Designing our floor plan seemed like an exciting project to undertake. Secretly, I always wanted to be an interior designer/architect. I remember as a kid spending hours drawing floor plans on graph paper and cutting out pictures of decor items from magazines and gluing them to shoe boxes to make my dream house. In my current position, for the past few years, I have had the opportunity to manage restaurant projects that allowed me to work with architects. Coupled with my art background I felt naively ready for the task at hand. I mean I watch HGTV, how hard could it be?
We began our endeavor by perusing hundreds of floor plans online. We also read The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka and similar books and articles that guided us in the principles of designing a house that was the right size for our needs. Through our research, it was clear that there was not a ready-made plan that met our specific needs and criteria of building a net zero energy home. Plus, we had a site location that made the layout challenging, so we knew it had to be custom. We purchased a relatively inexpensive software program to begin to design our “dream” home. Of course there was a steep learning curve and countless hours trying to figure out a simple move in the program. It didn’t take us long to realize that designing a house is much more than positioning rooms on a floor plan. There were rooflines to consider, window heights and placement, and we realized everything on the inside seems to affect the exterior view. We definitely needed to hire an architect, and preferably one that shared our passion about net zero energy building and sustainability.
We had long been friends with Jonathon Orpin, owner of New Energy Works, and respected his opinion, shared his values on sustainability, and loved the beautiful timber frame homes his company built. We didn’t consider using his company to design or build at first, because we figured it was out of our price range, plus we weren’t sure a timber frame home met the criteria of a net zero energy home. However, after talking with Jonathon and his wife Maxine, over dinner one night, they suggested we at least meet with Ty Allen, his lead architect to discuss options. We met with Ty and his associate, Todd Campbell, and discussed a timber hybrid home. Together, we brainstormed ideas of how we can design to help keep the price down. They were excited about the prospect of designing the company’s first net zero house. In the end, we signed an agreement with New Energy Works and have been very grateful for their knowledge and guidance. We began our work with them by outlining our wants and needs and they were patient and creative in trying to meet all our criteria. To summarize, there were four major considerations that drove the layout of the house.
- Simple shape– The first rule of thumb we tried to follow was to keep the design very simple, staying as close to a rectangle as possible. Eliminating nooks, cut outs and dormers not only keeps the building cost down it also eliminates potential leaks, and areas for air infiltration. As Tom will explain in his energy modeling section in greater detail, a tight envelope is one of the most important factors in achieving net zero energy.
- Sun orientation– In order to optimize the heat gain in the cold winter, we need to maximize our southern exposure. So the length of the house, with essentially the bulk of the windows, should face south, give or take 15 degrees. However, we also want to be careful to make sure we don’t overheat in the summer, so Ty and Todd designed large overhangs and included exterior window shading over the kitchen windows to prevent too much heat gain in the hot months.
- The view– We purchased the property because of the beautiful natural habitat, so we want to make sure we could enjoy that view in as many rooms as possible. Our challenge is that the view faces north, which is not where you want your windows in a net zero energy home. Tom has been doing some energy modeling calculations to help determine different window recommendations and sizes so we can still get away with north facing windows in the great room. As usual, I tell him what I want, and he figures out how to make it work. We’re a great team!
- Room Usage– We had to really think about how and when we would use each room as it relates to the site position and proximity to other rooms. We began by making a list of desired rooms and what time of day they would be utilized. I thought about the rooms of our current living space and how I feel in each room at certain parts of the day. I gravitated to the sunny rooms, so that became key to the layout. Below are the priorities we identified and the rest of the house was designed around these elements like a puzzle. Not an easy task.
- Waking up to sunshine – That means our bedroom had to have an east facing window. However, we also wanted to have a nice view and that was north. We ultimately worked out a design that shifted the garage forward to allow us windows to the north and east.
- Lots of natural light – Eventually, this will be our retirement home, so I envisioned myself working in my studio, reading in the great room in the afternoon, or cooking in the kitchen during the day. So, I wanted bright sun light for those rooms.
- Open floor plan that is flexible– We wanted to implement the “not so big house” concept with an open floor plan designed for three, but with flex space that functions just as easily when entertaining a large group of family and friends.
- Age in place – We designed this with a first floor master suite that could be used for an elderly parent with a caretaker suite on the second floor enabling a multi-generation age in place house.
- Workshop/studio– We both like working with our hands, Tom loves to work with wood and I love to do pottery and paint. At first we wanted a shared workshop studio space, but we ended up having to split the space to meet the footprint constraints.
- Screened porch with a fireplace – We love the outdoors, but hate mosquitos, so having a screened porch was important to us. We also love campfires and fireplaces, however, having a fireplace, or open flame in a net zero house, is not a good idea. We decided a fireplace on the screened porch would be the perfect solution. Also, having the screened porch on the west side provided natural shading for some of the western windows.
- Wine room or closet – We enjoy a nice wine and like collecting a few bottles, so having a temperature controlled area to store them was also important to us. Originally we wanted a room, but in the end because of space constraints, we settled on a hidden wine closet. Tom’s challenge is to come up with a creative way to minimize the energy needed to control the environment. He has a few ideas up his sleeve, more to come later on that.
Below is our floor plan and a perspective drawings of our house from New Energy Works. (Click the picture to view larger) We never would have come up with something like this without the team at NEW. They have been wonderful to work with and extremely patient with us as our ideas evolved throughout the design process, which ultimately meant making some last minute design changes. The documents are almost final. We are currently working on the construction document details. We definitely feel lucky to have such a great team to work with.