I recently wrapped up my first major project at Ecosa: a set of schematic design plans of a house for Tony and Linda Gutierrez, a 50-something couple with a one acre property in nearby Chino Valley. The couple had a straightforward request – a 2,000 square foot mission-style home, traditional in look but as energy-efficient as possible… and at a rock-bottom budget.
As in any ecological design, the Gutierrez residence had to harmonize these competing dictates of style, environmental responsibility, and budget into a coherent whole, creating what Tom Hahn describes as “an elegant set of solutions to a complex set of challenges in an environment.” As we talked with the clients, assessed the site and began analyzing the natural and social variables at play, there indeed seemed to be a complex set of challenges at work.
One of my primary goals was to employ passive solar techniques, which use careful site orientation and placement of windows to heat and cool the house based on the sun’s position in the sky. This meant, among other things, including as many south-facing windows as possible. But the south end of the lot fronted a busy street, and all the appreciable views were to the north and east – exactly where you don’t want windows from a passive solar perspective. So I decided to use south-facing clerstory windows, which let in light but not views, as well as a 16-foot-wide sun room that acts as a solar heater for the house while keeping out unwanted streetlife.
Another design challenge lay in the construction method of the house: when they approached us, Tony and Linda were set on building with adobe. While it’s an excellent material for the Phoenix area, where it rarely drops below freezing, adobe isn’t quite as well-suited to the Chino Valley climate, and the house would need mechanical heating to keep it warm in the winter. Instead, I proposed constructing the house out of plastered strawbale, which would give the same handmade, thick-walled appearance of adobe, but insulate during the winter far more efficiently. At first, Tony and Linda were pretty skeptical of a house made of straw, but after assuaging their fears about fire, rodents, and moisture, they seemed pretty sold on the idea.
The Gutierrez residence proved to be a great introduction to real-world challenges of ecological design. The examples above show how designing sustainably involves a holistic understanding, not only of the environment, but of economics, style, and politics as well. Like so many other aspects of sustainability, this process requires a greater initial investment of time and energy, but produces a regenerative return in the form of enhanced comfort, lower utility bills, and a smaller ecological footprint.