Friday, February 3, 2017



This design was originally built in 1996. It was an "off the grid" home with a photo voltaic system, passive solar gain, heavy insulation and several wood burning systems. In 2012, an out of control "controlled burn", called the North Fork Fire burnt the home to the ground.

The fire was so hot it split granite boulders and melted cars down to their steel frames. It was so hot not even the foundation was reusable. 

The new owner chose to rebuild. The original design was followed, adding stone veneer to exterior walls and meeting current codes. A new foundation was required. Photo voltaic panels and a battery system were again installed.

This home truly rose from the ashes like a Phoenix.

This home is located near Conifer, Colorado.


Although a large house was requested, this project had a very small and tight budget. The design was kept as simple as possible with many decisions based on cost. During the pricing and construction the contractor found yet more ways to reduce costs.

The design called for a large, boxy, simple design. Some south facing windows were made larger to receive winter sun, but the expansive glazed areas and thermal mass typical of a passive solar design were avoided to keep the budget low. The house is well insulated, but not expensively so. All this resulted in a high quality, architect designed home at a reasonable cost.

This home is located near Elizabeth, Colorado.


I was asked to design a house on a site with incredible views and intense sun, but at a high altitude (9800 feet). The area is very, very cold and the budget was tight. (I was once in nearby Leadville, Colorado in January. People I met kept claiming it was a heat wave, while it was 7 degrees above zero. I was told that at that time of year, it was usually 7 degrees below zero.)

The result was a house using "direct gain" passive solar heating. There are many south facing windows, but no thermal mass. South facing windows allow the low, southern winter sun to enter and warm the house, while the vertical glass and overhangs keep out the high summer sun. On sunny winter days the house is warmed whether occupied or not, reducing the need for heat even if the owners are away. During construction, the owners expressed concern over all the south facing glass, but were reassured by the contractor who was familiar with the local climate.

The design called for a rusted metal roof, rustic wood siding and metal accent panels. The metal roof also helps shed snow. The interior has a contemporary look.

This home is located near Leadville, Colorado.


This design takes advantage of incredible western views of the Sangro De Cristo mountain range. The home was designed to accommodate empty nesters and their in-laws and has an elevator between floors. The house is built on a 35 acre site. It is softly contemporary in style and is low maintenance.

This home is located near Canon City, Colorado.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


A custom home may depend on solar, geothermal or wood stoves for its heat, but the building code, loans and future resale values require that the house be equipped with an adequate conventional heating system. There are many deciding factors in what type of system to chose. The type of heating system chosen is determined by the budget, personal preference, location and resources available.

The required energy may be supplied by natural gas, propane or electricity. All types of systems actually require some low level of electricity to power fans, pumps and controls. The actual utility chosen to heat the home may be determined by location. All sites should have electricity, but whether your site has natural gas or must be supplied with propane should be determined.

These days, electricity is seldom the first choice. Electric heat usually results in a higher utility bill. Electric heat can result in a lower upfront or capital cost, Electric heat can be the least expensive way to install heat in a home, but seldom will be the least expensive to operate. Note that an electric outlet cannot be placed above an electric baseboard heater. Electric heat might still be chosen if most required heat is to be supplied by wood or solar.

Propane is often chosen on rural sites. It is a gas when it enters the home. It is delivered by truck to a tank near the home. The tank can be leased or purchased. The tank can be buried (this requires the tank be purchased) or placed on grade and even hidden with landscaping. The energy delivered by propane is slightly less than the energy delivered by natural gas. A professional may need to adjust the orifice sizes on old appliances. Propane does allow for gas cook tops, clothes dryers and fireplaces. Propane cannot be used in a basement mechanical room without complicated detectors. A propane fueled mechanical room must be in a true walkout or upper floor. It cannot be in a basement or even a garden level. Propane is heavier than air. It settles and pools if there is a leak. Leaking propane would be vented by opening doors.

Natural gas is usually chosen if it is available. If a site is supplied with natural gas or it's nearby, gas will be run into the house. Natural gas will result in a lower utility bill than propane, with electricity being higher still. Natural gas and electricity will result in monthly bills. Propane is billed upon delivery, resulting in irregular and large bills. Natural gas is lighter than air. Leaking natural gas could be vented through open doors and windows. Again, natural gas allows for gas cook tops, clothes dryers and fireplaces.

Another decision to be made is whether to heat with hot water or forced air. Both choices have advantages and disadvantages, and both can be run off natural gas, propane or electricity. Budget, personal preferences and practical considerations affect the choice. This should be discussed with the architect.

A hot water heating system can be "In Floor Radiant Heat", "Underfloor Radiant Heat" or baseboard hot water heat. Hot water heat comes off a boiler. Any type of hot water heat usually costs more than forced air. Any type of hot water heat can be broken into multiple zones, each zone with its own thermostat. Adding air conditioning is awkward as there is no duct system.

"In Floor Radiant Heat" runs heating tubes through a 1 1/2" thick, light weight concrete floor. This adds weight to the structure, but is easily dealt with. The cost of concrete and supporting it can make this the most expensive commonly used heating system in residential projects. The height added by the concrete must be considered in the framing. Wood flooring requires  2x4 furring. "In Floor Radiant Heat" gives a warm floor, no moving air and spaces clear of heating registers or baseboards.

"Underfloor Radiant Heat" tubes are stapled under the sub-floor with insulation below that. It eliminates the concrete floor. Construction details must be considered. The nails from installing a wood floor will pierce the sub-floor, but cannot pierce the heating tubes. The final results are very similar to those in a home using "In Floor Radiant Heat".

Hot water baseboard heat is an older, less expensive way to heat with water. There can still be multiple heating zones. Baseboards run along outside walls and anywhere heat is needed. Nowadays, the baseboard radiator sits where the base trim would be. A typical baseboard radiator is about 2" deep and 8" high.

All hot water heating systems result in a quiet home with no moving air. However, any kind of hot water heat means that air conditioning must be a separate system with its own ducts and delivery system. Adding air conditioning to a house using hot water heat again increases the budget.

A forced air heating system requires a furnace, supply ducts and a return air system. A forced air heating system is more difficult to break into zones. It does easily lend itself to adding air conditioning. A humidifier can also be easily added. Forced air heat will usually be less expensive than hot water heat. It has a quicker response time making it a better choice in vacation and second homes. If you arrive at a vacation home late in the day, the house will be cool from having a lower thermostat setting while the house was unoccupied. Forced air heat will respond more quickly than hot water heat.

Choosing which method for heating a home is a major choice. It can affect the structure of the home and its basic layout. Running ducts from a mechanical room requires some planning. Hot water heating tubes can usually be run anywhere. Propane can affect the basic layout of the house. A tight budget, being a vacation home or the desire for air conditioning can make a forced air heating system an appropriate choice. A home with a quiet heating system, no registers and a warm floor attracts  many home owners. Discuss these options with your architect and consider all possibilities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


The decision of who will build a house is an important one. Price, references and compatibility all need to be considered. When embarking on one of the most expensive purchases of your life, often taking nearly a year to complete, working with a contractor you like, can deal with easily and trust is a major aspect of deciding who you will choose. A contractor may be preselected, chosen by bidding or negotiated. In residential work, most, but not all contractors are men.

In some cases, a contractor is preselected. A contractor may have been chosen even before a design is begun. He may have been known prior to the project or worked with the client before. He may come so highly recommended that no one else is even considered for the job. Sometimes, a contractor is involved even before an architect is selected or a design begun.

A contractor can be selected through a competitive bidding process. Contractors are invited to bid (usually 3, less and no one knows who is correct when a difference arises, more and it seems just like price shopping. Good builders may simply drop out. There is a lot of gossip amongst sub's and suppliers.) Those chosen to bid have already been reviewed to some degree, but clients still check references and visit each contractor's earlier projects. A face to face meeting is important to determine if the contractor and client are compatible. The client decides on some combination of price, references and compatibility. The job is not always awarded based just on price. A client may be willing to spend more on one contractor based on previous history and experience. Each bidder is given multiple sets of plans, a CD of the drawings and about 1 month to bid.

In a negotiated bid, a contractor (or several) price the house and negotiate with the client on the terms. Fees, scheduling, methods and any other factor may be up for negotiation. Negotiation may be combined with the other methods of selecting a contractor.

One area that needs to be considered, is under what terms the home will be built. Some form of contract will be agreed upon. A contract may or may not be reviewed by a lawyer. If there is to be a construction loan, the lender has some say in how the contract is written and in who builds the house. It is common to build homes using cost plus, fixed fee and combinations of these types of contracts. Many clients ask that specific sub-contractors or suppliers be used, inserting them into the contract.

Allowances may be used in a contract. The architect may set allowances. No one knows exactly what carpet or tile or light fixture will be chosen, so a price is inserted into the contract as an allowance, knowing it is likely to change. This allowance should be reasonable and realistic. The contractor will base some of his fee on the allowances. If an allowance is too low, the contractor is not fairly rewarded. If too high, the client is overcharged.

In any type of contract, there will be many smaller bids on labor and materials making up the larger, overall bid. Some comparisons should be made between bids or other similar custom homes as a way to find errors and discrepancies. It is best to spell out how a home will be built, but without attempting to account for every nail. When a home is built to the satisfaction of both the contractor and the client, everyone will be happy.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


The first step in the design of a custom home is the writing of a program. An architectural program is a written description of the proposed house. In residential construction, general concepts, the look and style of the house, the views desired, the materials wanted; all go into the program. A list of spaces with their requirements is made. Sizes and square footage are estimated and a rough cost estimate is made using a current dollars per square foot cost figure.

A general description of the proposed house might include comments on the site. How many acres is the property? Are there views? Are there rocks, trees and shrubs? How is access gained? Utilities and services should be considered. What is the look or style desired? What materials are favored? Is the house to be energy conserving or solar?

When describing a space, all details are included. In a kitchen, all the appliances that are wanted are listed, the general look, the lighting, cabinet types, what kind of counter tops are desired, an island versus a peninsula and the kitchen's relationship to other spaces are all noted. In a great room, is there to be a fireplace? A TV? What kind of furniture? If a fireplace is desired, where is the house located? Some locations require a gas fireplace instead of wood (to reduce pollution). What does the client want? Are there enough trees on the property to provide a wood source?

Next, the architect notes all spaces with their rough sizes and square footages. Sizes are estimated off what is desired, what is required, the budget, comments from the clients and the architect's experience. Listing a bedroom as 8'x6', just to make the total square footage and final budget look good is very poor planning and programming.

Now the square footage of all proposed spaces is added up. I factor in a % for circulation and wall thickness (20% to 25% typically). A total of the proposed finished square footage is arrived at. From here, what's done next varies amongst practitioners. Basically, the finished square footage is multiplied times a dollar per square foot cost estimate. But, walkout space costs less than main floor or upper floor space and simple plans cost less than complex ones.

My method assumes a garage in proportion to the size of the house. A small house is assumed to have a 2 car garage and no square footage is added to reflect this garage. If a small house client desires a 3 car garage, the dollars per square feet must be higher or some sum of money must be added to cover the cost of the larger garage. Walkout space (basements), costs less, so I use a lower dollars per square foot cost (often 50% of the main floor cost). Then the main floor and upper floor area is multiplied times the full dollar per square foot cost. Finally, all these costs, plus the costs of any special, extra features (an elevator is a good example) are added, giving a rough estimate of the expected construction cost.

A good program then goes through a series of revisions. If the proposed budget is too high, the overall size is reduced or some spaces eliminated or rearranged. If something needs to be added, it is (a wet bar or a 1/2 bath is typical). These revisions are continued until a final program is agreed upon. This written program is then used as the basis for designing the home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


ICF stands for "insulated concrete forms". These are forms made of Styrofoam blocks, held apart by plastic strips. The interior core is filled with concrete, around steel reinforcing, resulting in a wall that is both strong and very well insulated. There are many brands of ICF blocks and most can be viewed on the Internet.

Blocks are 12" or 16" tall, from 13" to 17" wide and come in 48" lenghts. Corners, angles and other special shapes are available. The blocks are laid up like giant Lego's, with steel reinforcing, both vertical and horizontal, placed in the core as specified by the engineer. The core or center void is then filled with concrete. The plastic strips cast in place in the Styrofoam keep the outer forms in place and act as anchors for the exterior stucco and interior drywall. 

ICF walls can be used for both the foundation and above grade walls. ICF walls can be combined with wood framed floors and roofs or the system can be integrated with concrete floors. In addition to stucco, brick, stone and various sidings can be used as an exterior finish.

Because of an ICF walls high insulating value, about an R 22, this system lends itself to energy conserving designs. High quality windows and a well insulated roof should still be used, but an ICF wall will be low in both heat loss and air infiltration. Any type of heating system can be used, forced air, hot water heat, in floor radiant heat, even geo-thermal heat. Again, because of an ICF's high R value, it is a good choice for a passive solar home. ICF walls also have a low sound transmission.

Details on an ICF home will vary from a traditional wood framed house. The thickness and bearing characteristics of an ICF wall go well on a spread footing, but would be awkward on a piered foundation. Windows and doors require 2x bucks to frame the openings and all wood in contact with concrete must be treated. Thick walls require extra work and attention to jambs and sills. ICF walls leave you with a Styrofoam exterior, waiting for a weather proof finish. Stucco is a common choice with the wire mesh used in stucco easily attached to the plastic strips inside an ICF wall.
A pressure treated plate is bolted to the top of an ICF wall. From there, joists for a flat roof or trusses for a pitched roof can be attached. Any type of roof can be installed, but an ICF wall is particularly suited to a flat roofed, thick walled, southwestern style home. Hip roofs go well on an ICF house, bit gable roofs result in a triangle of wall at all gable ends. These spaces are awkward to fill with ICF and typically require infill wood framing.

Interior partitions are usually framed to allow for electrical and plumbing. Outside walls of ICF require special electrical work. Care must be taken that all ICF walls are true, flush and plumb, ready for drywall. An out of true ICF wall would require extensive shimming for drywall, adding dramatically to costs. All Styrofoam must be covered by drywall as fire protection.

                                                                           ICF construction results in a strong, well insulated home. ICF construction tends to be slower than wood framed construction and can be labor intensive. It is well suited to owner built homes with two people stacking blocks and extra laborers being used during pours. If an ICF project is bid out to contractors, expect a higher cost per square foot than for an equivalent wood framed house.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


These photos show a small home under construction and completed in Twin Lakes, Colorado. Intended as a second or vacation home, the site offers spectacular views of snow capped mountains, forests, aspen groves and the twin lakes. The village of Twin Lakes lies at the base of Independence Pass. It is one of the most beautiful areas in Colorado.

The house is small, less than 1600 square feet in size. It is heavily insulated, has a wood stove and a fireplace, and was designed as a passive solar home. The site is at an elevation of over 9200 feet. The area is very cold. Locals told us a January temperature of 7 degrees was due to a rare heat wave. This home is a variation on a direct gain passive solar design. There are large windows facing south, both to capture the view and to warm the home, but no Trombe walls or thermal mass to store heat. Thermal mass was eliminated due to budget and space requirements.

Some older lots in Twin Lakes were plotted many years ago. New zoning setbacks and a shifting highway resulted in public hearings and variances. Over six months were spent obtaining permission to build.

The home is sided in recycled wood with a rusted steel roof. After aging a few years and establishing some basic landscaping, the home is beginning to blend into its mountain setting.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Custom home sites are often chosen because of their views. Some sites in Colorado have such spectacular views that the property is worthy of being a state park. Snow capped mountains, city lights, aspen groves, grassy meadows, rock formations and distant vistas can all be found as views from a custom home site.

One of an architect's tasks when designing a new home is to capture the good views and hide the bad. A well designed home takes advantage of the views offered. Clients may ask that certain views be seen from certain rooms. West facing windows may show dramatic mountains, but allow severe overheating from the setting sun. Smog and haze typically hide views seen when looking through a city. Sunset and weather conditions can often result in spectacular views.

Southern views are good because large expanses of glass facing south bring in winter solar gain, heating the home. Northern views require windows that are a constant source of heat loss, but can not be missed. You need to remember that a dramatic view of nature, mountains and most scenery, will just be dark and unseen at night. Views that are now of a natural scene may be marred by future construction.

Sometimes the architect is asked to design around poor views. Clients may not want to see neighbors' homes and buildings, or power lines or roads. The careful design of the house can minimize poor views. The garage and storage areas are often used to screen unwanted sights and landscaping is sometimes used.

Remember that views as seen from the ground may not be the same as those from the finished house. Floor levels are often higher than natural grade, allowing some views to be seen over trees and neighbors. One trick is to take a ladder to the site, climbing to the approximate height of a floor to see the real view. Some home designs go so far as to include a tower to take advantage of these views.

Photos in order shown.
Lehr residence, Castle Rock, Colorado
Haverkate residence, Larkspur, Colorado
Carpenter residence, Tabernash, Colorado