One-of-a-Kind Green Homes

These custom-built homes make a strong design statement while delivering a high level of energy and resource efficiency.

August 10, 2012

Custom home builders respond strongly to clients that are willing to try something out of the ordinary. Tim Diener, VP of operations for Lancaster County Timber Frames, Lititz, Pa., found it refreshing to work with the owners of the Lancaster County home profiled in this article (see Project #2 - Tied to the Earth), which marries an old tradition to the latest sustainable building methods and materials.

“You can build net-zero-energy houses that generate as much energy as they use, but you have to have a net-zero lifestyle too,” Diener points out. “That’s our client’s strength — he understands that you can’t just build the house; you’ve got to live in it the right way.”

The owners of one of our other featured homes (see Project #1 - Good Bones below) have a similar mindset. Their striking yet simple residence is economical in footprint and energy usage.

Be sure to read about Portland, Ore., builder/designer Jonathan Orpin (see Project #3 - Extreme Green). The veteran timber-framer adheres to four principles with every project: build long-lasting and thermally efficient structures; use advanced and efficient mechanical systems; practice thoughtful and sustainable sourcing of materials; and create homes that exemplify great design and fine craftsmanship. This raises the bar for the project and motivates the owners to maintain the home for years to come, Orpin says.

Project #1 - Good Bones

The main house’s large expanse of glass is oriented to the north, while the guest house is positioned to block the western sun. Photos: Coles Hairston


While the curved steel exterior structure suggests bleached dinosaur bones, the way this home functions is far from prehistoric. The footprint is relatively small, energy efficiency and water conservation are paramount, and the landscaping is minimal.

Austin, Texas-based architect Winn Wittman designed the 2,000-square-foot home for a retired chemical engineer and his wife. The couple owns an 85-acre ranch in Lampasas, Texas, an hour’s drive northwest of Austin, and wanted to build their retirement home there.

“The husband had a very powerful metaphor,” recalls Wittman. “He said, ‘I want curved,’ which is always tricky because it typically costs more and his budget was very tight. And he said, ‘I want it to look like the bones of the earth.’ So I imagined a rib cage.”

Wittman first considered curved exterior walls but was concerned that they would compromise the functionality of the interior spaces. “Instead, we looked at creating curves on the vertical plane,” he says. The curved steel exterior beams that form the “rib cage” and support the roof were fabricated off site and erected in a single day. Inside, laminated wood beams were used instead of steel to provide a thermal break. Builder Rex Keele, Rex Keele Construction, Lampasas, says the project came in within 5 or 6 percent of budget.


A “dog run” or breezeway between the main house and guest house enhances passive ventilation. The swimming pool’s curved edge echoes the steel beams that protrude like dinosaur bones.


Although the house is indisputably modern, Wittman drew some inspiration from the floor plans of Lake Flato Architects in San Antonio, Texas, which often incorporate a breezeway or “dog run” for passive ventilation between living areas. Here, there are two detached buildings in addition to the main house: a three-car garage and a guest house for the couple’s children and grandchildren, who visit often. The materials — chopped limestone, stucco, and zinc-coated sheet metal on the roof — also pay homage to the Lake Flato style.

The main house includes a gallery displaying the client’s collection of landscape paintings; a large living/dining space; and an island kitchen. Ten-foot glass sliding doors overlook the pool and pristine landscape.

Due to the remote location, the clients drilled a well and set up a water collection system. The large butterfly roof slopes toward a central gutter that directs rainwater to an underground cistern. Wittman oriented the house with its large aluminum windows facing north. “The guest house actually blocks the western sun when it goes down,” he says. The roof has 6 inches of soy-based foam insulation to mitigate the effects of the harsh Texas sun. All of these features keep the electric bills down to an average of $80 per month.

For Keele, the curved steel beams are the home’s most unusual feature. “In most projects, the steel is hidden inside the walls,” he says. “Here, it looks like huge curved ribs coming out of the house.”


The kitchen, dining room, and living room occupy one large, sunlit space with 10-foot glass sliding doors on one side and clerestories on the other. Exposed ductwork gives the space a modern flair.


The 10-foot glass wall extends into the master bedroom, which also features clerestory windows to maximize daylight.


The curvilinear blue master bathroom tucked into the center of the home adds a shot of color to an otherwise neutral palette.



Project #2 - Tied to the Earth

Solar panels on the pool house roof generate power for hot water and about 50 percent of the home’s electrical needs. The butterfly roof collects rainwater. Photos: courtesy of County Timber Frames



This earth-bermed, timber-frame home in Lititz, Pa., earned a LEED Gold rating and would have been LEED Platinum had it been smaller. The clients extensively researched sustainable building methods, and their diligence is reflected in the finished product, says Diener, the builder and architect.

The 3,000-square-foot home is set into a hillside, with the first floor about 8 feet below ground level to utilize the earth as a natural insulator. The 1.4-acre site has an unobstructed southern exposure. Windows are oriented to the south, and solar photovoltaic roof panels on the pool house produce about 50 percent of the electricity needed each month. Two additional solar panels provide electricity to heat water. In the winter, the home’s electric bills average about $100 per month.

Thermal mass is used throughout to absorb sunlight and retain heat. The concrete floors are 6 inches thick, and an 8- to 10-inch-thick, waist-high wall separates the foyer and living area. A 32-inch roof overhang reduces heat gain from windows in the summer. Other features include a geothermal heat pump, a rainwater harvesting system, and permeable paving.


Exposed timbers create a rustic ambience in the kitchen and other living areas.


All of the main living areas are on the first floor, including the master bedroom and den, which the husband uses as a home office. Additional bedrooms on the second floor are reserved for guests. A large storage area was built into the garage.

“The overall footprint of the house was reduced somewhat during the design phase, but the husband really didn’t want to compromise on a lot of things,” says Diener. “He ended up getting about 90 percent of what he wanted.”

The timber framing is both structural and stylish. Exposed rafter tails and other details add character. The stone on the exterior is typical of older homes in the area.


A waist-high concrete wall bordering the family room absorbs sunlight and retains heat during the winter. The flooring is 6-inch-thick concrete.


Deep roof overhangs reduce solar heat gain through the windows, so there’s less need for air conditioning during the summer.



Project #3 - Extreme Green

Builder/designer Jonathan Orpin’s personal home incorporates countless sustainable materials and techniques — reclaimed wood, rainwater harvesting and solar roof panels, to name a few. Photos: Loren Nelson Photography



Jonathan Orpin believes it’s his responsibility to push the limits of green building. He did just that with his personal residence in Portland, Ore., known as the Vermont Street Project. The 3,000-square-foot home has won such accolades as Designing with FSC Home of the Year and is a LEED Platinum candidate. Orpin, owner of New Energy Works in McMinnville, Ore., collaborated on the design with his colleagues, architect Ty Allen and interior designer Maxine Bromfield, who is also his wife.

Orpin has been designing and building timber-frame homes for 25 years and can attest to their longevity and high level of craft. The Vermont Street Project features a high-efficiency envelope of structural insulated panels and exterior-wall construction that minimizes thermal bridging. The ICF foundation and basement walls are made of form blocks that are a mixture of 85 percent recycled wood and Portland cement.

Orpin and Bromfield’s home occupies an infill site with an 18 percent grade down to the Vermont Creek watershed. The grade allowed a walkout lower level equipped with a recreation room, media room, laundry room, wine room, guest suite, and a storage area that can hold up to 4,000 gallons of harvested rainwater. The primary living areas and master suite are on the main level, and there’s another bedroom and playroom on an upper floor for the couple’s son.

All woodwork is either reclaimed or from FSC-certified forests. Nearly all the materials were sourced locally; have recycled, renewable, or environmentally friendly content; and were made in the U.S. The metal roof has a solar PV array that supplies 80 percent of the annual household electrical needs, plus two solar panels that preheat hot water.


All woodwork is either reclaimed or from FSC-certified forests. Nearly all the materials were sourced locally; have recycled, renewable, or environmentally friendly content; and were made in the U.S.

To stop thermal bridging and air infiltration, New Energy Works builds modified-stud exterior walls using housewrap; polyisocyanurate and cellulose insulation; 1x2 strapping; and OSB sheathing. Illustrations: Michael Hahn, New Energy Works

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