An Award-Winning and Innovative Studio for Study

Imagine a quiet space in the woods that stimulates thought and brings one closer to nature in its entire four-sea­son splendor.Such a space exists in Jaffrey, where a university professor’s need for a simple stand-alone study for working and writing evolved into a one-of-a-kind “Thinkhouse.””I wanted a space to work, write and study that was outside of the house,” says Dennis Thompson, the Alfred North White­head Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University. Thompson and his wife, Carol, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, own a home in Jaffrey with its own study, but Dennis found that when kids and grand­kids visited, the study wasn’t quiet enough. He envisioned a stand-alone rustic study, set far enough into the woods to be out-of-sight of the main house. “I sketched out a little cabin-almost a shack-and I showed it to my son, Eric,” Dennis says.Eric Thompson, an architect based in Columbus, Ohio, took one look at that first drawing and knew there was room for improvement. “It was pretty clear [Eric] thought the drawing was an embarrass­ment. He said, ‘Why don’t you let me give you a few ideas?'” Dennis says. Eric envi­sioned a study built on pillars, like a tree house, with a slanted, glass window in the front.”It reminded me of a control tower at an airport,” Dennis says. That 11-degree slant to the window opened the view to Frost Pond one hundred feet away.The design was so innovative that it earned the American Institute of Ar­chitects (AIA) Columbus Chapter’s 2010 Honor Award, the highest accolade the chapter bestows on completed buildings, as well as an honorable mention from the AIA New Hampshire Chapter this past January. Eric, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional architect, designed and sited the building to make the most of northern exposure and every moment of daylight. Structural insulated panels (SIPs) insulate the floor and roof.At the suggestion of Eric’s mother- in-law, the Thompsons’ Thinkhouse was named after a fictional character’s study in novelist’s Wallace Stegner’s book, Crossing to Safety.The benefits of building upEric notes how the study was designed and built with reverence for the environment and the site. Only two live trees were re­moved during construction of the roughly four-hundred-square-foot space. The nat­ural slopes and curves of the landscape dictated the location of the one-hundred-foot-long raised walkway and the angles of the home.”One of the biggest design drivers for me was this lovely site with the beautiful pond and trees. I really wanted to be sensi­tive to preserving it,” Eric says. While most houses begin with a concrete foundation dug and poured deep in to the ground, the Thinkhouse is built above ground.Dennis says much thought was give to, and time was spent, siting the study. He and Eric set up ladders on the property and watched where the sun rose and set. They wanted a view of the pond, but from a distance.”Something I learned was that siting a building like this is an absolutely critical decision,” Dennis says.Building the Thinkhouse off the ground allowed for the preservation of the natural slopes and hillside, and also brought the occupants closer to nature-literally.”Raising the building had a metaphori­cal purpose … it connects to the idea of getting away from the earth and everyday demands,” says Eric. “Second, this design allowed us to preserve the hillside.”Another benefit of a raised structure is the proximity to the trees and nature. “You feel connected,” said Dennis. “The boundary between nature and the inside is permeable. In winter, you feel like you’re in a cocoon and protected from the austere but beauti­ful outdoors. It’s a magical experience.”The Thinkhouse is a cell-phone-free zone, but does provide Internet access, a critical tool in Dennis’s research, writing and communications. A stereo system was installed (Dennis has an extensive jazz col­lection), but he admits he doesn’t turn it on as much as he thought he would.”In the summer, I prefer to have the sounds of the woods,” Dennis says.The Thinkhouse is an experience as much as a working space. Eric says the three-part sequence includes the walkway leading up to the entry hall, a narrow tran­sition point lined with books and then the main room. “The room really opens up in front of you,” he says.Creating the right atmosphereBuilding materials-such as those for the roof, exterior siding, flooring as well as custom-built shelves and a desk-were se­lected with care.”We chose materials that would harmo­nize with the site and be beautiful over time,” Eric says. A golden-caramel tone of cedar was used for the exterior siding. For the roof, Eric and Dennis had originally thought of using copper since it ages well and looks great over time, but it is pricey. Instead, Eric and Dennis chose steel roof­ing in a color between copper and bronze. Cedar and pine stained the same color were used for the long curved boardwalk leading to the Thinkhouse.Inside, the bookshelves and cabinets are made of walnut veneer. The floor is solid walnut. And then there is the desk­top-a one-of-a-kind piece made from three, 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of bamboo to minimize waste and materials use.Homebuilder Tim Foley of Jaffrey, who had built the main home for the Thomp­sons some years back, worked closely with Dennis and Eric.”It was an interesting, fun project. The Thinkhouse is not very big and it was a challenge, but it was fun to do,” Foley says.”Nothing was particularly square,” he says, pointing out that one wall leans out 11 degrees. Working with woods such as the bamboo for the desktop was a new experience as well. Jaffrey carpenter Robert Hoyt constructed the bookshelves and the desk with design assistance from Eric, who figured out a way to make the most out of the three sheets of bamboo and piece them together like a puzzle.Transcendentalist landscapeFor ideas on the outside space, the Thomp­sons consulted with renowned landscape designer, author and lecturer Gordon Hay­ward of Hayward Gardens, in Putney, Ver­mont, who approached the design with a minimalist’s touch.”I think one story here is what we did not do rather than what we did,” Hayward says.The moment Hayward learned the purpose of the building was to promote contemplation, he was inspired by the transcendentalist views of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which stress simplicity.Initially, the land beneath the raised Thinkhouse was covered with exposed gravel. The builder had put crushed gran­ite along the drip lines to catch water fall­ing from the roof, but under the building the native gravelly soil was left exposed by the construction process. The exposed soil and gravel drip line interrupted the con­templative nature of the space by show­ing the process of construction, Hayward says. So, he looked to the simplest, most natural solution: covering both areas with forest detritus to blend seamlessly with the forest floor.The solution “healed the wound on which the building was perched,” Hayward says.As Hayward considered what to plant around the exterior, again, less was more. Crews planted only large sweeps of deer-resistant native woodland ferns and carefully anchored the space with lichen-covered granite boulders from the property.The only man-made focal point is a Lu­naform of Maine handcrafted pot made from reinforced concrete. The urn was set upon a piece of rectangular granite in an outdoor space visible from a side window.”You would think the concrete mate­rial would be unsympathetic to the setting, but in fact, it is so elegant and beautifully proportioned in shape,” Hayward says.”It defines and encapsulates the essence of the New England woodland, yet at the same time it is Oriental and therefore timeless. The pot is the link through man to nature.”Since the Thinkhouse was completed late in 2010, Dennis and Carol are spend­ing more and more time in Jaffrey, where their weekends away from the metropoli­tan Cambridge area are getting longer.”I did finish a book this year, writing most of it up here,” Dennis says. “I have to say it’s a lot more pleasant here than listening to the sounds of sirens in the city.”