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Sunday, 05 May 2013 19:34

The Opsahl House (1979-80)

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Robert Opsahl and Kelly Larsen owned a large remote property in the hilly country between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, California. They asked me to design a passive solar house for them, using old bridge timbers and other recycled materials that Robert had collected over the years. Both were descended from Norwegian forebears and both were practicing Buddhists. When they first approached me about their house they seemed to have a very clear idea about what they wanted. They hadn't, until then, given any deep thought to what their "dream" house might be like. To most ordinary people, a "dream" house connotes nothing so much aa a tract house in suburbia. Robert and kelly were different. In response to my probing, Robert produced a 17 page, single-spaced letter delineating their functional, economic, physical and spiritual needs.They wanted their home to be "natural" - responding to the seasons, a passive solar house with none of the feeling of high technology, but firmly rooted in the Arts and Crafts tradition. They saw it as "frozen Zen", embodying the concepts of Thoreau, Whitman and James. They wanted it to reflect a "joie de   vivre" a delight, whimsical, surprising, novel, zest for life that includes subline, subtle humor that is pretentiousness-deflating, poking fun at oneself and at humanity's overblown feeling of self-importance...perhaps a free-spirited abstraction of the traditional enchanted forest, story-book cottage done in a modern, novel way, light informal, warm, rustiuc, poetic, serene, simple, comfortable, charming, relaxed, rugged, harmonious, emphasising character rather than beauty, spiritualism rather thabn materialism, cozy, intimate, personal. Reflecting life and, ultimately, death".
Their house continued to evolve after the issuance of the building permit, and on throughout the construction process. These humorous, brave and energtic people built the house themselves  - without any prior construction experience.


Preliminary Sketch

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.

Opsahl3   opsahl-ext7

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.

opsahl-ext14  opsahl-ext13

              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.


Floor Plans

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.


Mezzanine Plan 

Click image to enlarge


             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

opsahl-s.w.ele          opsahl-elev1  

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


Interior Perspective

opsahl-exterior-arch  opsahl-ext10

Western Approach                                    Entrance Porch

opsahl-driftwood-east   osahl-south-wall

View from North-East                                         South Face


View from South Western Hills (Summer)


 Winter Shading








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