The elements of nature, architecture, and science meet seamlessly in Kathy and Tom Carstens’ southwest Oregon home. A model of sustainable design and green innovation, their contemporary hillside home elegantly expresses the couple’s environmental conscience. On this Applegate Valley homestead, where the natural contour of the land offers a sense of seclusion, renewable energy technology masterfully blends with recycled and reclaimed materials to achieve a resource- and energy-efficient retreat.
Once you take time to understand that you can save the Earth’s resources, save money, and live comfortably doing so, there’s no other way to live or build,” says Tom Carstens, a 61-year-old former marine pilot who describes himself as a “conservative,” putting special emphasis on its root—conserve. “It just makes sense.”
The decision to build a high-performance home was largely inspired by Tom’s interest in renewable energy (RE) technology and environmental studies, which blossomed after taking a green-building course at the Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, where he and his wife Kathy resided before retiring to Oregon.
Right from the start, the Carstens knew what they wanted from their home’s design—plenty of natural light and an energy-efficient building that would offer thermal comfort with little reliance on mechanical conditioning systems. In shaping their vision, Tom and Kathy drafted a list of design and construction principles that detailed everything from wheelchair accessibility to materials specifications. To help carry out their wishes, Tom found architect Andre DeBar of Portland, Oregon, the recipient of the National Association of Home Builders 2003 Green Custom Home of the Year award.
“I got lucky,” Tom admits. “There are a lot of architects who say that they’re green but aren’t actually green. I went into this cold and, without too much legwork, found an architect with the expertise I needed.”
Perched on a knoll above a thick stand of pine and madrone, the already-established building pad came with a wide-open, southerly exposure, ideal for solar energy production. But the treeless hillside offered no protection for the house during summers that often see the mercury soaring between 90°F and 110°F. Plus, the best views from the site are to the west. Orienting the main face of the home toward the mountain vistas would have challenged the home’s ability to keep cool in the summer and capture the optimal solar gain in the winter. But Kathy and Tom wanted the best of both worlds—an energy-efficient home and gorgeous sunset views.
Preserving the sweeping views while preventing the home from overheating during the summer months was one of Andre’s biggest design challenges. Knowing that the steadily declining angle of the sun would make any west-facing windows difficult to shade, Andre devised a solution that would buffer the home from the direct sunlight: an open porch along the west wall of the house covered with an 11-foot-deep overhang. During hotter months, the overhang adequately shades the porch and windows along the wall—limiting the heat gain from this exposure. As a result, the home experiences only one or two hours of direct sunlight from the west during the late evening in summer.