The Many Functions of Wood

Not only is this lakehouse made from wood and surrounded by woods—it also has a wood-fired masonry heater.



Slabs of Goshen stone from Western Massachusetts create a beautiful patio and outdoor dining area for this lakefront home designed and built by Bensonwood Homes in Walpole. Landscape design was by db Landscaping in Sunapee.

When architect Randall Walter first spoke to Forrest Quimby and Julia Sirois, Walter knew their project would turn out to be special. “Often someone asks us to build a house on a property where they haven’t spent any time,” says Walter, of Bensonwood Homes in Walpole. “But this couple had a quaint little camper on the property, and they’d watched the sun rise and set there.”

Quimby understood that in order to build a proverbial dream house, one must invest in the dreaming stage. The couple owned their lakefront property for more than a decade before breaking ground on the timber-frame home in Hillsborough County. Not only did they know the land well, but Quimby had a thick file bursting with ideas. The result was a home with interesting details, inside and outside.

The centerpiece of the home’s design is a masonry heater. To the untrained eye, the broad chimney may appear to be merely an attractive use of brick. But Quimby earmarked the masonry heater early on in his research, finding it to be an innovative way to heat the home with a renewable resource in a uniquely nonpolluting way. The masonry heater is “fired only once a day during the coldest months,” Quimby says, “but at a very high temperature. The hot fire burns all of the particulates and most of the gasses contained in the wood.” Temperatures inside may reach nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

But those six thousand pounds of brick and masonry amass the heat gently, which means the temperature inside the home doesn’t vary as much as a home heated by an ordinary woodstove. “The masonry heater is a radiant heat source,” explains Erik Nilsen of Thermal Mass Inc., the Dalton company that built the heater. “The heat distributes itself more evenly. It’s not drying the air as much as a metal stove would do.” Nilsen has been building masonry heaters around New England for thirty-five years.

Nilsen says the masonry heater—which is traditional in Finland—is also a safer way to heat with wood. “I haven’t had to clean my own chimney in twenty-five years,” he explains. The hot fire “burns clean, reducing emissions. There’s peace of mind with a masonry heater, since you don’t have to worry about chimney fires.”

In addition, the mass of the stove and chimney stay comfortable to the touch. “You can lean against the surface,” Nilsen says.

There are two arched doors in the stove. The larger one is the firebox, and the upper door is an optional baking oven. “We had our first brick-oven pizza party in February,” Sirois says. “At 550ºF degrees, pizzas cook in minutes.”

The rosy bricks that face the stove and chimney complement the other natural materials in the home, blending with the warm tones of the birch flooring, cherry cabinetry and soapstone countertops. An archway built through the center of the mass lightens the look and provides a convenient wood-storage area.

Heating the Quimby-Sirois home for an entire cold winter was accomplished with three cords of wood, thanks in part to the building’s tight envelope constructed by Bensonwood Homes. The montage building system—the wall panels are fabricated in the Walpole shop, then assembled on site and lifted into place with a crane; a process that takes much less time on site than traditional stick-built construction—creates a home with much higher R-values than insulation with standard construction. In addition, because segments are built at the factory, the wiring and windows are already in place. “This means there’s less waste at the construction site,” Walter says, “and less disruption to the community.”

Reflecting the woods

Another beautiful element of the lake-front home is the timber frame. “At Bensonwood, we’ve been designing these timber-frame buildings for a long time,” Walter says. “And there’s always a moment when the frame stands there alone—a beautiful sculptural form on the site. And someone always says, ‘It’s a shame we have to enclose it.’” The Quimby house, with its outdoor covered living areas, offered a unique opportunity to show off more timber.

Wood grain is a design element everywhere in the home. In addition to the timbers and birch flooring, Quimby specified a shingled wall inside the house. Entering the home, there is a tall interior wall adjacent to the stairway to the second floor. “Sheet rock would have looked so plain,” Quimby says. The shingled wall “makes the upstairs feel like a separate cabin.” And to add his personal touch, he spent many hours cutting a tree-of-life design into one shingled section to greet visitors as they step onto the porch.

For a floor plan that maximizes the view, Walter designed a broad-faced Cape-style home. The kitchen, dining and living rooms all have lake views. “The width of the house—the long aspect—looks at the lake,” he says. “With the ridge running perpendicular to the lake, we allow a lot of natural light deep into the building.”

That natural light is achieved in spite of a wooded setting. The result is a home made from wood, heated by wood and respectful of the woods. “People always ask us,” Sirois says, “‘Why don’t you take those trees down?’ But we love the setting of the woods as well as the lake.”   

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