The Allman Heater

Canterbury, New Hampshire, was one of the great centers of the Shaker spiritual movement. Steve Allman, a New Hampshire native and a philosophy major in college, felt drawn to the architecture and crafts of the Shaker Village in Canterbury and took on the task of re-establishing the Shaker craft of making oval hardwood trays, baskets and nesting boxes.

While living in Canterbury, Steve found a piece of land to buy and became an apprentice of sorts to a remarkably innovative designer and builder, Chance Anderson. With a push from Chance and the work of Berkeley architect Chris Alexander, who focused on feeling and wholeness, Steve began to design his house.

He moved to the land and built a 10′ x 10′ cabin overlooking one of the several ponds on the property. One day Steve was walking the land when his sister brought by a college friend, Jacquie Kelk, who listened while Steve shared his house dreams. A voice inside her head told her that this house was her home. Jacquie and Steve and two black labs spent three years in the 10′ x10′ cabin building their business, Canterbury Woodworks, and materializing their dream.

The larger goal in Steve‚Äôs mind was to create a self-generative lifestyle with gardens, wood fired heating, baking, cooking and hot water, a home that was a living, breathing system, secure, but intimately connected with the forest and ponds around it. The house would be rugged, built with natural materials–wood, brick and granite–to last for generation after generation, like the Shaker settlement nearby, aging gracefully.

The lower level has double-thick brick walls with poured foam insulation between them and simple strong granite posts and lintels at the corners, doors and windows. Steve salvaged several 10-wheeler truckloads of brick from a 19th century building being demolished nearby and had them dumped on a logging road near the home site. Each brick was then cleaned by hand and brought to the site. The 10″ thick wall only has an “R” value of 12, but the mass is so great that when it reaches temperature, the home has a gentle heat, full like a pregnant woman, and completely natural. In sub-freezing weather you can open all the doors and windows to lower the air temperature to 40 degrees inside, but as soon as you close them again, the house immediately returns to 60 degrees.

The radiant mass of the walls and central two story fireplace core keeps bodies warm and the air cool. No one gets sick in this house. The air stays fresh. When a person wants a little more warmth, there are heated benches around the fireplace core that are always warm.

Steve designed the home layout first, nestling the brick and granite first level into a hillside looking south through the hardwood forest to a pond. Large multipane windows and doors on the pond side create natural connectedness between the indoors and outdoors. Simple terra cotta Mexican tiles cover the radiant-heat first level floor slab, making barefoot living comfortable.

On the bermed northern wall of the kitchen, tall raised-panel cherry cabinets fill the room with honeyed warmth. A huge recycled antique soapstone sink sits in the center of the north wall. Above the sink and cabinets Steve left room for celestory windows all along the wall to release any buried feeling one might have had nine feet underground. The celestory aesthetic had worked well in the timberframe garage/workshop they started the project with.

Jeff Thurston and his timberframe crew moved from the garage/workshop project to the house. There were no blueprints or rigid designs. Ideas were shared on napkins and then executed in massive granite columns, elaborately scrolled rafters or enormous timbers.

Outside, the home feels and looks like a Swiss or Austrian or Finnish handcrafted “Einhaus,” designed to hold generations of people and farm animals under one roof. The brick and granite base, however, has a New England flavor reminiscent of the water-powered mills built all across New England in the 1800s. The second level is built of solid timbers laid piece on piece, and the third level and roof structure is all timberframed with stress-skin paneling.

One entering the house at the basement level encounters an enormous brick structure with arched windows flanked by massive natural pine-turned Doric columns holding up a huge oriental wooden lintel buried in the brick work.

Here at the core of the home–where Greece, China, Finland, Switzerland and New England meet–is the first level of the heart of the home, a granite decked, wood burning, brick cookstove with a masonry oven, domestic hot water jacket, copper hot water tank and heated bench (sitzbank [German]; kang [Chinese] ) with flues running back and forth under a 3′x7′x5″ thick granite slab that three or more people can easily lounge on.

Under the stairs is a cozy half-bath. The stairs and under-stair walls are solid mahogany planks purchased at auction when Palmer and Packer of northern Massachusetts went out of business. Like most Shaker architecture, the materials are left in the natural state with minimal alteration or adornment. The strength and color and beauty of the materials are allowed to speak with their own true voice.

On the second level, the warm hearth and central masonry core of the house continues, separating a pond-viewing deck and formal living area from the cozy raised-floor, lowered-ceiling den on the opposite side. A see-through Finnish Fireplace of brick with white stucco and granite trim is fired every cold day. On one side is a heated bench, fireplace and bakeoven.

On the opposite side, a two-tiered wood box flanks one side of the fireplace, while an alcove for an entertainment center flanks the other side of the fireplace.

The third floor is for sleeping and is kept purposely cooler. The bedrooms have windows to the outside of the house and windows to the inside, giving both privacy and connectedness to outer and inner space.
The main bath is spacious, celebrating Shaker style and simplicity with a peg board running all around the room and a grand claw-foot white enameled bath tub as the centerpiece of the room.

Along the perimeter of the house at every level are closets and quiet spaces for an office or a study. The rooms are squared organic shapes within-which curves emerge: the rounded columns, the arches, the dragon lintel. The combining of the severe asexual Shaker style with the sensual flow of the organic and oriental shapes is a pleasing one, for this is a house to build family in, where dogs and babies and friends and wine and bright clothes and laughter, as well as love of land, of natural wood, of clay and stone all have their place.

Albie, Todd Milliken, Rich Raymond, and Doug Wood built the Allman heaters.

Steve shifts coals from the oven to the cooktop firebox as he prepares to bake pizza for our evening meal.

Steve shifts coals from the oven to the cooktop firebox as he prepares to bake pizza for our evening meal.