

A renovation project by CuetoKEARNEYdesign designed for friends converts an early 20th century Dutch colonial into a light and airy contemporary home

By Tim Kearney, AIA

When Cathy D’Ignazio and Tom Mandel came to talk to CuetoKEARNEYdesign about selling their big house and moving to a twin on Swarthmore, Pa.’s Dartmouth Avenue, the principals were concerned on a number of levels.

After all, they were friends, and the firm thought it was either a sign of the bad economy, or that they were a little crazy. What evolved over the years was as much a statement about deeply held sustainability values as it was about creating a new home.

The house on Dartmouth is a 1920s-era small Dutch colonial twin that backs onto a parking lot and a SEPTA Regional Rail line. It is a quick walk into Swarthmore College and to the train station, and the solar orientation isn’t bad. It is compact, which challenged the firm to make the most out of every square inch. The firm knew that Cathy was passionate about many issues and were very pleased with her enthusiasm for applying new technology and sustainable design concepts to her house.

The project was called Net Zero, with the full understanding that the term refers to a goal that’s difficult to attain, particularly on a renovation project. To approach the goal, the firm took the tack of reducing the energy use side of the equation by adhering to Passive House standards as much as possible. It assembled a team that included John and Chris Hanson of Hanson General Contracting, structural engineer Ann Rothmann, and passive consultant Laura Blau of GreenSteps/BluPath.

The team developed systems with a goal of reducing the energy demand by 80 percent. These systems included a super insulated envelope, airtight construction, elimination of thermal bridging, high-tech, triple-pane windows and doors, passive solar heating and shading, and an energy recovery ventilation system. The contractors were full partners in this, using advanced framing techniques to maximize insulation in walls, setting every plate on a continuous bead of foam, and diverting 100 percent of the construction waste from landfills. The infrastructure for future photovoltaic panels was installed, and data gathered through blower door tests. Students at Drexel University also chipped in with energy modeling and sun studies. The owners are still tweaking the systems, but initial savings appear to be in the 75-80 percent range.

It was important to gather in the available natural light for solar gain (and for delight.) The central part of the house was lifted to create a flexible loft space, and the windows at the top catch the light and bounce it off the sidewalls of both stairs to reach the party wall on the first floor. The same windows allow a view across the rooftops to the college up on the hill. When the windows are closed, the house is very quiet. The owners can see, but not hear, the passing train, something their daughter calls “entertrainment,” and the house is very snug. In nice weather, the house opens up with great cross ventilation and front and rear decks that expand the space into outdoor rooms.

This project has resonated with the community in Swarthmore. We were originally concerned that the Modern detailing of the project would not be well received in this relatively traditional town, but the intense interest in the green aspects of it have overcome any such feelings.

This story was originally published in the summer 2013 edition of AIA Philadelphia’s magazine Context.

LOCATION: Swarthmore, Pa.

CLIENT: Cathy D’Ignazio, Tom Mandel

ARCHITECTURE: CuetoKEARNEYdesign; Tim Kearney, AIA, principal in charge; project team: Claudia Cueto, AIA, Heidi Sentivan, Monica Guara

Rothmann Structural Engineering
CONTRACTOR: Hanson General

INTERIOR FIT OUT: The Markee Family
CABINET MAKER: John Kennedy Woodwork
STAIRS: Bill Curran Design


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The architects at CuetoKEARNEYdesign began the Net Zero House project with the goal of reducing energy usage by 80 percent. All images courtesy of Andy Shelter Photography.

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The windows and doors all use high-tech, triple-pane systems, which maintain a tight and efficient building envelope.

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The central part of the house was lifted to create a flexible loft space.


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Back to AIArchitect August 23, 2013

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