Designing the Dream –  Step 1: What’s important in a home?

 This is the first installment of a series of articles on home design, incorporating some of the things I’ve learned over the years. These articles will be about designing a house for here, the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the San Luis Valley. Allowing for your unique environment is key, wherever you are, to designing a loveable, livable house.

Sustainability and low maintenance are priorities for me in this series. This is not about new or experimental features in home design, because although fascinating, they can require a lot of time and attention. Instead, I am looking for tried-and-true materials and designs that will require little maintenance while taking advantage of natural local benefits like abundant sunshine, low humidity and lots of air movement to heat and cool.

What would I design?

Recently a client asked me, “If you designed a house for yourself on my site (in the relatively treeless Baca Grants, off the grid), how would you design it?” This, in part, was my answer:

The house would be designed specifically for the site, to take advantage of what that location has to offer and its less appealing aspects. For that reason I wouldn’t lock myself into a design before I’d bought the land. Although you can buy plans online, those plans aren’t designed for you, your site, or the specifics of our climate. 

A house designed for this locale would have nice, high windows to appreciate the mountain views to the east, and broad southern windows for the view of the Dunes and Blanca, and for solar gain. I’d also allow some smaller windows for viewing the north (especially the weather), and smaller windows to the west to watch sunsets (and again to see the weather rolling in). These smaller windows would let me know what’s happening outside while keeping out the cold of winter or a blasting late afternoon July sun, and could be opened for cross-ventilation. I’d like a skylight or light tube in some north-facing rooms, which can be gloomy in the wintertime.

I’d want to make the house as maintenance-free as possible: stucco exterior, windows and doors that don’t require refinishing, metal roof, good passive solar collection and storage. I’m intrigued by living roofs (roofs where plants are growing), but I’d want something I can maintain by myself in the years to come, or that I can leave with confidence if I’m away for an extended period.

I’d build it smaller rather than larger. Less to heat, less to clean, lighter on the land.

Considering that stairs could become a challenge in the future, and considering the openness of the terrain and availability of views, I’d make it one story high. Also, E&AC regulations limit roof heights in the Grants to 24’.

Roof overhangs are very useful for keeping the summer sun off the building; an 18” overhang, combined with plenty of roof insulation and proper ventilation (of the roof and living space of the house), can provide you with a cool August refuge without the cost of air conditioning. A broad roof overhang also helps to keep rain and snow buildup away from the building.

I’d want a yard or patio area that would keep the deer & elk out, and the dog in. It would be surrounded by a wall for protection from the wind, with a shady sitting spot. The walls would also provide microclimates for growing plants. I’d rather use a wall than plantings to break the wind, first because exterior watering is illegal in the Grants, and secondly because most trees or shrubs will quickly die in this climate if not watered regularly. One exception is Rocky Mtn. juniper (also called cedar locally), which are sturdy survivors and thrive here, once established. I’d plant those some distance from the house, however, since they are very flammable. I’d allow for a screened area (anyone who’s been here during a bad mosquito season will see the wisdom of that), and I also like porticos, where you can sit out to catch the breeze and look at the mountains on a hot summer day, protected by a roof overhead. These features can be combined.

I would have a greenhouse or sunroom attached to the house to make the most efficient use of the sun and thermal mass. I’d like to see the house designed so that you can leave it without backup heat and be assured that the pipes won’t freeze.

The exterior would be a color that fits in with the landscape, and a shape that fits itself to the terrain.

I’d get a PV (photovoltaic) system that would provide sufficient electrical power for a few cloudy days in a row, and a good solar hot water system to pre-heat the water I use in the house. I’d use an on-demand propane hot water heater, and buy and fill a large propane tank to cushion against future shortages or price spikes. Budget allowing, I’d hook a propane-powered generator into the system to charge my batteries after a long string of grey days, in case of emergency, or if I just needed more power for a special task.

I’d want to include a room that stays cool but doesn’t freeze, for storing foods that don’t need actual refrigeration but would keep better, cooler. Winter squash, potatoes, big pots of soup that need to cool off before they go into the fridge or freezer, etc.

If my business is to be in the home, and I expect client visits, I’d provide an office with a separate entry so they wouldn’t see the dirty dishes and kids’ toys when they come for a meeting.

Finally, I’d like the house to be easy to operate, dependable and rentable or resellable, in case my plans change.

Next time: “Siting your House.”