Internationally recognized for their weeHouse® concept, Alchemy has been proving since 1992 that even the smallest of dwellings can have a huge impact. weeHouse®, a term that Alchemy trademarked in 2002, was conceived as a modular-friendly design system that emphasizes quality before quantity, and has been recognized by an ethos of “less is more.” The Minnesota-based firm, led by Geoffrey Warner FAIA, designs the structures to be modern and sleek with particular attention to using expressive local materials with environmental sensitivity.
The Squam Lake House in New Hampshire, although not technically a weeHouse, was required to strictly respect the floor area and volume of a dilapidated cabin 15’ from the shore. Fabricated mostly offsite by Bensonwood using 18” thick, pre-glazed wall panels and white oak timber framing, the panels were erected in only 4 days.
Eric Winter, AIA and architect at Alchemy, shared some valuable insights about the project’s design process.
Design Considerations for Alchemy’s Lakefront Home
“The house is metaphorically a box of trees,” says Winter. “With an interior entirely of oak that’s adorned with black steel jewelry, it embraces the spirit of the densely-wooded site. The trees bring in light and define spaces, circulation, and storage. The house was 3D-modeled in Vectorworks by Alchemy, allowing the tree forms to be CNC-fabricated in collaboration with Digifabshop.”
The adjacent boathouse is a fallen tree with the spirit of a wooden boat. Both buildings were designed separately but sheathed in the same weathered wood rainscreen siding.
Alchemy uses BIM through every step of their workflow as it helps them connect complex geometry with associated parameters. Winter describes this particular project as “extremely 3D modeling intensive,” which BIM in Vectorworks helps streamline due to the ability to add data to any kind of geometry.
Locational Inspiration & Natural Materials
Alchemy took inspiration from both the landscape and history of the area.
“The project is located on a lakeshore and is surrounded by trees,” Winter said. “We took the idea of trees, the local lumber history, and canoe building as inspiration. It also doesn’t hurt that it is on the placid shores of Squam Lake, where On Golden Pond was filmed.”
Both the home and the boathouse use the same white oak, selected for its beauty and natural durability in both interior and exterior applications.
Using BIM to Bring 3D Models to Life
Frankly, the boathouse’s shape is so unusual that it’s difficult to imagine modeling it and having it installed accurately. But Alchemy used several features in Vectorworks design software to help bring their vision to life.
“In this design, there were actually very few traditional ‘building elements’ like walls or roof faces,” Winter said. “We modeled and detailed nearly everything ourselves.”
The boathouse was modeled by creating a translated semi-curved path following a conceptually simple line geometry, bent 30º in plan and 30º vertically. The architects extruded and arrayed forms along that path.
“The boathouse is akin to a single log or branch,” Winter said, “with ribs that make up a structure that’s strengthened by longitudinal purlins and a plywood skin.”
The network of connected nodes pictured above is the Marionette script Alchemy used to procedurally generate the trees’ complex geometry. The image shows that they started with a simple shape modeled with Extrude Along Path and Solid Addition commands. Once the Marionette script was applied, the shape morphed to represent the structural system needed to construct the original shape. Those trees will intersect the structure and envelope of the house.
Diagramming Complex Geometry for Coordination & Off-Site Fabrication
Alchemy's detailed diagrams of their unique geometry serve as a communication tool as the design progresses through pre-fabrication and construction. With the ability to export DWG files from Vectorworks, Alchemy can provide builders with the information they need to produce their own drawings for CNC routing or laser cutting.
“Typically the fabricator will share an image export with basic dimensions of the DWG file to verify that everything is correct,” Winter said. “We rely on metal fabrication for a lot of custom elements such as railings, steps, awnings, and lights. The ability to make really cool objects that fit within our clients' budgets makes it critically important that we work with fabricators in a very hands-on way.”
With the prefabrication process currently underway, construction has already begun to experiment with the details of the bark and frame — both made of oak — to fully realize this exceptional design at full scale.
How the weeHouse System Influenced This Design
“As products and systems become more widespread over time, the weeHouse seeks to maximize sustainability, design efficiency, and durability with affordability, while still achieving crafted, significant architecture,” Winter explained.
So, while the Squam Lake residence doesn’t technically fit the weeHouse system, many of the same design principles influenced the build — considerations such as sustainability, efficiency, innovation, and craftsmanship.