The challenges of building on an island demanded elements of green building technology. Since there are no utilities for life support systems such as heat, hot water, and electricity, the design approach needed to be comprehensive and efficient.

We were commissioned in 2004 to design a 4,200-square-foot vacation house on a small island off Branford Connecticut. This island, less than one acre, is only 10 feet above sea level at the maximum high point. The challenges were not only to produce enough energy as efficiently as possible, but to build a structure resistant to storm surges potentially 11 feet above sea level and 3 foot waves that could inundate the island. The home has seen three severe storms since it was constructed, and indeed, the ocean did completely inundate the island, leaving only the home and the mechanical building to stand alone in the open and violent ocean.

The island prior to 1938 had a luxurious mansion built on it constructed of masonry and by conventional means. The 1938 hurricane swept over Long Island Sound in that year making a direct hit to the island. The mansion was leveled, leaving only debris, and for 67 years there was no meaningful building on the island other than a storage shack and lean-to over the remains of the foundation.

The only life support brought to the island was a water pipe. The island, named Sumac Island, is only a half mile off the southern Connecticut shoreline in Branford, just a few miles west of a chain of islands called the Thimbles Islands.

The owner bought this island in part for the spectacular views—and of course the privacy any island gives—but he knew it presented many challenges, mainly generating its own power. This required sophisticated mechanical systems to be built—off the grid (see Figure 1).

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Douglas Cutler Architects A.I.A., 221 Danbury Road, Wilton, CT 06897,,