Carved into a steep mountainside in Basye, Virginia, the Goldeneye dwelling is like a modern treehouse.
The home’s entrance on the upper level leads to living areas flanked by master bedroom and screened porch wings that soar among the treetops and peer out over the foliage and lake below. Meanwhile, the client’s modern furniture collection and contemporary propane fireplaces lend a sophisticated but comfortable air to the interior.
The home embodies the defining principles of its designers: Winchester, Virginia–based Reader & Swartz Architects.
“With all of our projects, there are two things that basically drive everything,” says Chuck Swartz, who founded the firm with his wife, Beth Reader. “One is the client and their desires, what their personalities are and what they want their building to be. The other is the site: sunrise, sunset, view, and all those sorts of things. If you work that way what you find is that you end up making buildings that are in tune to the environment. And it also means the buildings respond well to the people that live in them.”
Goldeneye, a vacation home inspired by the client’s affinity for James Bond as well as his stylish furniture, is typical of the firm’s work in that it serves as a getaway for a client from metropolitan Washington, D.C. The two-hour drive from the city transitions from urban bustle to suburban sprawl to, ultimately, a retreat far removed from everyday life.
The locations his clients pick — stretching from North Carolina through rural Virginia and West Virginia and into Pennsylvania — often share three features, Swartz says: dark skies, lousy cell phone service, and no accessibility to natural gas. “They kind of all go together!” he says with a laugh. And those features mean propane plays a vital role on nearly every project he designs.
“We recommend to folks ways to heat and cool their house and also talk to them about cooking and drying clothes and all that sort of stuff,” Swartz says. Solar photovoltaics or geothermal heating sometimes play a role, but propane is usually in the mix. “In almost all of our houses that aren’t in the city, propane ends up being an important aspect of it.”
For Swartz, a former restaurant cook, gas cooking often leads the conversation. “For the most part, our clients are living in the country in order to try and live well, which means they enjoy cooking and enjoy food,” he explains. “So a lot of times the first thing that happens is the stoves and ranges get you with propane before even heating does.”
“We pretty much never recommend folks do their houses all electric.”
Orlean Americana, a “homecoming” house with a classic American soul in tiny, rural Orlean, Virginia, is a characteristic example. The clients picked the spot within view of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a destination for kids, grandchildren, and future generations to enjoy the outdoors and come together as a family. A propane stove in the kitchen and propane cooking outdoors mean they can cook for a small group of family or a gathering of 30 friends.
But if cooking leads the conversation, heating may settle the decision. “We pretty much never recommend folks do their houses all electric,” Swartz says. While the firm’s homes are well-insulated and designed for passive solar heating, electric heating is still overly costly through Virginia’s cold winters.
Plus, propane makes a home more resilient, a particularly attractive feature in areas where the power grid can be spotty. Many of Swartz’s homes include a propane standby generator, and even homes with geothermal heating typically use a hybrid system with propane backup. “In rural situations, it helps to have more than one way to do things,” he says.
Because the firm’s designs are dictated by the client and the surrounding environment, there’s no singular style that defines a Reader & Swartz home. The firm’s portfolio stretches from local vernacular to transitional to contemporary. But by providing desirable amenities in quiet locations, propane serves as a unifying energy solution to the firm’s most common design challenges.