The Origami House— innovative next steps in the self-sufficient dwelling House design & construction by Burt Wadman

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

by  Patrick Moore

Forget the notion of any house you’ve ever seen or thought of. Architect Burt Wadman has designed and built a boldly original, conscientiously engineered, super efficient off-grid home which does not compromise life style in traditional senses and is beautiful. It is classified as “fortified construction” to endure extreme weather conditions, and the use of insulated concrete construction for exterior walls gives the house superior efficiency and fire resistance. In designing and building the house Burt embraced the personal goal of minimizing fossil fuel usage both in construction and post-construction phases with the ultimate goal of eliminating negative impacts on the environment. He also wanted the cost of construction to be low, affordable and in line with or below traditional construction costs.

The house has now been occupied for three years, including three full winters, and the efficiency statistics are astounding. External carbon energy usage is at a minimum, the house is very comfortable and livable and the interior and exterior are beautiful. Total construction costs came in at an amazing $145 per square foot even though the house has completely custom interior and exterior features.

In 2008, renowned local artist Marika Popovits asked Burt to design a small studio for her which would be completely carbon neutral, highly energy efficient, off grid and yet be functional and comfortable for her to work in. And she needed the construction costs to be very affordable. Burt researched every building material, construction method and construction cost and discovered that the best way to keep costs down was two-fold: 1) use conventional building materials and construction techniques in innovative ways, and 2) employ well-thought-out design with tight construction management. According to the Means Construction Costs reference manual there can be up to 40% difference in costs for the same build, depending on the management of the project. Burt decided he could keep the costs at the minimum if he managed the build.

As design progressed,  Marika and Burt realized they wanted to expand the small studio project and its innovative concepts into a full 2,400 square foot home for both of them.

The unusual design of the house has its genesis from that original small studio design. Marika wanted the main walls in the studio to function as easels  for her large paintings so the walls tilt back at a 7°angle. Marika also wanted to maximize the infusion of natural northern light (which is the best light for painting because it is soft and casts the least shadows) into the studio so Burt incorporated wide, high windows on the north side and high jutting angled roof features to capture and bounce the light into the studio. When the project expanded, Burt retained the angles for Marika’s studio walls, high windows and the roof features and seamlessly incorporated them into the entire house to achieve a unique aesthetically balanced design.

The design phase took about two years. Ground was broken and construction started in spring 2010 and took 17 months to complete. Marika and Burt began occupying the house full-time in November 2011. The finished house is a custom designed and built home employing conventional construction techniques in innovative ways. There are no high-tech or expensive environmental systems employed in the house, yet the house is highly energy-efficient, meaning that the energy needed to warm and run the house is captured from the sun and efficiently used. Burt designed and employed several new, innovative features into the structure to achieve this level of efficiency.

Passive solar collection, storage and usage are the powerhouse in this masterpiece. Burt’s design maximizes all three with traditional methods applied in highly innovative ways.

The lower level, which is Burt’s office, has large, wide floor-to-ceiling windows to collect sunlight, and a concrete floor to store the heat. This garden level is earth-sheltered on the north, east and west sides to retain the heat and help warm the upper floor. Burt calls this solar collection system the “Solar Well.” There is no in-floor radiant heating system in the house. This lower level keeps the floor above warm, where the kitchen, bedrooms, living room and bathrooms are, eliminating the  need for artificial in-floor heating.

The living area above also collects solar heat through large, south facing windows and concrete floors covered in attractive black heat-collecting tiles. It incorporates small ventilation windows at mid-level for fresh air and heat regulation. But the most amazing part of the system consists of two “passive solar augmentation cubes”, one on the east side for early heat capture and one on the west side for extended heat capture when necessary and heat blocking during warm summer months.  Each cube is approximately 10’ square, with two floor-to-ceiling seamless glass walls covering the east/south and west/south walls respectively. The interior walls are traditional construction with doors leading to the larger living space and are used to regulate the temperature throughout the house. They are highly effective. The house is always at the optimum, comfortable temperature.

Three other important features which contribute to the passive solar efficiency are reflective roof design, super-insulation, and airtightness. The high jutting roof features evident on the exterior of the house are not just beautiful.  Burt designed them to capture solar energy in the form of light for all interior spaces, including important north light for Marika’s studio reflected to the interior by the white surfaces. The combination of insulation products, including high density foam, gives the house an R value of 63 for the roof and 50 in all walls, meaning very little captured solar heat escapes.

Other important features Burt incorporated into the house for very low carbon usage and self sufficiency include a standard 2 kilowatt photovoltaic system with 16 deep-cycle batteries for electrical storage, an active solar hot water system, natural and mechanically assisted air circulation with a 90% efficiency heat exchanger, and rain water collection and gray water use optimization. The house is on its own well and septic system. The fixed windows throughout are double glazed, and the conventional windows are a new economical fiberglass window. Altogether the custom triangular windows and the passive solar augmentation cubes, were completed at conventional window costs.

The resulting energy usage statistics are astounding. The house is close to energy self-sufficient. In the coldest winters wood usage for the supplemental high efficiency wood fireplace has never exceeded one and a half cords of wood. In three winters the emergency generator for electricity has kicked on once, for 6 hours during a long cloudy week. Propane usage  averages $117 per year, mostly for cooking.  There is zero external electricity usage and no other utility costs.

Now that he and Marika have occupied the house full time for almost three years, Burt feels the house meets, and in some cases exceeds, his initial design goals and energy efficiency targets. The house has proven to operate at near self-sufficiency and uses very little carbon.

The house is located in the Baca Grants south of Crestone. You may contact Burt Wadman at 719-937-7782 if you wish to visit the house or ask for more details regarding the design, operation and systems.

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