Civilized Environment

Every occupied interior space of the project has operable windows or doors providing access to fresh air and daylight. Excluded from this requirement are the following: lower level hall; walk-in closets; linen closet; storage room; root cellar; mechanical systems room; and a “plumbing pit” at sub-basement level for rainwater filtering and future composting toilet system.

Healthy Air

The main entrance tower has a covered vestibule (section of the covered colonnade) and incorporates external and internal dirt reduction methods. The mudroom on the lower level also has a covered working porch, with exterior and interior tracking reduction methods to mitigate particulates from entering the home, especially from the four-legged occupants. The south terrace entrance into the living hall (living room and dining area) has no covered porch, but does incorporate external and internal dirt reduction methods. The external entrance to the commercial farm office has a covered porch with external and internal dirt reduction methods.


The design of Burh Becc at Beacon Springs Farm celebrates the traditional spirit of the working farmhouse amidst a radically new and yet age-old permaculture farming operation. This farming method will restore the once-prime farmland worn out through over a hundred years of monocrop farming, and will provide abundant fresh produce for the local communities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Touted as an intellectual and cultural center for the Midwest, the Ann Arbor community welcomes innovation in sustainable building design and farming practices. The radical departure from traditional farming methods at Beacon Springs mirrors the radical departure from habits of urban sprawl common to the outskirts of Ann Arbor. The beauty and spirit of the Burh Becc building project speaks to the heart of this LBC agricultural transect project by creating a relatively small farmhouse on a hill adjacent to a small creek which provided water for a 19th-century Michigan farming operation, after the original oak-hickory savannah was essentially destroyed. The home was designed not only to appeal to the current owners but also to provide a beacon of hope for a happy, healthy and sustainable future for all.

  • Vista. The siting of the Burh Becc farmhouse was carefully considered, taking into account a special vista provided by the site. Before the decision was made to proceed with the project, the architect and owners walked the land together, and together concluded the ideal site. Looking south, it captured the long view down a collection of trees grown to great height from the creek flowing under them, with a dense old forest in the background. Framing the beauty of that view was so important that we nudged the building slightly westward, at an angle slightly less than optimal for our passive solar strategy.
  • Structure and form. The architectural form of Burh Becc draws inspiration from the archetypal form of the Tuscan farmhouse common 200 or more years ago: a simple rectangular footprint and low-pitched roofs with exposed rough timber rafters, and sometimes adjacent to a protective tower. Arches necessary in old Tuscan farmhouses for load-bearing masonry walls, are employed in Burh Becc over many windows and doors, and over six decorative niches. These gentle arches are used to soften the expression of the fenestration. Although not structural, they impart a sensual aspect of a supported and a more naturally shaped opening. These arches, combined with the hand-applied rough stucco finishes, soften the building’s expression and give it a more organic and natural feel.
  • Approach. The intended resident/visitor experience of the Burh Becc design relies on key transitional spaces both inside and outside. When arriving by car, after leaving the two-lane public dirt road, the uphill westerly approach to the home is along a 900 foot (274 meters) gently curving dirt driveway, running amidst permaculture farm fields. Before reaching the crest of the hill, visitors can see the top section of the 37’ (11.3 meters) tower, with windows circling the top and a ship’s beacon lamp at the center. Coming over the crest of the hill through a narrow opening in the old field hedge row, the home site is unveiled: high tower with front door standing next to single-level farmhouse, with courtyard gardens and curving colonnade connecting house and barn. The first vista is the long view south past the house, down across permaculture fields with fruit trees, swales, and berry bushes, to the very tall trees running along the creek. The path from parking area next to the barn takes visitors through the flower and herb gardens of the courtyard, past a 100-year-old Hawthorn tree, passing beneath the colonnade to the heavy, roughhewn tower front door.
  • Entry transition. The tower entry is designed to provide a key transitional experience upon entering the home. Standing in the 8’ x 8’ (2.4 x 2.4 meters)tower just inside the front door, the view upward goes all the way to the timbered ceiling of the tower, 36’ (11 meters) straight up. The tower is an airlock at the main entry point for the house, with arched French doors welcoming guests into the living hall. But first, guests cross through the main east-west circulation spine hallway, which is itself a transitional space feeding all the other rooms. The transition from the soaring tower space through this smaller, arched passageway generates a feeling of curiosity and enticement at what lies beyond, akin to a compact entrance to a child’s fort. In addition, there are arched nooks and alcoves and interior windows along this entry path designed to entice, and a rough brick wall along the length of the long north hall.
  • Light infusion. A fundamental design objective was to infuse the structure with massive amounts of light. In winter, this is direct sunlight shining through south wall windows, reaching all the way to the northern wall along the spine hallway, which is a rough and rustic brick wall well suited for direct gain solar heating. In summer, ample illumination fills the living hall, with no direct sunshine anywhere. Naturally, the large area of glazing on the south wall, with clerestory monitors above, is a major source of passive solar heating, while carefully sized overhangs keep all direct sunrays outside during the summer. During some of the coldest yet sunniest days of winter, this design is so effective that windows can be opened to bring in some crisp air – an unusually pleasing experience with the warm floor mass and north brick wall keeping the space quite comfortable despite the winter fresh air. Judicious use of minimal windows on the north, east and west sides of the home allow for some daylighting while minimizing the energy penalty.
  • Hedgerows and house siting. One of the key considerations for placement and orientation of Burh Becc was the beautiful views of the native landscape. But another important consideration was the house site relative to the old farm field hedgerows. Placing Burh Becc slightly west of the intersection of three major hedgerows, especially considering that this intersection marked the high point of land for miles around, provided several important benefits. This intersection is in the center of the 15 acre (6 ha) parcel, putting the working farmhouse at the center of all farming operations. The house is located just over the top of the hill from the public road, thereby essentially eliminating any car noise, and providing for an interesting approach to the house as described above. The intersection of the three hedgerows was kept clear of trees through decades of moving tractors, plough horses, and equipment between the three fields. Two of the hedgerows could be 100% protected during the construction of Burh Becc. The 100-year-old Hawthorn tree, previously the east end tree of its hedgerow, was intentionally and carefully protected and nurtured during the construction project, and now provides the centerpiece of the courtyard. With this hill-top siting of the farmhouse and barn, the project owners can now take advantage of a foundational permaculture farming principle of keeping water as high on the hill as possible for as long as possible, and then using it productively on its route down the hill. All water falling on the building site is stored and maintained for use in the house and outside. Finally, this building location was optimal for maximizing solar benefits with its southern exposure, and gave opportunity to have a house lower level where the land drops away to the southwest, with ample sun exposure for more solar benefits, two additional bedrooms for future generations of larger families, a full bathroom, and a laundry/produce preparation room with exterior entrance and covered work porch.
  • Tower fun and colonnade pleasure. What could be more enticing than a tower? Besides being a component of the passive energy management system, providing convective cooling through thermal lift and Venturi effect, the tower serves as both a beacon – with a ship’s lamp at the top – and a source of curiosity and enticement. Once inside the entry vestibule one can look straight up to the beacon and tower top windows by virtue of the transparent, open-grate intermediate and upper tower floor planes. Plus there is something intrinsically natural and human in the urge to climb to a high vantage point and have a look, and finely crafted ladders make that possible. Additionally, the long, curved colonnade provides a major enjoyable structure that embraces the courtyard, and guides visitors to the front door of the tower. The section of colonnade between the tower and the barn is covered, for daily use by the project owners going to the barn, garage, and farm shop. The extension of the colonnade as roofless arbor to the other side of the tower is planned for growing multiple varieties of grapes, as further enrichment to the experience of the courtyard experience and for fruit harvesting.

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