Person of the Week Jane Siris: Focusing on Sustainability

What do architects do for fun? Well, if you are Jane Siris, along with her husband Peter Coombs, you do just what you do for a living: you design a house.

When Peter's parents moved from their home in Essex to Chester Village West several years ago, Jane and Peter began to rebuild the family home, creating a sustainable and energy efficient residence. The new house has earned a gold level certification from LEED, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a building-rating system developed under the auspices of the United States Green Building Council.

In their new Essex home, Jane says they not only used the footprint of the older house, since doing so would entail less excavation, but they also employed materials from the former residence. They reused oak flooring in the interior and old patio tiles in their garden. They transformed the back lawn from manicured greenery, which would have required more care, to naturalistic, wildflower beds and a large vegetable garden. All the windows in the house face south, to maximize sunlight, while the north walls of the house are the sites for closets and storage areas.

Other energy efficient features include a geothermal heating system and a rooftop photovoltaic system, which converts sunlight into electricity. The spray-foam insulation makes the house so tight that a fan is necessary to import fresh air. The fan itself has an energy saving feature: the heat from the stale air that is being blown out is used to warm the incoming fresh air.

Jane and Peter, who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this Thanksgiving, met when both were students at the Columbia University School of Architecture. Jane recalls that there were only five women in her university class. Jane says her mother, who ran an art gallery, encouraged her own interest.

"I think I was her vehicle," she says.

After graduation, Jane worked at first for other architectural firms, but she says there was
never any question that the goal was to open a business with Peter. After more than 30 years of professional partnership, Jane says, they are good at anticipating each other's needs and reactions.

"In our younger years, ego might have made things more difficult," Peter says.

"Our commonalities grow," Jane adds.

They work on projects together, but Jane says that one of the team will usually serve as the main point of contact with the client.

"It's a question of chemistry; a lot of those decisions are personality," she says.

Jane says Siris/Coombs first drew attention for its rooftop constructions, starting with a penthouse the partners remodeled for themselves in New York City.

"We've made our dream house several times," Jane says.

In their recent design work, Jane and Peter have made sustainability a hallmark of their projects and have designed another house in Connecticut for a LEED silver level certification.

Jane says the couple is now working on a project they have never undertaken before at the behest of a client for whom they had already designed a home. This time the client has asked them to design an exercise
facility for the indoor stationary biking program known as spinning.

Over the years Jane's projects have included both large-scale designs like the Barnard College Counseling Center as well as private homes and apartments. Once in the early l990s, Family Circle magazine asked her to design what it called a woman's dream home. It was to reflect the suggestions it had solicited from readers. Jane recalls demands for a large kitchen, a family room, and what she called a project room.

At the moment, Jane has a place for her own projects in her Essex house: her potting room, where she says she has a collection of shells to make jewelry and a collection of ribbons as well as gardening equipment.

Jane and Peter now divide their time between New York and Connecticut, with an office in their home in Essex as well as a larger workspace in Manhattan. Their goal is both to spend more time in Connecticut and to do more work in this area.

"We love it here," says Jane. "We've been coming here for 40 years."

Although the house they now live in is very different from the one Peter's parents inhabited, Jane says some things never change.

"My mother-in-law was very interested in sustainability; she hung her laundry out to dry on a line and she composted," she

Jane is still composting for the large garden that she hopes will one day supply all their vegetables. On the counter of their sleek and spotless kitchen, there is one thing breaking the internal harmony: an ordinary, gallon-size, plastic tub filled with leftovers for the compost heap. Jane admits the container originally held take-out soup-but she sees sustainability, if not elegance, in it.

"I believe in reusing and
recycling," she says.


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