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Q&A with AIA Design Award winner Matthew Compton

Matthew Compton of Foundry Architects designed the "Gobo Run House" in Shenandoah Valley, Va.
Matthew Compton of Foundry Architects designed the "Gobo Run House" in Shenandoah Valley, Va. (Photo by Paul Birk)

The American Institute of Architects' local chapter awarded projects with small footprints, sustainable elements and beautiful design.

Each year, the AIA Baltimore presents its annual Design Awards, rewarding the best work of Maryland architects or projects completed in the state. The residential awards can be reconstructions, renovations or new constructions. This year, judges gave out two awards for residential design, both to Matthew Compton of Foundry Architects.

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Compton has worked full time in architecture since 2002, was licensed in 2007 and co-founded Foundry in 2011. He notes that clients are far more personally invested in their homes than any other project type his firm works on, and the process becomes more intimate. "A good design will reflect and support the personality of the owners and how they live," he says. "Just like meeting a person for the first time, each residential project starts from scratch -— without any shared history or preconceptions — which makes us both excited and a little nervous."

We chatted with him about his two winning projects, Gobo Run and Minim House.

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Gobo Run
Shenandoah Valley, Va.

The 1,700-square-foot residence is designed for a couple — and for one of the resident's parents, too. The clients wanted a sustainable home, with little maintenance. They also wanted the home to connect with the environment, taking advantage of views, winds and the power of the sun.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Understanding the very specific microclimate immediately surrounding the project site: the clients' desired views, seasonal wind patterns and tree canopies, sun movement, drainage patterns, etc. Because the home relies so much on its interaction with the environment to function properly, getting the siting, orientation, window size and placement and overhang depth correct was extremely important. Once we felt confident in our understanding of the microclimate, the building took shape pretty quickly.

While the design looks simple, many of its elements allow this house to stay off the electrical grid, even in extreme weather.

Which of these elements were key to this home's sustainability?

Its orientation and form are the most critical factors because they set up the passive design strategies like sun control and cross ventilation, which require no energy. There is no active cooling system. The house is heated by wood-burning stoves and a solar-heated glycol solution running through tubing embedded in the concrete slab. The skin of the building (exterior walls and roof) are also highly insulated.

Did the clients request universal design elements? Explain how you decided to meet that challenge.

Yes, they did. Universal design is mostly about allowing sufficient space and avoiding barriers. Many of the design decisions are straightforward and fairly obvious. The single story with its entrance at grade; no curbs into the showers; walls are reinforced to receive grab bars and other accessories in the future.

What the judges said:

"This house creates a nice dialogue with its natural surroundings. The dogtrot, openings, orientation and overall form are respectful of nature, and the design doesn't try to overpower it. The selection of materials is very appropriate in this context, and the integration of forms is very significant.

This project is finely detailed and has a humbleness to it. The house appears to be very livable while offering a unique alternative family structure as two houses."

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Minim House
Washington, D.C.

What it is: Built on a heavy-duty custom trailer, the Minim House is a complete living unit in about 200 square feet. The dwelling is largely able to function off the grid.

This tiny house needed to be portable. Why was that important to the client, and how did that affect some of your design decisions?

The client wanted the versatility to be able to relocate the structure in the future. Once it was determined the structure needed to be portable, that impacted every other decision from construction method (Structural insulated panels were used to achieve a thinner skin/more interior space while meeting the U.S. Department of Transportation height restrictions) to interior finishes (drywall, plaster and tile would crack when subjected to the anticipated loads) to gutters (having a concealed/internal gutter instead of hanging them off the roof means the livable space could be widened by a foot).

Solar panels help keep this house off the electrical grid. tell us more about the incinerating toilet and how the house uses rainwater.

The incinerating toilet turns waste into ash. They are used in many environments where access to sanitary waste lines and/or septic systems is not available or feasible, often in remote residential applications. The concealed gutters collect water and direct it to a 40-gallon storage tank located inside the house. A three-step ceramic filtration system converts it to potable water for use in the sink and shower. When the interior tank is full, a diverter sends water to an exterior storage tank for exterior use.

In some of the photos, the house is shown next to other tiny houses in wan urban environment. Where is this house?

Minim House is located in the Stronghold neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on a small, awkwardly shaped plot of land. Boneyard Studios in D.C. has aggregated several tiny houses onto this site, which was otherwise underused and not conducive for conventional building types.

What the judges said:

"The clever multifunctionality and adaptability of this design make a small space seem quite comfortable. It addresses an unmet need such as for those recently out of college to have options for housing that is affordable, hip, creative and well-executed. Sitting within a complex of other small houses, it fits in, in a clean modern way. This project offers a fascinating exploration of how extreme you can go in a subtractive mode."

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