Sustainable Design
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.





Crimson Bluffs End of July Update!

Crimson Bluffs End of July Update!

Crimson Bluffs exterior completed and the interior is getting closer and closer to looking finished.

Exterior images!


east north east


from road







Interior images!

bass wood with can and center pendant light


ceiling light

entry pendant

guest bed

Island pandant light

master vanity


simple black can light

track lights

two large ceiling lights

wash basin close

wash basin

window river view



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).

Hawk Ridge Home: New Home Design!

Hawk Ridge Home: New Home Design!

Passive solar and Active Solar home Paradise Valley MontanaGreenovision is excited to be working on a new design for a home that will be built in beautiful Paradise Valley, Montana. The Hawk Ridge Home will be designed to be sustainable and energy-efficient with “Sun Smart Radiant Heating” (combined passive solar and radiant hydronic heating), passive cooling, a well-insulated and tightly sealed building envelope, solar electric panels, long-lasting exterior materials, interior finish details made from reclaimed lumber, and more. A main aspect of the design is minimizing the strong Paradise Valley winds on and around the home.

The home is mostly one level with a small bird’s nest loft that will provide 360 degree views of the Absaroka and Gallatin Mountains. There will be a greenhouse integrated into the home with a hydroponic growing system.

Please check our blog and Facebook Page for updates.  As of Spring 2017 construction is underway!  See design of Hawk Ridge here.


Quinn Creek mid-October update is about details and understanding craftsmanship

Quinn Creek mid-October update is about details and understanding craftsmanship

deckbracket and window frame

One of the greatest challenges in designing and building new homes is: How do “we” as designers come up with a design that is recognized by all that work on it throughout the project as worth putting their thought and care into? We, at Greenovision, believe that there are a number of factors from the beginning that set this in motion. For one, the site itself is a source of inspiration. In some cases like, Quinn Creek, this is simple- the environment is absolutely beautiful. This environment inspires those who work here, well, at least when its not cold, rainy, or windy.

Exterior from W all

2. Keep the design clean. This makes it easy for all that work on the project to maintain a thorough and civilized workmanship.

Emily on roof

3. Have a good attitude when we visit the site. This joyful spirit usually is contagious.

Exterior from E S E

4.  Keep everyone involved throughout the process. In this picture, we have the homeowner, the excavator, and the roofers all together.

Metal workers Andy and Jon

5. Encourage craft through understanding. Too many designers don’t do this, but it is mandatory in our opinion. Talk to those involved in the construction. Ask what they like about the design and most importantly, what could have been better about it. This cross pollinates into everyone feeling not only appreciated, but also as experts at what they do. We have learned a lot from the subcontractors and will implement their suggestions to help improve future designs.

exterior outlet box

6. Understand details. When designers don’t fully understand their own product, they lose credibility with the construction team.

Lower Exercise room

This is an example of what we mean… This is a construction site, yet it as clean as a whistle. The insulation team caught the spirit of the job site!

Main view

A beautiful place to work!

Netting for cellulose


7. Give the subcontractors enough room to work. This plumbing wall could have been a nightmare for Marc if we didn’t provide him adequate wall space to work his thorough and meticulous craft. Again, ask the subcontractors questions. When we asked Marc if he was happy with the space he had to work in, he mentioned that the tightness of the craft that occurred before him made his life easier. Marc did mention one issue that he had difficulty with and we we able to quickly address this before the construction advanced any further.

pressure check

radiant boiler manifolds etc

Example of Mike, the heating specialist’s, well organized layout. This, again, is accomplished by giving subcontractors adequate space to work their magic.

small windows and boxes

8. Allow subcontractors to have interpretation of design. This exterior siding job shows that the spirit of the design was understood and then elaborated on. The windows were designed to have a rhythm. What was not designed were all of the outlet and light fixture block-outs.  The builders took the spirit of the design and integrated this rhythm into what could have been a mess. This creative interpretation should be encouraged as it elevates not only craftsmanship, but also the spirit of creativity which is often ‘not allowed’ by some designers.

Standing seams

9. Understand and eliminate unnecessary complexity. Most roofs of today are a nightmare for subcontractors to work on because they have extraneous hips, valleys, ridges, and intersections.  This roof juncture is about as complex as this roof-scape is. This encourages clean and simple execution by the metal workers, making for a tight product. Designers need to ask themselves, “Is this necessary? Who will enjoy this? Will this cost more? And most importantly, Will the subcontractor hate this detail?”


The spirit of keeping things neat.

Terminationl trim


Tie down

Details that often are not understood by designers create installation nightmares. This tectonic structural tie down was given adequate space in the framing plan to be installed. Framers need to be considered in what they can and can’t do.

caulk that joint

Modern homes, in order to meet high energy efficiency standards, need thoroughness in execution. Here you have wall plate and stud junctures caulked appropriately, which reduces unwanted air and moisture infiltration. Even though this site is located where it doesn’t have to be code compliant, the workmanship of the insulators continues common sense and thorough sealing application.

Upstair Interior from West

window frame

10. Think ahead. This window detail with a cedar frame that the metal trim butts up to, considers future window replacement. All too often designers don’t think about what it means to have to make replacement simple and possible in the future. With this detail, the windows can be removed without touching the siding. The siding will outlast the windows!

exterior from southeast below

11. Lastly, use materials that are beautiful and durable. This promotes better craft and workmanship because all involved know that what they install or build will be there for a long time if they do their job correctly. This eliminates a sense of futility that contractors feel and experience when they are knowingly installing ‘junk’ materials or 15-20 year exterior products. Unfortunately, the use of low-quality materials has become rampant in the design and construction of new homes. Greenovision advocates the use of long lasting, low maintenance, and highly insulated exteriors. Spend the money on the building envelope initially and not on expensive counter tops and fixtures. Those interior products can be simply remodeled out over time. Remodeling the exterior, on the other hand, is not only risky, but expensive.

Passive Cooling Article in “The Bozone”

Passively cooled home

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

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.

Passive Solar Part II – Reduce your home heating costs

If you are looking to build a new passive solar, energy-efficient home or would like to see your existing home benefit from some much-needed energy improvements, it is important to work with an home designer who is experienced in passive solar design strategies. I have designed and built many homes and remodels that see great savings in heating costs due to simple, yet skillfully implemented, passive solar strategies. The photo to the left is the living room of Liberty House, a small (why small see this link), sustainable, energy-efficient home that I both designed and built. The photo illustrates passive solar concepts in a nutshell: sunlight pours through a large South-facing window array, landing on a dark concrete floor where the solar heat is stored.

Although, passive solar design is simple in methodology, a designer who is experienced in passive solar strategies will ensure that your home’s solar potentials are utilized most effectively. The key principles of passive solar design are as follows:
1. Building site properties must be evaluated and exploited.
2. The home must be designed so that it captures the solar radiation.
3. The home has a floor plan that is fairly open in order to promote convective air cycles.
4. Building materials must increase in mass for heat storage. i.e. masonry, concrete, stone, thick tiles.
5. Mass is in correct location in regards to solar aspect.
6. Windows or apertures are at right heights and face due South.
7. Building overhangs to the south are deep enough to shield the sun from the interior during the summer months to prevent overheating.
8. An aggressive strategy of cross ventilation through windows is designed into the building.
9. Windows are glazed with the correct type of glass. This type will change depending on its aspect i.e. facing North, East, South, West.

Every building site has its potentials and weaknesses in regards to utilizing the sun’s energy. Sites that are sunny and fairly free of tall coniferous trees, especially to the southern aspect, have great passive solar potential. During the Summer, deciduous trees on the south side of the home help screen the sun in the summer to reduce excessive solar gain. During the colder months, deciduous trees drop their leaves, allowing the lower angled suns rays into the home.

Hills and mountains can either be an attribute or a hindrance to passive solar energy gains. An ideal situation is one where there is a hill to the west or east, but definitely not a mountain to the south. As this diagram shows, the sun angle in North America changes in its trajectory and angle through out the year. In the summer, the sun rises more to the Northeast and sets more to the Northwest. During mid day, the sun is directly overhead. In the winter, the sun moves to the South. It is due East as it rises in the morning and due West as it sets. Also, the sun angle is lower in the sky at noon, which allows maximum sun penetration into the home. A hill to the West is not necessarily bad, because the focus is to harvest heat mid-day during the winter. A hill will help keep the lower angle afternoon suns rays from penetrating into the home and reduces overheating and solar glare. This is also true for coniferous trees to the West. The same situation applies to hills and trees to the East, although it is not quite as important. In the morning, the temperature in and out of the home is a bit lower, so more sunlight not only helps to wake the inhabitant, but also helps to heat the home.

When designing a passive solar home, the main goal is to maximize solar gain to the south. The floor plan or layout is very important in achieving this. Ideally, your main open space is on the south side of the building. Having the living room, dinning room, and kitchen as a combination open space not only gives a spacious feeling, but also creates an ideal situation for direct solar gain. In these spaces it is common and sensible to have hard floor surfaces for easy cleaning. More importantly, these hard surfaces become the heat mass that capture and store sunlight from the south. Usually, more open living spaces allow for enough solar gain to occur and with a good layout, furniture can be kept clear of these surfaces. Note: Darker floors will increase gain, lighter colors reflect the radiation, which is not desirable for solar gain.

Making direct radiant gain work is dependent on the flooring mass. It is important that window heights are close the floor, so that the sunlight falls directly on it, without being blocked by soft-scape obstructions like sofas and chairs. Tables are okay because the sun usually will filter around the table legs. It is important to avoid floor rugs in this area. A minimum of 1.5″ of concrete slab thickness as the flooring works very well because it holds sufficient heat. The slab can also have radiant hydronic heating coils, or “Pex,” laid into it. It can be applied over typical 3/4″ plywood subfloor as long as the joists span meet the increased load rating. On some South-facing floors, it is possible to pour slab on grade if the elevation of the building works out correctly. This can be poured up to 8″ thick, although this is considered almost wasting material. The slab must be insulated to the ground with hard insulation or the floor will wick cold in and heat out. Proper insulation below such radiant gain surfaces is a must. Again, heating hydronics in a slab makes sense because relying solely on the sun’s energy can be difficult when the sun doesn’t shine for extended periods of time. Through combining passive solar heating and hydronic slab heating, there is much to be gained. Hydronic coils bring heat back into the system, which flows throughout the floors of the home, helping to reduce the need to frequently run the boiler. If relying on mass alone, it must be thicker. I know folks who live in Northern climates that rely on an insulated 6″ concrete slab with southern glazing and just a wood stove. They live very comfortably through the coldest months. The concrete slab stores solar heat so well, they often don’t have to light their wood stove for days.

How the mass works to your advantage has to do with its ability to store the heat and then emit it throughout the night-time hours. If concrete is not a desired interior floor, it can have masonry tiles or stone laid over it. Even a typical plywood sub-floor with 1/2″ of durarock then overlaid with tile is better than no mass at all. This is common in remodels of homes for achieving more radiant gain.

As said before, it is preferable to have the windows close to the mass floor as this gets the sun’s radiation to land directly on the slab closest to the glazing. It is advantageous to use specially-designed glazing on the South side of the home. Double layer thermal pane glazing with a low emissivity coating are the norm for passive solar gain (L-e 173). Note: The higher the Low E number, the less solar heat gain you will get, but it will have better U-value, or insulative properties. Higher series such a 300 and up Low E is preferable on the aspects of the building where one wants to reduce heat gain, increase insulative properties, and reduce ultraviolet radiation destruction of furniture and soft materials.

Cross-ventilation in a passive solar home is very important. Height differences of walls across the room promote cooling and air convection. I found that by having awning windows low to the floor on the South-side and a high awning windows on the highest walls, helps to promote a air draft that encourages air flow and convective cycles. The advantages here are very important because in the summer it encourages passive cooling or evaporative cooling. This is free air conditioning. Air pressure differences due to hot and cold differences in the building allow heat to escape through the awning windows. Air inlets create an upflow that encourages evaporation of moisture on our skin and gives the sense of cooling. Rather than spend a bunch of money on air conditioning, spend the money operable windows and a home designer with experience in convective design. You will save you money in energy costs!

In a nut shell, a home does not need to employ expensive and energy-consuming mechanical systems in order to heat and cool. The heat gained from a passive solar strategy will reduce yearly heating costs. By hiring a skilled designer to properly configure glazing, ventilation strategies, window layouts, and appropriate flooring mass, it IS possible to achieve a net zero home heating system. At Greenovision, we are passionate about passive solar design and other energy-efficiency systems and have a lot of experience implementing these strategies into new and remodeled homes. Please come to Greenovision for see how how passive solar design can save you money. See reasons to get off the corporate energy grid on my blog Part 1 of Why Passive solar?.



Benefits of Energy Efficient Homes


The benefits of energy efficient homes

It is difficult to make energy improvements to 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. Contrary to popular belief, energy-efficient homes can be designed to be beautiful with an aesthetically-engaging contemporary edge.

There are many benefits to designing and building an energy-efficient home including:

  1. Year-round energy savings that result in a more affordable home
  2. Less dependency on third-party provided energy, which is especially important as energy becomes increasingly more expensive and less reliable
  3. A healthier living environment because better quality materials contain fewer off-gassing toxins
  4. Energy-efficiency technologies promote fresh air flow within the home
  5. Less maintenance because better-quality, energy-efficient materials are often more durable
  6. Lowering the carbon footprint of your home and using fewer non-renewable resources

Design strategies and technologies

We at Greenovision are not only experienced in architecture and construction, but we are also trained in design and technology strategies that will bring energy savings to your home. Through well-conceived design, we aim reduce material waste during the construction phase and energy waste as you live in your home for years to come. Here are just a few of the energy-saving techniques we implement while designing a new home:

  1. Passive Solar Heat Gain. In passive solar building design, windows, walls, and floors are made to collect, store, and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer. Although passive solar design is simple in methodology, Greenovision is trained and experienced in passive solar strategies and will ensure that your home’s solar potentials are utilized most effectively. 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. Passive Cooling and Air Exchange. Passive cooling strategies can help eliminate the need to run energy-consumptive air conditioners and fans. By investing in passive cooling design, you will save money on home cooling costs. It is also important to design an air exchange system into your home to prevent moisture build-up and create a comfortable indoor humidity.
  3. High-Insulation Materials and Quality Construction. Building and designing your home with a high insulation value is important for keeping heat in during the Winter and out during the Summer. While creating the construction drawings for a new home or remodel, we at Greenovision call for advanced framing techniques to reduce thermal conductivity. Our drawings and designs also call for high-insulation windows and other materials as well as  construction techniques that keep the home tightly sealed. In addition to hiring a knowledgeable designer, hiring a quality construction crew is key to a well-crafted and energy-efficient home.
  4. Active Solar Design and Technology. Active solar elements of a home energy system consist of solar electricity (photovoltaic panels) and liquid solar hot water heating. Designing alternative energy systems into your home will help increase energy-efficiency and decrease dependency on non-renewable resources. Active solar systems should be designed into the home from the start, making their installation easier as well making the panels more aesthetically-integrated into the home.
  5. Radiant Heating. Hydronic radiant heating is an energy-efficient method of home heating in which water, housed in tubing throughout the floor system, is heated and circulated. The water heats the mass of floor, which then radiates warmth into the home. At Greenovision, we typically design homes that combine hydronic radiant heating with passive solar heating for maximum efficiency.
  6. Bright Interiors. 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, the homeowner eliminates the need to run energy-consumptive light bulbs during the day. Proper window design and placement is necessary to encourage privacy and prevent over-lighting.
  7. Healthy, Long Lasting Materials. All materials are evaluated for life cycle, recyclable attributes, beauty, and ability to perform multiple tasks. We promote paying more up front for quality building materials, rather than building with cheaper, low-quality materials that are usually unhealthy, energy-inefficient, and have a short life-span. By building with quality, long-lasting materials, the homeowner eliminates unnecessary repair and maintenance, which ultimately saves money and is better for the environment.