Sheroes of Passive House: Lois Vitt Sale, "The Kingdom of My Childhood"

January 24, 2020

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[Editor’s Note: A highlight of PHIUS’ 14th North American Passive House Conference was the “PH Divas” panel session, featuring pecha kucha-style presentations by seven trailblazers in Passive House architecture. We’re excited to be publishing each presentation in article form on the PH Accelerator. Today’s installment—the final in the series—comes from Lois Vitt Sale, FAIA, LEED Fellow, and Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer with Wight & Company.]

I want to talk to you about the kingdom of my childhood. This aerial drawing represents a house that’s now 200 years old where I lived, surrounded by corn fields, a cow pasture, a horse farm, and woods. It’s outside of Washington, D.C., in Leesburg, Virginia.

In the fall, I would get lost in the woods. Anybody ever try to walk through a bed of leaves and not make a sound? Other times, I would make the leaves on the ground crackle as much as I could while enjoying their smell. They reminded me of Wheaties all over the ground.

In the springtime, in some of those same woods, I actually came upon a vista of daffodils that covered the ground as far as I could see! I hadn’t known they were there. It was a surprise to me. That day, I was all by myself and surrounded by more daffodils than I could contemplate.

In the nighttime, my brothers and sisters and I—I was one of six—we’d drag our blankets out into the front yard to lay down on, and we’d see more stars than we could imagine. We could see the Milky Way. We’d see, not satellites, but shooting stars. And we’d just sit there all night and we’d watch this amazing vista of the universe from our front yard.

I told you there were horse farms on one side of our property. My sisters and I used to get up on the split rail fences surrounding the horse paddock, and give concerts to the horses. You probably don’t remember Herman’s Hermits, but we would sing, “Come on, sweet pea, won’t you dance with me?” That’s what we were singing.

At harvest time, on the cornfields, the local farmer would begin harvesting in a big circle. He would go down through the middle of the corn field leaving big swaths of newly harvested fields and we would take our bikes, and bomb down the middle of the cornfields. They had this slope away from our starting point, and all we could see was corn on every side, and it was unbelievable.

Our driveway was seven-tenths of a mile long that we walked daily to meet the school bus. You know, not every day in the life of a kid is a good day. And I would pass the cows on my way home from the school bus and share all my trials with the cows. Their faces were so sympathetic. How could I not feel like I was cared about?

There were creeks all over this farm, and my sisters and brothers and I would invariably cut our knees or get soaking wet as we played in them. I have a sister who is now an environmental manager doing wetlands delineations among other things. She used to always flip the rocks up and pull out the crayfish and find snakes.

I was a big tree climber. I don’t know if you remember the joy of climbing trees, not only because of how you felt — like, “Wow! I can do this.” But getting up in a tree canopy changes your perspective, right? As kids, we’re small people, and it’s so cool to climb into a tree and see from higher up. There was this stand of old apple trees with big gnarly trunks and widely spreading branches, and when they bloomed I would climb up into the canopy of the blossoms, and feel like I was in a total fairyland surrounded by these magnificent trees and their fragrant blossoms. It was magical.

Even in the wintertime, I was a tree climber, and I have to tell you that I actually climbed a tree in a pair of ski boots. When I wanted to tell you this story with a picture, I went online to see if I could find a picture of someone in a tree in ski boots…. I couldn’t believe I found a picture of somebody else who was as nutty as me who climbed a tree in ski boots! As I recall, it’s fairly easy to ascend a tree in ski boots; but getting down is a different matter.

Today, I find myself going to National Parks to find that sense of wonder in nature. I feel very fortunate because I got to go to New Zealand and to go Milford Sound on the South Island, pictured here. It was my first chance to see a fjord…

I also find time, and take time, to find nature in my backyard. This is no more than a quarter of a mile from my house, this grassy clearing with hardwoods. I especially love walking around the equinoxes—both spring and autumn—because the light is crisp and it’s horizontal.

I feel so grateful every time I see creatures, whether it’s five kits playing in my backyard (and I live in suburban America) or a deer sighting. I always feel like I’ve been given a present.

But I have to tell you that my favorite experience as a kid was always seeing the rocks. It kind of presaged the fact that I was going to become an architect. No matter what landscape I was in, I was always trying to stack rocks. I enjoyed the structural integrity of them, the colors, the durability even though, at the time, I didn’t know I was going to be an architect.

Here is what happened to the kingdom of my childhood. The house is still there, more than two hundred years old, surrounded by a field of McMansions. There’s no more seeing stars from this front yard. I feel so let down by the loss of this magical place that gave me and my siblings so much. And so, as an architect in practice, my job is to do different, to design differently—not to integrate nature into buildings, but to integrate buildings into nature.

Photo credit: Google Earth

Photo credit: Google Earth

Here are a few snapshots of work I’ve done in my career that I hope shows a different approach.

This was my first net zero project that I designed in the early 2000s that is located in a remnant prairie in Illinois. It was designed to almost be cut and floated away, like a ship on a sea of grasses.

Photo credit: © Paul Schlismann Photography

Photo credit: © Paul Schlismann Photography

This nature center celebrates a hardwood savannah. During construction, we actually toothed the building between the existing trees. We didn’t have to grow a landscape after it was done. And the trees we removed to open up the savannah for more access to sun, or to make room for the building, were used as round timber in the nature center. Of course, these projects have highly insulated envelopes and integrated photovoltaics to also conserve resources.

Photo credit: © Paul Schlismann Photography

Photo credit: © Paul Schlismann Photography

This project was designed to celebrate rainwater, with this butterfly roof to express the fact that it is capturing water. It has a big cistern in the middle of the lobby, right in everyone’s view, so they can see how much water it takes to flush toilets and charge a living wall (a wall of interior plants used to filter return air in the building).

Photo credit: © Paul Schlismann Photography

Photo credit: © Paul Schlismann Photography

And this is my first built Passive-certified building, a recreation center where sunshine is used to power the building below. And it doesn’t leak light into the outside so maybe there’s an opportunity to see the stars again.

Photo credit: © Kmiecik Imagery

Photo credit: © Kmiecik Imagery

Let’s face it, if we turn off the lights, those stars are still there.

The author, Lois Vitt Sale.

The author, Lois Vitt Sale.

Author

Lois Vitt Sale
Lois Vitt Sale
Lois (FAIA, LEED Fellow) leads Wight & Company’s sustainable design initiatives and advances the firm’s commitment to offering clients…

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Passive House Accelerator’s coverage of NAPHC2019 is made possible by support from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

Passive House Accelerator’s coverage of NAPHC2019 is made possible by support from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

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