They were adamant that they wanted their home to "be at home in nature", not to "strain its relationship with the environment". They wanted to have a home that was easy to heat and to cool, but they had an abhorrance for the high-tech glass-and-steel solar systems and houses that were then in vogue. They wanted their home to seem as though it had been there "for a hundred years or more" - to be technically sophisticated but conceptually and environmentally simple - with few mechanical parts. They wanted it to fit into the Napa Valley vernacular, rustic yet sophisticated. using natural materials where possible.
They asked me to design a sustainable house for them - cool in the hot Napa Summers and warm in the cold Winters, using natural energy systems. They were concerned to minimise the maintenance and running costs - relying on non-mechanical means of achieving their aims. We talked for a long time about the Patterns they wanted to include in their house and about the kind of character they wanted it to have. Key to all of this was a clear understanding of the site and the location of the sun.
Solar Rose showing annual sun positions
In all of their 40 acres, there were few places where a house might be sited. The terrain was steep and heavily wooded. It was important to choose a site where year-round sun was available. The one location was a small plateau, overlooking Mt. St. Helena in the distant North East.
View from the South-East Winter Sun/Shade
Click images to enlarge They began by clearing most of their mountainous 40 acres and building a garage and a workshop and by laying a tortuous gravel road. Robert's dream was to build the house around the 375mm x 375mm bridge timbers that he had earlier dismantled in Oregon and transported to the site, 400 miles away. These formed the core framework of the design. The chosen plateau location thrust our over the valley, offering the maximum solar exposure year-round. In the picture above, right, the mountain shadows fail to reach the house in mid-Winter.
Aerial View fom South West Entrance from North West
The plan form is a perfect square (a cube in 3 dimensions) designed to minimise wall area while maximising space. The bridge timbers form the core around which a spiral of spaces ascends - with a different functional level extending off each quarter landing. The lowest floor is the Entrance level, giving immediate access to the guest accommodation with its own bathroom, and ascnending a quarter flight to the "snug" area - with an inglenook fireplace - a "cozy" to snuggle up on the cold winter nights. Continuing upwards, the next level is the living/kitchan/dining level - all with Southern exposure and all with direct-gain passive solar heating. The eaves are designed specifically to block the overhead Summer sun and to allo the penetration of the winter sun onto the insulated tile floor.
Click Image to Enlarge
Continuing upwards, we reach the next quarter level - the Master Bedroom, with shutters opening up to look down into the living area. From here, another quarter flight brings us to the library - once again opening up onto the living space below. Finally,, a full flight takes usup to the top floor - a meditation space overlooking Mt. St. Helena in the distance and with 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains.
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Section showing heating convection system
Click on image to enlarge
This level is also a heat collector, where warm air that has risen from below is re-circulated back, down a central duct and into the subfloor. In Summertime, this exess heat is vented out through the cupola that crowns the roof. The low pressure system thus created draws in cool air into the subfloor through earth-tubes, buried in the forest floor and introducing cool air (56 deg, F) into the subfloor. In Winter time this same 56deg. earth-tempered air is used to preheat the subfloor that is also obtaining direct-gain heat through the windows. The subfloor is designed to recirculate the warm air. It comprises a metal floor decking topped with concrete and both laid over a plywood subfloor with insulation beneath. This provides a honeycomb over the whole floor area through which the warm air can flow - heating the concrete mass above and insulated from the cold below. It is this plenum that helps to preheat the concrete flow in winter and to cool it from the earth-tempered air in summer.
All of this simple technology is enclosed in a building that belies its sophisticated function and sustainability - a building that at once appears ancient and modern, Victorian and yet rustic. Robert once said that the house reminded him of a norwehgian Stave Church, or perhals a Zen temple. It is hard to place, culturally and historically. It is built to a system. All oif the windows are combinations of modules (this again to minimise cost and maximise effctiveness), repeated in rythmic patterns throughout the entire building. Once the basic module(s) were determined, Robert built a jig and made them all himself.
North East Elevation North West Elevation
South East Elevation South West Elevation
The building is essentially inwardly-focused, revolving, as it does around the central spiral stair and heat plenum. Yet where it needs to look out, it does so, The North face is sparcely windowed to conserve energy. The Southern face almost fully glazed. Internally, the space soars - the public spaces having lofty open-beam ceilings, while the private spaces are closed and intimate. The breakfast area is an alcove off the kitchen and looking out across the valley to Mt. St. Helena. The lower "snug" with the library above can be seen to the left
Western Approach Entrance Porch
View from North-East South Face
View from South Western Hills (Summer)