Newton, Mass. — When it was time for Jeremiah Eck, a Boston architect, to design a house for himself and his wife, Jane, he drew not only upon his technical training, but also on the knowledge he has gained from an avid interest in the history of the American home.
The result is a compact yet comfortable home with a clever but uncomplicated passive solar heating system. With its simple form, clapboard siding, and elegantly appointed entranceway, it can perhaps best be described as a contemporary version of an old New England farmhouse.
It is a small place, only 1,200 square feet. The upstairs has two bedrooms and a bath. We are sitting in one of only two rooms on the first-floor level - a room rich with light and intimacy. A kindling fire crackles in the wood stove, taking the chill out of the early morning air. The smell of bacon and warming maple syrup wafts in from the adjoining kitchen.
Mr. Eck, a thoughtful and friendly transplanted Midwesterner, settles back in a Boston rocker and explains how he came to this design.
''The early English settlers of New England built very small, practical houses,'' he says. ''In their simplest form they consisted of only two rooms, the hall and the parlor. The hall, which later was called the keeping room, was the area used by the family for work and recreation.
''The other room, the parlor, was used only for formal occasions,'' he continues. ''The structural element tying these spaces together was the common central chimney. It functioned not only as a source of heat, but also as a hub of family activities.''
Mr. Eck believes that for houses to fit the busy yet casual life styles of today, people should return to the notion of the hearth. By this he doesn't mean going back to cooking in a fireplace. Rather, he says, we should invent a contemporary version of the hearth in our homes, a place of warmth and activity where family members are naturally drawn together. He suggests that today this may even be a ''solar hearth,'' a room so filled with natural light and warmth from the sun that people want to congregate there.
The room where we are sitting is such a room. ''In our house,'' Mr. Eck confirms, ''we are drawn to this room because of its tremendous light and the wooded view we have through this large, 12-foot window wall. The double-glazed windows serve a practical purpose, too, allowing the sun's heat to warm the room.''
This is indeed an inviting and casual room, yet it also combines the formal feel of the early parlor, with its Oriental rug and comfortable blend of furnishings. Opposite the window wall, a mahogany drop-leaf table stands, ready to be pulled away from the wall to create a formal dining area.
''It is an open and airy space with high ceilings, and the only room in the house that gives you a sense of structure,'' he adds, referring to the attractive heavy timbers that support the unseen ''solar attic'' above.
The passive solar heating system housed there also reflects the independent nature of native New Englanders. It is a simple yet effective system that gathers heat from the sun through a tremendous skylight in the roof and then distributes it by fan throughout the house.
''Making a house tight from the infiltration of cold air is the key to keeping energy costs down,'' Mr. Eck says. ''A good vapor barrier and insulated, well-sealed windows eliminate drafts that make you feel cold in the winter.''
A call to breakfast briefly interrupts our conversation. We move to the spacious and well-equipped kitchen, past the warm-hued cherry cabinets to the bay-windowed eating area, where most meals are eaten.
''Like early New Englanders, we all seem to group around the kitchen these days,'' Mr. Eck says as we sit down to fresh blueberry pancakes. Morning sun streams through the large windows as Jane Eck moves an unfinished letter from the table to a nearby bookshelf. It is plain to see that the Ecks have happily returned to the homey notion of the hearth.