Case Study: Natatorium by Smith & Vansant Architects

Small and single-purpose, a pool house is that quintessential object that can be precisely designed down to the smallest of details. And in this case, the spectacular New England setting was an invitation to elevate that concept—literally, too, since the natatorium sits at the tallest point of a 152-acre site that includes a main house, log cabin guest house, and caretaker’s house. It is so meticulously designed that despite its 2,250 square feet—fairly large for a pool house—it feels like a cozy hideaway. 

This effect is achieved any number of ways, from the proportional relationships between walls, windows, and ceiling, to the cohesive use of materials and color. Even more striking than the assemblage of these elements is the relationship between the natatorium and its surroundings. Its orientation is due south, on axis with Mount Ascutney, a volcanic mountain that rises from the Connecticut River Valley in southeastern Vermont. 

The emphasis on the outdoors reflects the priorities of the owner, who, perhaps impractically, envisioned a solarium type of building with an infinity pool. “The client’s basic request was for an indoor swimming place that would be a separate destination from the house and used year-round,” says Smith & Vansant Architects principal Pi Smith, AIA. “She wanted it to have great views, and the exterior needed to match the language of the original house. It was meant to be a draw for her two children who are in their 20s and on the cusp of having families of their own.”

Designed around a 40-by-14-foot pool, the gabled, timber frame building is clad in shingles that reference the style of the main house. The long bar-shaped footprint contains the pool, where a 24-foot-wide-by-11-foot-high bifold glass door system brings in the mountain view to the south. A smaller wing on the north houses the supporting spaces—kitchenette, bath and sauna, changing room, laundry, and mechanical access, with an octagonal inglenook at its center. The inglenook’s small custom table and built-in upholstered seating gaze across the pool—through the expansive glass doors to a stone terrace and the mountain beyond. On the east side of the house, a gable-roof front porch frames this view on approach.

High Handed

Before they began sketching, the architects had spent some time looking at precedents. “What we mostly learned was what not to do,” Pi says. “You have to think about the proportions of the space. We knew the pool had to be 40 feet long and have space around it for the pool deck. That’s almost a barn shape, long and narrow, and if the walls aren’t tall enough, the space can look squat and underlit. The other thing that struck us was that discontinuities between wall and ceiling finishes reinforced those proportional issues.” 

The result of these studies is a tall volume that relates to the length of the pool, with continuous fir wrapping the walls and exposed truss ceiling under a SIP roof. Rather than having a flat ceiling plane implied by the bottom of the trusses, they were designed to lift in the center. Their lines reflect the flat deck around the pool; the trusses go up where the pool goes down. The windows look normally sized in this context, but in fact are quite large—3 feet, 6 inches wide by 8 feet, 3 inches tall. Window and door heads are about 11 feet high, and 8-by-8-inch columns sit inboard of the foot-thick wall.

“The client didn’t want to see structural brackets, so we introduced a steel moment frame,” says project architect Stephen Blanchflower, AIA. “The timber frame roof is truly carrying the load, but the walls are supplemented with steel for lateral and vertical stability.”

This is a relatively unusual building type for northern New England, and it was not without challenges, such as keeping the indoors warm in the winter while avoiding condensation build-up. “She didn’t want to see any of the heating elements required to keep windows like this from fogging up in the winter,” Stephen says. 

Warm air washes the triple-pane glass window wall through custom wood grilles, while return-air grilles are incorporated into stained glass panels above some of the doors, keeping the mechanical trappings out of sight. 

HVAC equipment is housed in the basement of the north wing, and ductwork runs beneath the pool deck and behind the walls. Stone floors have radiant heat, and a copper ion system sanitizes the pool water, reducing the need for chlorine, along with its smell.


The owner’s preference for salvaged and locally fabricated fixtures is evident inside and out. Custom fir storage benches and a fir bath vanity support the timber theme, while shimmering art glass, a locally made weathervane depicting her daughter swimming, and the cupola’s undulating green shingles are nautical motifs. The exterior trim colors—Benjamin Moore Essex Green and Tarrytown Green— echo those on the main house. 

Similar jungle-green hues on the kitchen cabinetry and custom furniture weave the interiors together. The client was consistent in her rejection of visible modern technology, such as recessed lights. All the light fixtures are decorative Arts and Crafts style in a variety of patinated finishes, including mother-of-pearl push-button light switches. William Morris wallpaper wraps the bath and changing room, where a salvaged, intricately patterned stained glass window adds an artisanal touch. Local craftspeople built the fireplace and made the copper kitchen counters and inglenook tabletop. With its deep trough, angled front, and built-in soap niche, the 100-year-old kitchen sink imparts its own rich character.

Only a few items were imported, like the inglenook’s custom mosaics from Beirut, Lebanon. “We sketched out many ideas with the client,” Stephen says. “She wanted the mosaics to pick up some of the wildflowers she is cultivating on the site. Working with the lighting designer, we also incorporated some of those elements into the light fixtures.” The quartzite flooring from India is another anomaly. “It’s perfect for this kind of environment because it transfers radiant heat to your feet,” Stephen says, “and it’s got some clefts and bumps that make it a good nonslip surface for wet areas.” 

The alchemy effect of all these elements surprised even the architects. “One aspect of the design that we really only understood after we spent a day there on a photo shoot was how dramatic the reflections in the water would be,” Pi says. “During the day they track the sun, amplify the landscape, and scatter rippling patterns on the ceiling. At night the lights are reflected in both the surface of the pool and in the windows. The boundaries of floor and walls, and inside and outside, are blurred. The space feels weightless and transparent, and the pool seems infinitely deep.” What more could you ask of a pool house?


Eastern Vermont

Architect: Pi Smith, AIA, principal, Smith & Vansant Architects, White River Junction, Vermont

Builder:O’Hara & Gercke, White River Junction, Vermont

Swimming pool: Northeast Pools & Spas, Sharon, Vermont

Post and beam frame and SIPS: Davis Frame Co., Claremont, New Hampshire

Masonry: Olde World Masonry, West Burke, Vermont

Custom casework and furniture: Hitchcock Woodworking, Hartford, Vermont

Custom Upholstery: Zimman’s

Interior lighting fabricator: High Beams Lighting, Sutton, Vermont 

Project size: 2,250 square feet

Site size: 152 acres

Photography: Rob Karosis

Key Products

Art glass: Youghiogheny Glass

Beverage refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Cabinet hardware: Rejuvenation

Cladding: Maibec cedar shingles, Olde World Masonry

Countertops:V ermont Soapstone Co.

Dishwasher: Bosch

Door hardware: Rocky Mountain Hardware, Ashley Norton 

Entry doors: Custom salvage fir

Exterior Steel Door System: Optimum Window Manufacturing 

Flooring: Best Tile Udaipur Quartzite

Icemaker: XO Appliance

Interior doors: BROSCO

Interior and exterior lighting: Arroyo Craftsman

Mosaics: Custom from Mozaico

Paints: Benjamin Moore

Plumbing fixtures: House of Rohl

Roofing: Drexel

Soapstone sink and stained glass window: Vermont Salvage Exchange

Sauna heater: HUUM 

Shower tile: Fireclay

Toilet: American Standard

Wallpaper: William Morris

Windows: Marvin