Natural Lighting
Sunlight Comparison on a Passive Solar Home: Summer vs. Spring

Sunlight Comparison on a Passive Solar Home: Summer vs. Spring

As always, we really enjoy visiting the Hawk Ridge owners in their new sustainable, “Sun Smart” (combined passive solar & radiant hydronic floor heating) home. We visited on a hot and intensely sunny June 27th (6 days from Summer Solstice) and there was no direct sunlight entering the home through the south facing windows and therefore no unwanted passive solar heat gain. The interiors were well-lit, yet were staying at a comfortable temperature with no fans or air conditioning running. A few windows were strategically opened for passive ventilation/cooling. As you scroll through the photos, you’ll see the sunlight difference between early summer and early spring.

This is the passive solar collection area in the master bedroom suite on June 27th near high noon. The interior is well lit, yet there is no direct sunlight entering and therefore no passive solar heat gain.

The master bedroom hallway area is welcoming passive solar heat gain (direct sunlight) on a cold & sunny April 3rd. Note that April 3rd is 89 days from Winter Solstice, when this “Sun Smart” homes sees the deepest solar penetration.

This is the main passive solar collection area in the living room and looking toward the reading room. There is no direct sunlight entering on this very sunny, 80+F degree June 27th day.

Passive solar hear gain & direct sunlight entering through the south-facing windows in the living room and reading room beyond. Photo taken on a cold & sunny April 3rd.

The garage is also designed for passive solar heat gain during the colder months, but is seeing no direct sunlight on June 27th.

This photo was taken in early November and demonstrates the passive solar heat gain action in the garage. A garage doesn’t have to be dark, cold, and gloomy! 

Here we can see the roof overhangs on the south side of the house doing their important job: blocking unwanted heat gain on this hot & sunny June 27th day. Notice that the entire south-facing facade is in shadow. Through design, modeling, and evaluation, we carefully determine during the initial design phases how roof overhangs control heat gain. Please check these fun and informative images & videos that we created for the Hawk Ridge Home that explore roof overhangs and solar penetration throughout the year.

This “Sun Smart” home benefits from the Sun’s energy year-round. The solar panels were cranking out electricity on June 27th. These panels are grid-tied, meaning that the electric company pro-rates their electric bill for making more energy than used on the plentiful sunny days. We’ll be eager to see the electric usage after a year, but at this point, this sustainable home is looking to be almost completely run by solar energy (both passive and active) and therefore almost net zero!


Crimson Bluffs Exterior Photos Update

Crimson Bluffs Exterior Photos Update

I just got back from taking interior pictures of the the Crimson Bluffs Home and couldn’t help myself from taking some exterior pictures of how nicely the siding is weathering.  This home is basically like land camouflage. From a distance you can hardly pick it out of the landscape as the colors and textures blend so well. Interior Pictures coming soon!

Passive solar home in Montana

Passive solar home Montana

modern meets rustic mome montana

modern rustic home in Townsend Montana

rustic corrugated siding on Modern home Montana

A celebration of windows!

A celebration of windows!

This week on Facebook we’re celebrating windows! Everyday we’re discussing a different aspect of window design. If you’re not on Facebook, don’t fret- you can join our celebration here on our blog.

We start our celebration with this quote from architect Louis Kahn and we couldn’t agree more. We’ve been in too many homes and buildings where electric lights are needed even on bright, sunny days because of poor natural day lighting design.


Windows help connect us to the natural beauty of the outdoors from within the home. Even in urban or suburban settings, its possible to capture engaging views of the sky or a tree without looking onto a busy street, into your neighbor’s bathroom, or into the glaring western sun. Window size, shape, and placement are all carefully considered.


This tall, narrow window at the Quinn Creek Home was designed to provide views and illumination while going down the stairs. Even moonlight illuminates these stairs acting as a natural nightlight. According to an article we found, “participants reporting inadequate natural light in their residences were 1.5 times as likely to report a fall when compared with those satisfied with the light levels in their homes.” Stairwells shouldn’t have to be gloomy and dangerous.

stair tall window

These fun pocket windows along the west-facing wall of the Crimson Bluffs Home were designed to minimize the amount of glaring western sunlight entering the home and provide snippets of views of the beautiful hillside behind. They serve two other important functions: senses of security and privacy. The homeowners can see from their kitchen and living room small views of the road and who is entering their driveway, but drivers-by cannot see in.


In conclusion of our celebration, this custom polycarbonate door in the Quinn Creek Home was designed to share indirect sunlight into the office, yet provides privacy and sound diffusion. Why bring ample natural light into a home through windows if it is blocked out of certain spaces? We include interior light sharing methods (like this door, but other methods, too) into all of our home designs.





What is Green Building?

What is Green Building?


I’ve been wanting to write an article for a while that is a general overview of various green building terms, energy systems, and strategies. I’ve found that as green building is becoming more popular, green jargon is seldom defined clearly for the layperson and rarely all in one place. We often assume that we know what something means, but its helpful to explore the true definition. So, here is a rather lengthy article that I’ve written that aims to demystify the popular terminology used within the green building industry. This will be published as 6 smaller articles in the EcoZone section of “The Bozone” (a local publication). -Emily Varmecky, Co-Owner of Greenovision Home Design

Green building is a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. construction industry. It is estimated that green building represented 40-48% of new non-residential construction in 2015. It is also reported that in 2015, “62% of firms building new single-family homes report that they are doing more than 15% of their projects green.” It seems that although discussions of green building are becoming more popular, green jargon is rarely defined for the layperson. My goal for this article is to demystify the popular terminology used within the green building industry. I will choose common building terms, energy systems, and strategies then define and generalize them to make them more understandable.

What is Green Building? Green building refers to both the structure and the process of construction “that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.” The goal of green building is “to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on human health and the natural environment.” There are a variety of methods that may be applied to reduce this impact which may include using water, energy, construction materials, and other resources efficiently and “reducing waste, pollution, and environmental degradation.”

For many professionals within the housing and construction industry, green building is a broad term describing the design or construction of a structure that is environmentally responsible in some manner. Building professionals can interpret environmental responsibility in a variety of different ways ranging from applying a complex method of energy-efficient design strategies into their structures to simply recycling cardboard within their business. Green washing is common in all areas of business and consumerism, including the housing industry. Green washing is a form of propaganda in which “green marketing is used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims, or policies are environmentally friendly.” Just because a company claims to be green, they may be interpreting green in their own manner, may be applying certain green principles on a spectrum, or may not be green at all. As I continue to explore various green building principles in this article, it is important to understand that these definitions are the ideals (principles to be aimed at), but should be critically examined when construction professionals are applying them in the field or are using the terms within their business.

Sustainable Building: The word sustainable means “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed” and “able to last or continue for a long time.” In the construction industry, it is difficult to find a definition of sustainable building that is not synonymous with green building, but in my opinion, this term is slightly different. To me, sustainable building encompasses the utilization of renewable resources, which are “resources that can be replaced naturally and can be used again.” Sustainable energy systems within a home use energy efficiently in a manner that doesn’t use up all of the energy available and allows the home to consume energy for a long time. Fossil fuel is considered by many scientists to be a finite resource, therefore although using fossil fuels efficiently within a home or building is considered green, this usage is not necessarily sustainable. In many parts of the world, however, the sun shines consistently, providing an energy source that never runs out. Solar energy systems are therefore considered sustainable.

Sustainable construction materials can be materials that are grown and produced in methods that allow those materials to be continually produced, the usage of materials that last a long time, or the usage of materials that are reused or recycled. Fast growth pine, for example, is a building material that is grown and milled here in Montana. When responsibly harvested, a pine forest can regenerate and provide lumber for future generations without significant harm to the environment. Using locally available materials also minimizes long distance shipping, another environmentally-friendly practice.

The usage of metal construction material may be considered to be sustainable because of its durability. Although ore is a finite resource like fossil fuel, metal is long lasting and can be recycled into new materials. Metal roofing on a building can last significantly longer than asphalt shingles, which generally last 15-20 years. When asphalt shingles are spent, there are few ways to recycle or reuse them, so they usually end up as trash. However, when a metal roof is finally worn out, the metal can be recycled.

Energy-Efficient: Energy-efficient is a broad term used to describe a building or system within a building that produces and/or uses energy in a less wasteful manner. It can also be described as “using less energy to provide the same service.” A variety of strategies can be used to promote energy-efficiency that may include design methods, construction methods, materials, and technologies. Some methods may be active such as radiant floor heating or an “Energy Star” dishwasher and some strategies may be passive such as passive solar heating or well-insulated windows.

Before I explore various energy-efficient and sustainable energy systems, it is important to understand how we use energy within residential homes and other structures. In Montana, the three demands for energy within a home are: heating of your home spaces (accounting for about 49% of home energy usage), electricity for lighting, appliances, and air conditioning (36% of home energy usage), and lastly hot water for bathing, doing dishes, and laundry (16% of home energy usage). Passive solar, solar power, and passive cooling are generally considered renewable, sustainable energy production methods. Liquid solar, geothermal energy, and radiant floor heating are usually considered energy-efficient systems.

Passive Solar: In passive solar design, the sun’s natural energy is harnessed to help heat a home. “Windows, walls, and floors designed to collect, store, and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer.” This process is passive because it requires no plumbing or wiring, just good design. There are different passive solar strategies, but typically, sunlight enters through the building’s south facing windows and is stored as heat within a concrete floor. The heat then emanates from the floor mass during the day and night. Passive solar heating also provides natural day lighting, which reduces the need for electric lights.

Solar Power: Solar power is the conversion of sunlight into electricity, using photovoltaics (PV) or concentrated solar power (CSP). Solar electricity can be produced at the structure location (on-site) with photovoltaic arrays or can be supplied through the grid (electricity produced off-site that is delivered to the building through power lines). Although grid-tied electricity is typically produced from fossil fuels, a small amount of commercially produced electricity is derived from the sun.  “Solar energy provides four-tenths of one percent of the total energy consumed in the United States.”

Solar Water Heating (AKA Liquid Solar): Solar water heating systems use the sun’s energy to warm domestic hot water. The water is heated with solar water heating panels, which are affixed to the outside of a structure similarly to solar electric panels. “A conventional boiler or immersion heater can then be used to make the water hotter, provide hot water when solar energy is unavailable,” or store the hot water. This hot water can then be used in the kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room or can be used in a variety of different methods to help heat the building spaces.

Geothermal Energy: Geothermal energy is heat that is generated and stored within the earth that can be used to produce electricity or more commonly, be used to help heat or cool the domestic water and spaces of a building. When geothermal energy is captured on the building site, a system of water-filled pipes (closed loop or open loop) runs horizontally or vertically into the earth. The earth’s temperature stays at a consistent temperature compared to the fluctuating air temperatures throughout the seasons. The water within the pipes is preheated by the earth then is further heated by an electric-run indoor geothermal HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system that “compresses the heat to a higher temperature and distributes it throughout the building.” As an example, water within a geothermal well is heated to 50 degrees F. If the outdoor air temperature is 0 degrees F, the HVAC further heats to water to create a comfortable indoor temperature. If the outdoor air temperature is 100 degrees F, the 50 degree F water can be used to help cool the home.

Passive Cooling: Passive cooling is defined as “a building design approach that focuses on heat gain control and heat dissipation in a building in order to improve the indoor thermal comfort with low or nil energy consumption.” There are a variety of strategies in which this cooling method can be achieved within a building, but it usually combines energy available from the natural environment on-site with specific architectural design and building materials.  With stack effect, for example, warm air naturally rises and escapes through carefully positioned high windows or openings within a building and cooler outdoor air enters the building through low openings. “The pressure difference between the outside air and the air inside the building caused by the difference in temperature between the outside air and the inside air… is the driving force for the stack effect.” This method, when implemented correctly, can effectively cool and/or ventilate a building on a non-windy day and can be designed to require no mechanical systems.

Radiant Floor Heating & Cooling: With radiant floor heating, heat is supplied directly to the floor of a building and “relies on radiant heat transfer- the delivery of heat directly from the hot surface to the people and objects in the room via infrared radiation.” Radiant heating “is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because it eliminates duct losses.” With hydronic radiant heating, the most energy-efficient floor heating system, warm water is circulated throughout the floor systems of the building through a series of tubing. This water can be heated with fossil fuel based energy systems such as gas or oil fired boilers or can be heated with on-site energy systems such as passive solar, solar power, liquid solar, and geothermal energy.

“Sun smart radiant heating,” for example, is the combination of radiant floor heating and passive solar heating. With this system, the sun’s heat that is passively collected and stored within the mass of a concrete floor is actively circulated throughout the home via the hydronic tubing. When the radiant flooring is also connected to a water heater, the radiant floor provides heat on non-passive solar (cloudy) days. When a radiant floor is connected to a geothermal well, the 50 degree F water from the geothermal system can be circulated throughout the floor on hot days to effectively cool the building.

A simple Google search will show that there are many strong and varying opinions held by green professionals. There are a variety of different sustainable and efficient energy systems that can be used within a building. There are also a variety of different green design methods, construction methods, and material choices. There is a plethora of different reports and thoughts on which strategy or method is most effective, affordable, energy-efficient, easy to build, sustainable, etc. It generally seems, however, that the specific green methods implemented into a building depend on geographic location, available resources, budget, and personal preference.

Next in this article, I will discuss a few different green building strategies as well as green certifications. It should be noted that (along the lines of green washing) just because a green professional is certified to implement a certain strategy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more qualified than a green professional who isn’t certified. For example, even if a building is not LEED Certified, it still may have been designed and built to provide environmental benefits and may have similar features as a LEED building. After researching “Not So Big House,” I discovered that designers and builders can easily become a “Not So Big House” registered professional after paying an annual fee. Of course, there are many building professionals that practice the design and construction of quality, smaller homes, but are not registered with “Not So Big House.” With training, it is also possible to be a certified Passive House or Green Building professional (among many other green building related certifications).

High Performance Walls and Roofs: Since 49% of home energy usage in Montana is for the heating of home spaces, reducing the total amount of heat required within a home is a common energy-efficiency approach. One of the best ways to use less heat is to prevent heat created in the building from leaving the building. This is done by constructing the walls and roofs to be well-sealed and insulated. There are many different design and construction methods as well as material choices for creating “better thermal barriers and fewer air leaks,” but this is usually done by creating an envelope that has a high R-value (or insulation value). This structure can then be fitted with conventional fossil fuel-run heating systems or with sustainable, energy-efficient systems. Either way, the building is still requiring less heat than if it had less insulation.

A high performance building envelope not only prevents heat loss in the colder months, it also prevents heat gain in the hotter moths. This helps promote energy-efficiency within the building during all seasons. It is very important to incorporate a ventilation system into a building that has low air leakage to prevent moisture build-up. Just as heat cannot escape this type of building, water vapor (present in all buildings) also cannot escape. Energy-efficient ventilators that limit heat loss and gain are available.

A blower door test is one method that energy professionals use to help determine a home’s airtightness. The results of a blower door test are measured as ACH units (air exchanges per hour). As a reference, older homes, like living in a ‘barn’” have a 10-20 ACH. “Average new homes with some air sealing, but no verification and little attention to detail” have a 7-10 ACH. An ACH of 3 or lower is achievable for new homes and is recommended by most green professionals.

Passive House: A Passive House is a super-insulated and extremely tightly sealed home that achieves its energy-efficiency by keeping heat within the home, rather than letting it escape and producing new heat (and vice-versa in the hotter months). Passive House requires a blower door result of 0.6 ACH, a difficult standard to achieve. There are many different Passive House strategies; some rely more on active technologies for heat production, heat recovery, and air circulation and others incorporate passive solar heating and passive cooling design strategies.

Smaller Home: According to the 2013 U.S. Census, the average newly constructed single-family American house is 2,598 square feet, hitting a new square footage record. As of 2014, “smaller homes, of 1,400 square-feet and less, [represent] 4% of homes built” and “extremely large houses, 4,000 square feet and up… account for more than 9% of new homes.” “Houses that are a little smaller but still verging on mansion territory, those between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet, made up 21.7% of new homes in 2013.”

Not to be confused with “Tiny Houses,” smaller homes are moderately-sized homes that use less of the construction budget on square-footage and instead focus that money on quality design, quality materials, and/or energy-efficiency strategies. Smaller homes typically consume less energy and use fewer construction materials than larger homes and therefore are generally more energy-efficient and green by default. “The U.S. Energy Information Administration says homes of 2,000 to 2,500 square feet use an average 102.3 million BTUs of fuel yearly — 13% less than homes that are 1,000 square feet larger.” Terms similar to smaller house may include simplified home, down-sized home, or “Not So Big House.”

LEED Certified: LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is a rating system for the design and construction of green buildings that is managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a private non-profit organization. The owner, designer, or contractor of a building can pay a fee to have their structure approved by the organization and achieve levels of certification ranging from “LEED Certified” to “LEED Platinum.” LEED buildings are designed and built to provide environmental and economic benefits and requirements may include the use of recycled materials, energy efficiency, renewable energy, water conservation, etc. Additionally, building professionals themselves can choose to become LEED Certified after paying a fee and taking an exam.

Energy-Star: Energy Star is an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) rating program for energy-efficient consumer products such as computers, electronics, appliances, lighting, heating and cooling systems, and new homes. Products with the Energy Star label “generally use 20–30% less energy than required by federal standards.” A product can be Energy Star Certified after meeting energy efficiency standards and having it tested by a licensed professional (testing is paid for by the manufacturer of the product).

Quinn Creek November Update

Quinn Creek November Update

coolAwnings up, Entry deck and Awning installed, exterior complete with the exception of decks on the south side (will be finished when the snow melts spring 2016).


dining viewInterior drywall and texture complete.  Waiting on paint job.


dining view2



from n east

from north

from south

from west



New Design: Quinn Creek Home


We at Greenovision are excited to be working on a new design for a home that will be built on Quinn Creek Road, just outside of Bozeman. This is a 2500 square foot passive solar home (plus garage) that that will be nestled into the Bangtail Mountains. The homeowners will have spectacular views from within their home of the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges. We have posted some renderings here of how the home will be located on the site; the siding materials are likely to change.

When you enter the home from the north, you’ll be greeted not only with an open floor plan, but an immediate view outdoors. The dining room, living room, kitchen, 1/2 bathroom, and an integrated mudroom with storage area are located on the top floor. The stairs to the ground floor are located in the center of the building and the stairwell will be illuminated with natural sunlight. The ground floor includes an exercise area, a guest bedroom with bathroom, an office, a reading room, and a laundry room. A few steps down from the ground floor is the master bedroom area, its own module secluded from the rest of the home. This area includes the master bath, a walk-in closet, and a large bedroom with stunning mountain views to the south and east.


Situating the home onto the site has been a challenge, but we love a good challenge at Greenovision. The homeowners have 20 acres at an elevation of 7200 feet, which seems like a lot of space for situating the home, however, most of the site is at 16-20% down-sloping grade. This is a very steep grade and makes for a driveway that is barely drivable when covered with snow or ice. A driveway of this pitch can also be challenging for construction equipment to access. We needed to find a home site near the top of their property to minimize driveway length and to maximize solar gain exposure and mountain vistas. We also needed a spot that was not too steep of a slope and was far enough back from property setback lines. We had to test out a couple different home locations. Our original site required a driveway that was just too steep and also would have required a tall concrete retaining wall, which would not have been a good use of budget. Trying out different possibilities is crucial in home design to help solve difficult problems. In the end, we came to a practical and affordable solution and our clients are pleased with our problem solving.

The Quinn Creek home is designed and will be built to be energy-efficient, with passive solar and passive cooling strategies. We are pleased to have put a great team (general contractor/builder, geo-technical engineering company,  surveyor, and excavator) together to help with the project.  Some excavation work began in fall 2014 and construction is slated for spring/summer of 2015. Stay tuned!







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

julypics 039

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.

livingroom copy

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.


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.
julypics 038


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.

window view copy

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.

Why Smaller Homes?

Smaller homes

Why design and build smaller homes?

In America, historically there has been plenty of space to work with, which has set up the paradigm that ‘big is better.’  Currently, the norm in selling homes is by advertising floor plan square-footage and numbers of bathrooms/bedrooms. This is a vague way of describing a home and lacks many truths about what actually makes a home appealing , healthy, and affordable. With land values escalating, building materials and labor costs increasing, and energy costs on the rise, big houses become a burden. Smaller homes are the future of home construction. Affordability, coziness, and sustainability are achievable in small homes. Terms similar to smaller homes include simplified home, down-sized home, and “Not So Big House.”
Smaller should not bring thoughts of cramped, compartmentalized, stuffy places. Nor should it be confused with “Tiny Houses.” Small in floor plan can feel large spatially if intelligently designed and laid out. Think, “Smart Spaces!” Some attributes that make a home intimate to the inhabitant are:
1. The design layout and how the inhabitant uses the spaces.
2. How volume influences perception of spatial scale, either cozy or grand.
3. Crafted details of the home and how they influence how the inhabitant feels.
4. Window orientation has a significant influence on how we feel within the home, but unfortunately, natural lighting and views are often left out of the picture in home design.
Plan of 1400 s.f. passive solar ‘Liberty House
When a home is reduced in scale, it becomes manageable. Infrastructure scale/sizing, material consumption and associated waste reduction, natural lighting or day-lighting transmittance, heat transfer, building lot size and town setback requirements, roof water shed or run-off, and energy demand are easier to analyze in a small home.
Infrastructure scale pertains to utilities like heating, electrical, plumbing, and communication networks. It may seem obvious, but the escalation in building scale increases the lineal footage of communication cables, waterlines, sewer, venting, electrical lines, roof gutters, and even walkways. Every one of these infrastructures, when reduced in scale, simplify design and construction in time, cost, and technology. What this means is a trade off: less infrastructure, more budget for the aspects of the home that make it client specific, comfortable, and beautiful.
The scale of the home directly relates to the lineal footage of construction materials that are both hidden and exposed. More wall length and floor area equals more roof area. A large home can lead to a runaway budget. Every single exterior surface needs to be insulated and the interior covered with finish materials. In many larger homes, building materials are cheapened in order to bring the budget into check. Instead of being built with beautiful and durable materials, large homes are constructed with cheap, generic, and short-lived materials.
The interior of a large home often suffers due to budget. Generic usage of cheap materials like drywall or paper based window, door, and baseboard trim are what the inhabitant lives with. Certainly, the flooring/carpeting will not be of any longevity either in order to cover the many square feet needed. For example, Pergo may look like wood, but it is just a very thin veneer of wood over paper, which when wet will expand and fall apart. Most of these cheap interior products not only look fake with fake wood grains and textures, but are also unhealthy. Most of these products are filled with glues and toxic resins. They usually are not meant to be left in their natural state and must be painted in order to look good.
One of the largest expenses in home construction is labor. Cheap materials require initial labor to install.  Sadly, due to their short life cycle, more labor is required down the road in order to tear them out and reinstall once they fail. This is where a huge compromise is made with most modern, large-scaled homes. Cheap materials are wasteful not only because they fall apart and must be replaced, but also because they are mostly non recyclable. “Built to last” is the way to save money in the long run; this requires using quality materials and construction methods. Reducing a home’s size makes a “built to last” home possible to build without taking out huge loans. Quality materials look better and can be crafted rather than ‘installed’ to give a home unique and lasting qualities. Certain materials carry not only visual impact, but allow the home to function more efficiently. For example, designing a stained concrete floor into a home not only adds to the durability of the floor, but offers mass for a passive solar heating strategy. Stained concrete floors are attractive and do not require additional flooring, reducing the total materials needed.
Rufus the cat loves radiant heating
Smaller homes, compared to large homes, share natural light better across the building, especially if the main living spaces are kept open. In large homes, natural light is usually  cut up or blocked by walls and compartmentalized rooms. A lack of natural light and views of the outdoors causes rooms to feel gloomy, requiring more electric lighting and associated infrastructure.
Daylight and views present everywhere in this computer simulation
Views and daylighting
A smaller home footprint reduces spans of rafters and joists, eliminating the need for midpoint bearing walls. With fewer walls, window views and natural light are shared across the building, reducing electric lighting energy. Living in small home with well-placed windows allows the inhabitant to feel more connected to the outdoor environment. Window views can be arranged to connect the inhabitant with trees, sky, and wildlife. Window views provide the home with ‘natural decoration.’ Natural light also tends to kill mold and mildew due to its ultraviolet wavelength.
Passive venting or across room airflow= cooling
Having fewer walls also encourages airflow throughout the home. Air movement, or convective cycles, keep the building fresh and not as stagnant, creating a healthier environment for the inhabitant. Air convection set up by heat and cold promotes an even heat exchange throughout the building without the need of fans or air-conditioning apparatuses. During the hot summer months, windows around the home can be opened to create a pressure difference across the building. This pressure difference is due to heat differences between the sunny sides and shady sides of the building. The pressure differences set up a small airflow and encourages evaporative cooling.
Large homes require more windows and doors, which are one of the more costly materials in home construction. Because of this increased cost, builders often install ‘economy’ windows and doors that are made from cheaper, less environmentally-sustainable materials (such as vinyl with inferior gasket systems). Because a small home intrinsically has fewer windows than a large home, quality, energy-efficient windows can be purchased and designed into the building. Although more expensive up front, quality windows and doors ultimately save on home energy expenses.
When choosing to build a smaller home, plan to build small with the option growing as your needs and budget grow. Plan to save materials before the home is built. Plan on using quality recycled materials by designing them into the home and saving them before construction begins. Building an affordable, functional, and beautiful home is all dependent on design.

As one can see, there is truth to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s expression “Less is More”. In this time period with rising materials and labor costs and energy becoming more expensive, small homes make more sense than large, cheaply-built, inefficient homes.