In my last post I wrote that starting the new house meant I had to finalize some decisions that would be essentially irreversible, and it was causing me no small amount of anxiety. Here is the story of one such decision, and how it almost all went wrong before we’d barely begun:
The issue relates to the orientation of the house relative to the sun. I’d designed the new house using passive solar principles, so the building is supposed to face due south, with lots of windows (and carefully designed overhangs) on that side to let in the sunshine in the colder months. We chose concrete flooring in part because it provides thermal mass that absorbs the sun’s heat during the day and then slowly releases it after the sun goes down. This free heating supplement is supposed to reduce heating bills by a significant factor. But you lose efficiency when you depart from true south by more than 10 degrees (which for my design meant about 5 feet of wiggle room), so I had it stuck in my head that the house had to be oriented with the long side facing exactly south.
As the crews arrived to mark out the walls I headed out for a run, but when I came back I had to tell them to stop. They had the house oriented to the southeast. “No, no, no” I told them “it has to be south”.
I told them to use the western property line as a reference (it runs exactly north-south) and run the house perpendicular to that line. So they apologized profusely, redid the lines, and let the excavator get to work.
I was gone most of the next day, and when I returned the site had been fully excavated and the framers had laid out most of the wooden forms for the concrete footing (this is the wide “base” that sits underneath the foundation walls). As I stood there alone, staring at the now-clearly-defined outline of the house, something felt wrong to me.
I began to worry that perhaps I’d misunderstood my site survey – perhaps my property lines did not run exactly north-south as I’d thought. That night I wasted a couple of hours Googling such topics as “are property lines on site surveys true north or magnetic north” (they are almost always true north), and I worried that I’d have to hold up the crew the next morning until I could put a call in to the district to find out.
Thankfully, I woke up in the middle of the night with a sudden flash of inspiration and realized what the problem was. The house was in fact pointing true south, but the layout of the land cried out for a southeastern orientation…that’s where the views are, that is where the eyes are naturally drawn.
The house sits in the northwest corner of our property, which is shaped like a long rectangle that runs north-south. All along the west side is a very tall wall of second-growth Douglas Fir trees (part of a large forest that borders our property). The southwest corner of the property is also heavily wooded. So with the views blocked off to the west and southwest plus the corner placement of the home, it just makes sense to orient it towards the southeast, where the longest view lines are (and where the land happens to slope gently downwards, which further draws the eyes in that direction). A south-facing house sitting alongside the western property line looks almost directly into a wall of trees, rather than along a lovely open sloping view line.
In fact, as I thought about it more, I realized that every time I’ve gone up to the top of that hill (which I used to do often, gazing at the view and imagining my new house there) my body naturally orients towards the southeast, and my eyes are naturally drawn in that direction. And that also explains why the builders had laid the lines down that way: it just seemed so obvious that the house should be sited that way.
I’d been an idiot, and I’d almost made a huge mistake. I’d put myself in a box and then forgot that I was the one who’d dictated those limits. I was so fixated on sticking to passive solar design principles that I was ignoring the first rule of custom home design: the home should fit its environment and work with the features of the land. When I finally asked myself: what would be the consequences of having the house face southeast, I realized that the only thing I would lose is some efficiency in the passive solar heating.
It was then a no-brainer; screw the passive solar and put the house where you want it, where the views will warm your heart every day.
I must emphasize that I live in a climate with relatively mild winters, so our heating costs aren’t that high to begin with. We will also have a wood stove as backup, and we have a lot of wood on our property to use as fuel. The cost savings from passive solar heating would be welcome, but they would not be life-changing. They would not make the difference between an affordable heating season and not putting food on the table. I had to ask myself: was saving a few bucks a year on heat worth having the house oriented in such an unnatural way?
And so, wide awake at 5 am, I texted my contractor to let him know as soon as he woke up that we’d need to take down the forms and change the orientation back to the way they’d had it before. Thankfully, they were all very good sports, we had a good laugh about it, and all agreed that the southeastern views were too beautiful to pass up.
I shudder every time I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t changed it back at a time where it cost us very little extra to do so.
And having done so, I’ve slept better ever since.