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Natural Design Strategy
Taking Cues From Our Landscape

Taking Cues From Our Landscape

Montana’s vast and numerable landscapes are a challenge for designers who strive for integrating their built forms into our environment.  It is an important design challenge that should be not just be considered, but practiced carefully, especially in times such as these when rapid housing growth with quick pick stylism is causing a deranged view of housing.

How we improve integration of our built forms into such a complex yet subtle landscape is a matter of understanding each building site and being realistic as to how our design either melds with the local environment or stands apart from it. Most of the time Greenovision designs to meld or integrate into the surrounding landscape.  Although there are acceptable times to contrast and stand apart from our surroundings and our neighbors, in general, we consider this a rather ostentatious design pattern.  As I said, it is ‘our’ environment which we all have to live with either in delight or dyspathy. It seems that most building designs have not even considered our environment at all and it is stylism that predominates in decision making.

So what are the key ingredients to melding our designs into the landscape?

Here are a few to consider:

Understanding the vast and complex scales of Montana’s land and sky.  Although not every site has the “Big Sky” phenomena, many do.  There are, however, narrow canyons, dense urban areas, and tightly wooded areas that require a whole different sets of design parameters to arrive at appropriate massing, building heights, and roof forms. But even in these settings there is always the potential to better ‘fit in’ through attention to local details in scales (heights, widths, lengths, and volumes) of not only buildings, but natural phenomena like trees, topography backdrop, or amount of sky overhead without simply picking a ‘house style’ from a catalog.

 

 

Seeing Montana’s color and texture pallet as it is. Montana has arrays of color and texture pallets which can vary from dark wooded areas to brilliant golden fields of wheat. Large swaths of wildflowers or snowfields, areas of river rock, sandstone outcrops, and limestone can all be color pallet cues for us to follow. Nevertheless, it is through examining our design against the real environment that we arrive at appropriate colors and textures.

Studying Montana’s topography. Natural ramps and features like ridges, buttes, aretes, synclines, anticlines, glens, and valleys are all possible informants to adjusting our roof forms and building volume massing.

Through studying and then designing around such natural cues, the home has a connected and grounded aesthetic to its location. This is far different than choosing a style, like bungalow, craftsman, colonial, ranch, contemporary, etc. Not only is it just and fair to each location, it’s by far a more fun and rewarding way to design because it frees up new design possibilities!

What is Environmental Home Design?

What is Environmental Home Design?

We practice environmental design at Greenovision, meaning that the environmental conditions of the site and its surroundings influence our home designs. We believe that homes should compliment and be a sensitive addition to the surrounding landscape, rather than stick out like a sore thumb. Positive conditions such as beautiful vistas, passive solar exposure, cool summer breezes, etc are utilized to benefit the home. Negative conditions such as unsightly views, glaring western sunlight, harsh winter winds, etc are minimized through careful design.

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The roof angles of Liberty House and its adjacent Recycled Garage were designed to mimic the slope of nearby Haystack Mountain. The sage green metal roofing and locally grown & milled, natural-colored cedar siding create soft colors that allow the structures to sit in beautifully with the environment.

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The surrounding mountain and hillside slopes of the Quinn Creek Home were carefully analyzed and integrated into the design and roof pitches. Even though this photo is in color, winter light conditions often create a black-and-white-like effect. The darker and lighter colored metal siding and roofing colors were purposefully chosen to help the home blend with the environment during the changing seasons.

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The low shed roofs at the Crimson Bluffs Home in Townsend, MT were designed to compliment the surrounding mountain ranges. When you follow nature’s existing angles, some amazing things happen both inside and outside of the building. Roof pitches are often “formalities” with no connection to the encompassing landscape. The shed roofs seen in many of our designs are not just a style; they are carefully integrated to have multiple purposes to aid in passive solar heating, passive cooling, water and snow drainage, site specific/environmental design, and other strategies.

Please read Site Specific Design  or Taking Cues from our Landscape to learn more.

 

Passive Cooling Article in “The Bozone”

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Greenovision had another article published! Check out “Passive Cooling Design: free home air conditioning!” on page 1A of the EcoZone section in the September 1st, 2014 Edition of the The BoZone. Greenovision homes are designed to be naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In case you can’t read the article online, here it is reprinted below:

Passive Cooling Design: Free Home Air Conditioning!

By Mark Pelletier and Emily Varmecky

We recently had the pleasure of spending some time in a passive solar house that we designed and built a few years back. Although the home was designed to be heated by the sun’s radiant energy during the cooler months, the roof overhangs block out the sun during the summer. We were visiting on hot, sunny days in July, yet the interior of the home felt fresh, cool, and comfortable. It was great to experience firsthand how the home was benefiting from the passive cooling strategies that we had carefully implemented.

During the hot summer months, a passive air conditioning system is achieved through three strategies: cross ventilation, convection through stack effect, and Venturi effect. By utilizing a combination of these different passive strategies, a home can be cooled on both breezy and non-breezy days. In order to set up these effects within a home, windows are positioned low to the floor on the cool side of the building and high windows are positioned on the high-wall side of the building. Stack effect, for example, helps to cool the home on a non-breezy day. In this strategy, a natural vacuum is generated throughout the home when hot air rises and exhausts through the high windows and fresh, cool air enters through the low windows. The air pressure differences due to hot and cold variations inside the building and outside the home create a natural cross breeze. This air movement encourages evaporation of moisture on our skin and gives the sense of cooling. AKA, free air conditioning! Prevailing wind directions are also taken into effect to further pressurize the home, promoting a jet-like Venturi effect, which increases air flow rate within the home.

All three processes are passive; they require no special technological devices, just good design. That being said, to benefit from passive cooling in your own home, it is important to hire a home designer who is experienced in passive cooling design. Most conventional homes have flat 8 foot high ceilings without any height difference. In addition, the windows are typically all at the same height, which doesn’t allow for stack effect to set up convective air flow. Folks living in a conventional home find that to be relieved of the hot, stuffiness of their home, they must run electric fans and air conditioners all summer long. This can lead to an expensive energy bill. conventional

We typically design homes with walls of different heights, which are often achieved through shed roofs. The width of the building, an open floor plan (fewer inner walls), and proper window heights/types are other critical aspects to consider when designing a home to be cooled passively.

Passive cooling strategies can help eliminate the need to run energy-consumptive air conditioners and fans, which lowers home energy bills. According to the Sonoran Institute, by 2026 Gallatin County could add as many as 26,000 new homes. As traditional fuel sources become more expensive, we hope to see more homes designed and built to be cooled passively.

 

Ephemeral Design: Don’t throw beauty out the window when designing energy-efficient homes

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Written by Mark Pelletier and Emily Varmecky. Edited by John Burbidge.

Think of the most beautiful and uplifting home you’ve been in. What did you remember most, the builder’s material contributions—the granite counter tops, the walk-in closet, and the bathroom vanity? Or was it the feeling that you had while in the home—the feeling of peace and comfort created by a thoughtful designer who integrated the subtle and ephemeral qualities of nature with the built form?  And most importantly, why has this sort of designing all but disappeared in our home designs?

With rising energy costs and increasing concerns on the health of our planet, energy-efficient homes are more important than ever. In the green building industry, we are in a time period that is epitomized by the increased importance of designing and building homes that are more sustainable and energy-efficient. With the focus of green homes on efficiency and budget, has beauty been left out of the design process? An argument could be made that most energy-efficient homes have become technological containers rather than beautiful and uplifting living spaces.

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In order to meet modern technological criteria, energy-efficient homes have become increasingly complex and now require an array of specialists, technicians, and building subcontractors to create them. Each one of these specialists is hired to implement and install technologies such as super insulation, heat recovery ventilators to provide fresh air, and LoE triple pane windows to keep heat loss and gain under control. The builder’s primary concerns when building a house are of the solid and concrete: the materials, tile patterns, and drywall textures. These are all important parts of the technology and construction of an energy-efficient home. However, the craft of creating beauty within the home is getting less emphasis and a smaller piece of the total budget.

Most homes today have flat 8-foot high drywall ceilings with boxy geometries. These homes are predictable and static, and sometimes they don’t even function properly. The rooms and spaces have been engineered to be static to keep the heat in, yet with fewer and smaller windows to keep the neighbor’s lawnmower noise out. Often there is little to no thought put into what views these windows are broadcasting into the home ,to the extent where often you are viewing the driveway or looking into the neighbors bathroom.  The only dynamics in the room are the flickering TV or an electric fan to ward off the stuffiness. The odors present are often unnatural: off-gassing carpet, some cleaning agents, maybe an artificial bathroom freshener. Hue or color changes in sunlight throughout the day can clash with poor paint schemes, becoming too bright, too saturated, or even mixing to create unappealing colors.

A beautiful home, on the other hand, feels alive, familiar, and comforting. Ephemeral and uplifting dwelling spaces that are also energy-efficient employ a delicate balance between science and art. To illustrate the ephemeral aspects of beautiful design, think about the changing, the momentary, and the transitory features of nature. Imagine sitting next to a bubbling stream watching the sunlight casting shadows of huge billowing clouds across a forest floor of small wildflowers. The air smells of warm earth and freshly flowing pinesap. The aspen
trees give off a strong green hue against a deep blue spring sky. Imagine the same beautiful spot in the fall, then in the winter, and how all of the scents, colors, shades, sounds, and feelings of that place change over the seasons. Observe how this environment is about distance and space, largeness and smallness, openness and closeness, heights and depths; how it is all constantly and subtly changing.

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I think we can all remember some spaces that we have been in that have integrated natural phenomena into them and how they feel dynamic and alive. From dawn to dusk the sunlight casts different qualities of light and shadows throughout the room. There are direct views of the constantly changing outdoors: a cedar waxwing that lands in a tree, the changing sunset, a blizzard of snowflakes blowing horizontally. Within the home, the movement of firelight from a stove flickering and casting an orange glow creates a sense of coziness and well-being. In the summer, a gentle breeze from the open windows flows across your forehead causing a cooling sensation and the floral scents of a lilac bush sweep past.

Designing the ephemeral qualities of the natural environment into our homes replaces the need for expensive cover-up materials, finishes, air conditioning, and artificial air fresheners. Designing the home to showcase the beauty of the natural world is not about a purchased item or a technology. This type of designing comes from recognizing how ephemeral qualities make us feel truly alive. Every home site, be it rural, suburban, or urban, has at least one beautiful natural element to share with the inhabitants within. It might be a grand vista of the mountains, a small view of your backyard garden, or even just a single tree or piece of sky. How best to showcase these elements comes down to thoughtful design.
When designing homes to be beautiful and unique, the designer must consider void (empty) space as important as solid materials and textures.
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Making adjustments to heights, widths, lengths, and angles gives the home interior dynamics that can’t be arrived at through 2D plans and elevations alone. Adjustment of window locations, their heights off of the floor, and their proportions are essential considerations in order to harvest the available beauty of the outside environment. Moving shadows of shimmering foliage need surfaces on which to be cast. Part of beautiful, spatial design comes from recognizing cues that
occur outside as well as inside the home then adjusting geometries, colors, textures and even furniture to highlight, contrast, or blend in with the existing phenomena.

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Natural light, shadows, and colors are completely free resources that you can enjoy within your home, but must be integrated through proper design. All of this and more is possible and not prohibitively expensive. Let’s not throw beauty out the window in a misguided quest to save money…lets bring it in to create thoughtful and energy efficient homes that inspire us.

A version of this article was published in the Summer 2014 edition of Distinctly Montana Magazine. “Ephemeral Design” begins on page 67  and our snapshot and bio is in the Contributor’s Section on page 10.

Greenovision Featured in Local Publications

We recently did some writing for two local publications!

Please check our article on passive solar homes in the Bozeman Magpie Magazine:

Bring On the Sun: Homes keen to solar rising in Bozeman

We also wrote a tidbit on energy efficient homes for The Bozone that was printed in the March 15, 2014 edition. Unfortunately,  that edition is no longer available to view online, so here it is reprinted below:

Energy Efficiency 101

True story: We recently ran into some Bozeman friends who told us that they’ve spent $25,000 in the last four years on their home energy bills. That’s enough money for a down payment on a new home! Thinking that their electricity consumption was the main source of their high-energy costs, they purchased a solar panel array last summer. However, come winter, they saw no significant reduction in their energy bills.

They realized that it was the heating of their home that was so costly. Now they are going through the expensive and messy process of tearing apart their roof to add more insulation. They admitted that when looking for a home ten years ago, they wish they had just built a new, energy-efficient home in the first place.

In the long run, it would have saved them money and certainly would have saved them the anguish of an energy remodel. If you need to go through an energy remodel yourself or are interested in designing and building a new, energy-efficient home, here are five tips to keep in mind:

1. Design for passive solar heat gain. The sun is a free heating source, so why not tap into it? In passive solar home design, windows and floors are constructed to collect, store, and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter. Through proper design, solar heat is rejected in the summer to prevent over heating. Orientation of the house to the South, correct window types and heights, adequate roof overhangs, heat-retaining mass (such as radiant concrete flooring), and air exchange are just a few of the important components of a passive solar home.

2. Design to reduce your home energy needs. While investing in renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and liquid solar arrays is important for off-setting your home energy costs, it is equally important to design your home to consume less energy in general. Think of the Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Designing a home with plenty of well-insulated windows not only provides views of the outdoors from within, but also allows ample sunlight to enter the home. By illuminating rooms with natural light, you eliminate the need to run energy-consumptive light bulbs during the day. The same windows can be designed into the home to promote natural airflow and ventilation. This passive cooling strategy reduces the need to run electric air conditioners and fans in the summer.

3. Build with high-insulation, quality, and long-lasting materials. Building and designing your home with a high insulation value is important for keeping heat in during the winter and out during the summer. Calling for advanced framing techniques reduces thermal conductivity and helps keep the home tightly sealed. By building with quality, long-lasting materials, you reduce unnecessary repair and maintenance to your home, which ultimately saves money and is better for the environment. Quality materials also often contain fewer off-gassing toxins, which results in a healthier living environment.

4. Don’t throw beauty out the window. If you have decided that energy-efficiency is a priority for your new home, it doesn’t mean that you need to settle for a “generic-looking” house. Contrary to popular belief, energy-efficient homes can be beautiful and comfortable. Your home interiors can be designed and decorated to suit your personal tastes while being highly functional at the same time. The exterior appearance of your home can be an aesthetically engaging addition to your environment.

5. Hire a home designer that is skilled in energy-efficiency design strategies. Most designers and architects have a certain niche; be sure to find a professional that is experienced in energy-efficiency. It is always more difficult to make energy improvements on a home that is already built, so it is important to implement energy efficiency strategies and technologies while the home is still in the design phase. Spending more up front on energy-efficient design, technology, and materials will ultimately result in a more affordable home because the yearly savings on your energy bills will exceed the costs of the additional infrastructure.

Mark Pelletier and Emily Varmecky are co-owners of Greenovision Home Design. At Greenovision, we custom design beautiful, energy-efficient homes that stand apart from your neighbors. We believe that cookie cutters are for making cookies, not for home design!