Maximizing the versatility of your Phone to Conserve Energy



The ubiquitous smart phone is finally smart enough to save energy in our homes. Apps coming on the market are disrupting legacy lighting, security, and temperature control systems that have been around for years. Many of us have experienced the frustration of visiting a friend and, faced with several remote controls, not being able to even turn on the TV, let alone record a show. We face the same frustration when attempting to program a thermostat, the result being that all too often, the controls are not being used to their full potential. While smart phone enabled apps for homes are still in their infancy, it’s worth being an early adopter, because you can start improving your home’s performance today. And, one more thing, Flavin Architects’ is an early adopter, with these systems being specified in our client’s homes as well as in our own. Here are some of our favorites on the market right now:


Nest Thermostats: Nest Co-founder Tony Fadell was working on his own home in Lake Tahoe, and was frustrated at how unattractive and difficult to use available thermostats were. That led him to design a new thermostat that is connected to a home’s Wi-Fi. Like the iPhone, it is intuitive and easy to use and can be programmed for various schedules. My family uses it to turn down the heat during the night as well as during the day when no one is home. It has an occupancy sensor that automatically adjusts the temperature to accommodate when no one is home. On a monthly basis, Nest sends us a report on our energy performance with suggestions for improvement.


Drop Cam: Home security has never been so easy. Rather than hard wiring your home with cameras and sensors, the Drop Cam is wireless. It can be wall or ceiling mounted, or placed on a desk top or counter. The device can act as a home security system, or can become a baby monitor, all accessible from your smart phone.


LED Lighting: Lighting is responsible for a large portion of home energy bills and an even larger portion of office energy bills. LED lighting consumes less than 10% of the energy of a typical incandescent bulb. Sounds great, but LED lights are infamous for poor color rendition particularly of skin tones.  Phillips electronics HUE bulb allows the color, brightness to be adjusted from your phone. This allows for a warm flattering light while dining and a bright white light when the guests have gone home and it’s time to clean up.


By Colin Flavin AIA, December, 2013

How much should my new home cost?


One of the most challenging conversations we have with our client is about budgeting for their new home or renovation. Most of our clients have already purchased a property, or own a home they wish to add to. So in a sense, a portion of the total budget has already been spent. For the cost of construction, friends and family offer advice on how much construction costs. Also resources are readily available on the web. The difficulty is that those giving advice are often quoting cost figures that are measuring different things. For example, is the cost of site work items like a septic system or well included?  What about interior design items like kitchen cabinetry or appliances? Further complicating the decision is that different styles of design (modern vs. traditional) and different building materials (wood shingle vs. asphalt roofing) vary wildly in cost. Geographic location also influences cost. Urban areas like Boston or San Francisco are far more expensive, not only in terms of land costs, but construction costs as well. Budgeting for your home is not rocket science, but it does require a comprehensive approach where the cost factors of site work, complexity of design, and quality of construction are factored in. The three items that follow give a road map of the key determinants of cost for your new home. The complete matrix of costs is available for download on our web site:


Site Work: Include all the work needed to prepare the site for a finished home, from excavating the foundation, to bringing in utilities, to landscape work. A relatively flat site with good soils and nearby utility connections is far less expensive to build than a remote site that is steeply pitched and must be regraded, or with underlying rock that must be removed.


Complexity of Design: Keep in the geometry of your house simple, with details that are part of your builder’s standard toolbox helps reign in the cost of construction. For example a simple gable roof is economical to frame. Complex and unusual shapes are more expensive, like a design with lots of corners or curving geometry. Remember that time is money, and a complex design, even if built of modest materials, will still be expensive.


Understanding the cost versus quality relationship: Higher quality materials translate into more expensive houses. Choose materials that are consistent with your budget. Our chart lists material choices in terms of their cost. In siding for instance, clear finished cedar costs more that painted pine, which in turn costs more than cement plank. Keep in mind that the higher quality material may also be more expensive to maintain. Clear finished wood needs to be refinished on a regular basis, unless a rustic appearance is sought.


Getting the most of your site while respecting the land



No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill.

Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.

Frank Lloyd Wright



In keeping with their careers in the software industry, our clients created a detailed web site for the house they wished to build. Through images and text it highlighted the desire for a home connected to the outdoors, including a path from the back door to walking trails on the adjacent conservation land. At our first site meeting, we walked the property and the conservation land, observing the steep drop from the house site to Reservoir pond, a remnant of the town’s 19th century for drinking water supply. The challenge was how to be able to see the pond from the house without diminishing the natural beauty of the property, especially as viewed from the pond. An additional challenge: the ground floor of the house was programmed to include an attached two car garage, two bedrooms and living areas totaling 3,000 sf. To top it off there was granite ledge present on the site, making leveling the site prohibitively expensive. Here’s how we did it in a few easy steps


Step 1: Break Up the Plan. To fit the house into the land, we needed to see the house as separate volumes that could be separated so they could step down the hill. The garage is placed at the highest level, farthest from the pond and is connected to the house by enclosed stairs that bridge over a small stream that is fed from the runoff from the home’s roof. The bedrooms and kitchen are located in the middle level of the house. The living and media rooms are located at the lowest elevation and nearest the reservoir. This arrangement avoided flattening the site to accommodate the house. The three smaller pieces tuck more gracefully into the contours of the land.


Step 2: Varying the Roof Line: The profile of a house against the sky is always important, and especially so for this property. The house can be seen from the walking trails that surround the pond. To keep the house discreet against the skyline, the stepped floor plan allows the roofs to step as well. Further articulation is created by having the second floor cover only about half the first floor, avoiding a massive second floor against the sky.


Step 3: Path to the Front Door: From the garden gate located adjacent to the garage, a stone path leads toward the front door, before taking an abrupt turn to pass over a bridge spanning the stream. The path sequence shows off the steeply pitched site and strengthens the experience of the terraced design. The path also highlights some of the design’s sustainable features, including roof runoff being captured in a rain garden to replenish the ground water.

Restoring a Mid-Century Modern House in Lincoln, MA


Who ever said that pleasure wasn't functional?
Charles Eames


Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, MASS,9-LIN,16-2


Mad Men helped bring the 1960s design vibe back into fashion. Sarah and Jon Rapaport asked us to bring Sexy Back to their newly purchased 1967 era house in Lincoln designed by local architecture firm Soep and Berliner. Modern design with its low pitched roofs, open floor plan, and large windows opening to nature became popularized in the late 1930s when Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius burst on the scene with his iconic residence also in Lincoln. This brilliant house combined cutting edge design ideas like ribbon windows, cantilevered entry canopy and flat roofs, with traditional New England building materials like field stone walls and cedar cladding.


By the time the Rapaport house was built, modernism had evolved from the Gropius era, to incorporate the rural vibe of Lincoln with spectacular exposed wooden beams and deep overhangs. There were advances in construction techniques as well. In the 30 years between the Gropius house and the Lincoln house being built, architects improved the performance of houses through better insulation, advanced water proofing membranes, and heating systems to make a house comfortable, even with large expanses of glass.


Our job was to respect the structure of the original house, but to edit out the rustic tones of flagstone floors, dark stained wood, and bring back the spontaneity of the Pop era. Tall openings were introduced between the kitchen and living room to create the perfect balance between an open kitchen and avoiding the tyranny of seeing dirty dishes from everywhere. Dark grey cabinets contrast with the white stone counters and vintage wall tiles from Heath Ceramics.  Light grey cerusedoak floors create a subdued tone to tie the composition together. Cable mounted accent lighting was added between the beams to freshen the ceiling cavity.

Historic New England Gropius House

Heath Ceramics



Lincoln House Rendering

Natural Modernism in Residential Site Planning


Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.

It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright



Our firm designs homes for a wide range of properties, from dense woodlands to open meadows with distant views. In collaboration with our clients, we use a common site planning approach for all projects that we call natural modernism.  This approach allows us to see the big picture, whether it’s a mountain top in Vermont or the remnants of a 19th century estate in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.


Here are some of our core principles:

  • Take a Walk: It takes time and patience to learn what makes each site unique; where a building
    can be located so the most sensitive part of the property can be preserved and enhanced. With
    a property survey in hand, walk the property in different seasons and weather to find varying views,
    sun and shade, and patterns of forests and clearings.
  • Map it: Record observations on the survey, whether it’s a grove of trees you love or the stone
    remnants of an old chimney. The map becomes a graphic manifesto of the features you appreciate
    and become focal points for your property.
  • Let Nature Win: Natural systems of water drainage, wildlife habit and forest ecosystems are often
    fairly intact on rural sites. On our Wayland project, we’re removing a dilapidated house but are locating
    the new home overlapping the existing footprint to minimize disturbance. Invasive plantings are being
    removed and a forester consulted on enhancing the forest by thinning the unhealthy and dying trees and
    adding native trees. Driveways are kept to 10 feet in width and are paved with a special pervious
    material that allows water to absorb into the ground.
  • Historical Remnants: Almost every site contains remnants of a previous time. On a current project
    in Vermont, there are old stone walls, fading logging roads and a cellar hole where a building was
    removed years ago. The stone walls are being rebuilt as a nod to the sites prior agricultural use. Where
    the existing road fords a creek, we’re building a small timber bridge to restore and protect the resource.
  • On the Brow of the Hill: Frank Lloyd Wright was passionate about not building on top of the hill, but
    rather on the “brow of the hill”, so the house would complement rather than dominate its setting. The
    same goes for not plopping the building in the middle of a meadow, instead locating it at the boundary
    between forest and meadow. Tread lightly on the land by stepping the house down a slope; instead of
    having a wide floor plan that requires changing the site’s natural contours.
  • Let it Shine: An “ideal site” is when distant views face to the south so that principal windows can bring
    sunshine’s beauty and warmth into the home. We lacked long views on our Lenox project, so we made
    the most of short views within the site by creating a meadow to the south, bordered by woodlands, for
    an intimate view.

254 Second Ave - Lobby

Artist: J.B. Jones, Matchbox; Grip II; 12d, oil on canvas


While many of us spend the majority of our waking hours in office interiors, it’s surprising how little thought goes into making those spaces beautiful. DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and several other galleries in the Boston area are hoping to change that by offering corporate art loan programs. As a benefit of corporate support, museums loan art work from their collections for display in the company’s facilities. The art work is shown in a variety of locations, from the entry lobby of a multi-tenant building to the work place of an individual company. The artists also vary, from recognized and widely exhibited to emerging and not yet publically shown. This is a great win-win. The client gets works of art on a rotating bases that are curated by the museum staff. The gifting museum is able to reach a broader audience and place on display art work, which due to the display limitations of museums are largely kept in storage.


Often, the corporate loan program takes an existing building interior and selects art for the walls as they exist. A more powerful approach is to design the space to be ideal for the display of art. Mark Rubin, the president of Maric Inc. had this idea in mind. Maric is an innovative company that invests in corporate offices in the western suburbs. Working with Maric, Flavin Architects designed a new entry lobby for 254 2nd Ave in Needham. The idea for the lobby was to create a gallery vibe: dark floors, white walls and minimalist detailing. A six foot by twenty foot glowing recess was designed to display rotating artworks from the deCordova Museum in Lincoln MA. The layout of the display and the lighting are designed to accommodate a range of art formats, allowing flexibility for the museum curators. The deCordova is an excellent partner, with their focus on innovative regional artists.


deCordova Museum:


J.B. Jones:

Lynette Shaw:


197 First Ave - Lobby

Lynette Shaw, Wall, mixed media and sand on canvas

The New England Holocaust Memorial

Excerpt from Colin Flavin’s tour remarks for the University of California, Santa Cruz


Designed by San Francisco Architect Stanley Saitowitz, the New England Holocaust Memorial was opened on Holocaust Remberance Day in 1995. Rather than being tucked away in a serene location, the monument has become an integral part of the city’s fabric by being located along Boston's bustling Freedom Trail. It is experienced as a series of hollow towers we can enter and walk through, engaging us in reflection, but also becoming a part of the daily ritual of the city, catching the attention of passing Bostonians walking to work in the early morning light, or a tourist returning from nearby Quincy Market.


Saitowitz uses symbolism and repetition to deepen our experience. The number six is used again and again. There are six towers, with six segments, and the pit at the bottom of each tower is six feet deep and six feet wide. Carved in stone at the base of each tower is the name of one of the six death camps. There are six million numbers etched in the glass, for each of the approximate number of Nazi death camp victims. The darkness of the holocaust is expressed with light. During the day, the etched numbers refract the sunlight; at night the numbers glow with light from within. We are left to wonder if the towers symbolize the crematorium chimneys of the Nazi death camps or the six branched Menorah of ancient times.


Etched in stone on the west side of the monument is this quote from holocaust survivor Martin Niemoeller


             They came first for the Communists,

                                  and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

             Then they came for the Jews,

                                  and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

             Then they came for the trade unionists,

                                  and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

             Then they came for the Catholics,

                                  and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

             Then they came for me,

                                  and by that time no one was left to speak up.


Architect Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects



The timber frame structure, often associated with traditional barns from the 19th century and earlier, makes a wonderful structure for modern design. Two of our recent projects incorporate a timber frame to achieve striking results.




hybridhouse: On the shore of Bare Hill Pond in Harvard, MA, our client requested an intimate house that reflected their love of modernism. A cutting edge aesthetic is achieved with a flat roof, dramatic overhangs and a wall of glass facing the water.  A wood structure of glue-laminated timber frames the large windows facing the water. The back of the house, facing away from the water is framed with standard insulated 2x4 walls resulting in an effective hybrid home.





woodshop: Our client owns a beautiful wooded property on Hickory Island where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario. The stand of white pines where the barn and future home are to be built provide the timber resource.  Working with New Energy Works, a local timber frame company, Flavin Architects designed the barn with a modern interpretation of the gable form. In contrast to traditional New England barns, where the timber frame is concealed from view by the exterior cladding, we pushed to celebrate the building frame, exposing it on the inside and the highlighting the mass and beauty on the outside.


New Energy Works Website:


Timber Framing uses large squared off wooden timbers, widely spaced to create the building’s frame. The inherent systems ability to span large distances made it common to use as a barns structure where flexible open interior space is ideal. Traditionally, the timbers are joined with intricate connections requiring exquisite craftsmanship. We now employ easier to install steel fasteners that are far more rigid than the traditional joints.


Advantages of modern timber framing:


·         You See What You Pay For: In conventional homes, standard wood framing relies on many smaller members in the 2” to 10” range, which are hidden from view with interior drywall and exterior sheathing. Our timber frame projects use fewer larger members in the 6” to 12” range. The exposed framing becomes integral to the beauty of the structure. The higher cost of timber framing can offset the need for elaborate interior embellishments of trim. For modest additional cost, the framing can be upgraded from pine to finished grades of douglas fir and other attractive types of wood.


·         Reduced use of Wood: While larger members are used, they are more widely spaced than traditional framing, reducing wood used by about 20%. In addition, the large “natural timbers” can be replaced with glue-laminated timber frames.


·         Insulating: While timber framing is ideally suited to un-insulated utility buildings, for houses, insulation needs to be approached differently, if the timber framing is to remain visible. Rigid insulation can be applied on the exterior preserving the timber frame on the interior.

Spray Foam insulation has been specified by our office for both residential and commercial projects with successful results. Although cost is always a concern, we prefer spray foam insulation over standard fiberglass batt insulation because of its comprehensive insulating and air sealing capabilities, along with a proven long term durability record.



What is Spray Foam insulation?

Foam insulation is a polyurethane that is sprayed into the wall and ceiling cavities, which expands and cures within minutes. As it expands in the cavity, it fills all of the voids and crevices, creating a continuous air barrier. This air barrier substantially reduces the outside/inside air movement, which historically results in tremendous heat loss and water vapor movement. Spray foam insulation can be specified in two ways; open cell or closed cell, depending on final desired performance capabilities required. Open cell insulation has an R-Value of 4/inch and allows a small amount of vapor movement, while closed cell insulation has an R-Value of 7/inch and allows less than 1.0 perm of vapor movement, which classifies it a Class II vapor retardant. Many of the spray foam insulation products in the marketplace are Energy Star Certified. Spray foam is sold under brand names such as Icynene, Certainteed, and Corbond.


Why Spray Foam insulation? There are several advantages to installing spray foam insulation:

  • Reduced Energy Use:Spray foam has an air sealing capability that allows furnaces and air conditioners to run more efficiently, instead of having to adjust based upon typical building envelope air leakage. With as much as 30% of house air leakage being directly attributed to poorly sealed and insulated walls, floors, and ceilings, the installation of foam insulation has the potential to reduce heating and cooling energy costs. And because the foam serves as an effective air barrier, incorporating a well designed ventilation system that facilitates sufficient fresh air movement is a critical consideration, which can be achieved by an engineered mechanical system with adequate fresh air intakes.
  • Better Indoor Air Quality:Spray foam insulation will minimize the infiltration of airborne irritants such as allergens, drafts, or humidity. Tests have proven that spray foam insulation is not a food source for mold.
  • Moisture Control:99% of moisture in your home is born from air infiltration. In order to manage moisture in a home, the air flow must be minimized. Once spayed into the cavity, the foam adheres to the structure and expands into hard to reach areas, such as around electrical outlets and ceiling lights. We typically specify closed cell foam in the ceiling cavities, which eliminates the need of venting attic and rafter bays, keeping all potential condensate out of the roof/attic.
  • Sound Control:As result of the thousands of microscopic air cavities,spray foam insulation has substantial acoustical attenuation properties, effectively reduce the amount of noise from plumbing lines, general room to room ambient noise, and from exterior to interior.
  • Durability:Spray foam Insulation is flexible and will move with the building’s natural shifts over time. And unlike Batt insulation, foam will not settle or sag once it is place, which results in a wall or ceiling assembly that has a consistent R-value.

Cost Analysis:

Spray foam insulation cost, including installation varies from $4/sqft for open cell to $7/sqft for closed cell. Standard Fiberglass Batt insulation including installation costs an average of $1/ sqft. In a typical 2,500 sqft home, insulating the roof and the exterior walls, the total is insulate would be approximately 6,400 sqft. The cost to insulate with Batt insulation would be $6,400. To install a hybrid spray foam assembly, with Open cell foam in the exterior walls, and Closed cell in the roof framing, the total cost is $34,632. To install Closed cell throughout, the total cost would be $44,832. Combined with the previously mentioned energy savings and air sealing capabilities, many of our clients find the upfront added cost for spray foam reasonable when considering all of the added value and benefits.

Our client’s 1960’s house, originally conceived for summer use only, was in need of a major upgrade and expansion to accommodate year-round living.  The site’s beauty and location, perched within a stone’s throw of a beautiful salt water marsh in coastal New England, posed many planning challenges, including proximity to coastal wetlands and coastal flooding regulations. Added to the site planning mix was the clients request we minimize energy use with a geothermal system.


coastal geothermal


What is Geothermal: Geothermal, also known as a ground source heat pump, uses the earth’s constant 55 degree temperature to provide much of the heating and cooling energy for a home. Working with Sean Fennessey of Sun Engineering, a closed loop system was specified, where four 350’ deep bore holes are located on the property, providing a below-grade closed loop assembly to be used efficiently by a series of water to air geothermal heat pumps.


Why Geothermal? There are several advantages to a geothermal system:

  • Reduced Energy Use: In conventional homes located in New England, when heating is provided by oil and cooling is provided by electrical outdoor condensers, an annual average of 92 million BTUs from oil and 1600 KWH of electricity are consumed. Since a geothermal system has a number of parts and motors, the electric consumption is reduced very little, but by removing the demand for oil, approximately 850 gallons are saved, for a total cost savings of approximately $3,500/year.
  • Reduced Cost: The high initial cost of a geothermal system is offset by both a 30% Federal tax credit and a $1,750 Rhode Island tax credit, applicable to not only the required geothermal parts and install, but the entire heating/cooling assembly, including ducts, diffusers, hangers, etc. For this project, the total cost of the HVAC system has a 66% additional cost over a conventional high-end system. However, this is reduced by the State and Federal Tax Credits, for a net increase of only 14% for a geothermal system. A home of this size with a conventional HVAC system is expected to consume 1,700 gallons of oil annually, costing $6,000 at today’s energy prices. The geothermal system is estimated to save the client an average of $4,000 per year, paying back the original investment in approximately 3 years, along with peace of mind.
  • More Beauty! Conventional home cooling systems require several exterior condensers, unsightly boxes that are also noisy and occupy valuable land. Geothermal eliminates the need for the exterior condensers and pads, replacing them all with the above-mentioned internal heat pumps, located in the building’s available basement.

System Particulars: The engineered design called for a well field, composed of four 350’ deep bore holes, located outside of the adjacent sensitive wetlands. A closed-loop 1 ¼” plastic pipe, surrounded by high conductivity grout, circulates a safe, food-grade glycol/water mixture, and is connected to a heat exchanger. The geothermal interfaces with conventional efficient water to air heat pumps, where a balance of fresh and inside air is circulated over the hot water coils in the winter and cold water coils in the summer. Along with comprehensive humidification, a state-of-the-art air filtration system, and constant outside air supply, this is available technology that has an extensive performance history and adds value to the home investment.