Williams-Levant House - Barry Byrne/ Mudagreen

How green architecture transformed a brutalist house

Designed by Barry Byrne 80 years ago, Mudagreen give the Williams-Levant House a 21st century reinvention

Good news for lovers of concrete: an important modernist house has been saved, renovated and what’s more converted to ‘Passive House’ standards. That means it needs very little energy for heating and cooling. The Williams-Levant house was built by Chicago-born architect Barry Byrne, who trained as an apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright at the turn of the last century, and was initially part of the Prairie School movement. In 1934 he designed this modernist property Westport, Connecticut for the pianist and comedian Oscar Levant.

Hard to believe, but not everyone in the US is enamoured with the remaining brutalist classics, but this one got lucky. Rather than simply revamp it, the development team MudaGreen reinvented it as a Passive House. Passive, or “zero energy,” houses maintain a comfortable interior climate without active heating and cooling systems. This is achieved via a system of interior and exterior air exchange, an airtight building envelope and energy-saving appliances.

As you can imagine, bringing a 1934 build up to such strict 21st century standards is a tricky business. For one thing, a brand new Passive House is orientated on its site to benefit from the angle of the sun. For another, as glorious as poured concrete is - and you can see some great examples here - it acts as a giant thermal bridge.

So the only way to make the building energy efficient was to wrap the Williams-Levant House in 10-inch-thick insulation. There’s a risk that such an intervention could change the character of a house, particularly if window depths and shapes are messed with. But we think MudaGreen just about pull it off at the Williams-Levant property (though even the most casual observer would notice that what was once a classic white building is now as black as soot). For more clever - and original - sustainable design and architecture, we urge you to flick through the pages of Vitamin Green.