Passive aggressive: In Ruckersville, Katrina survivors start over with nature in mind

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Minna Doyle takes a break in the sunroom—a favorite spot in her Ruckersville home. The “prow” of the house, its walls are lined with windows for optimal views. Photo: John Robinson Minna Doyle takes a break in the sunroom—a favorite spot in her Ruckersville home. The “prow” of the house, its walls are lined with windows for optimal views. Photo: John Robinson

After decades spent living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Don and Minna Doyle found themselves facing catastrophe when Hurricane Katrina flooded their house with 12′ of water in 2005. “It was structurally sound, but everything had to be replaced,” Minna remembered.

While many of their neighbors threw everything away, the Doyles were more inclined to salvage what they could. “I sat for months and months and cleaned things,” she said. “Don rewired the lamps.”

Within months, they had decided to relocate to the Charlottesville area, where they have family. As they looked for a piece of property where they could build a house, that same urge to conserve drove their search. The big appeal of the two-acre Ruckersville plot where they settled was its suitability for passive-solar construction.

Don and Minna Doyle’s previous homes had been contemporary in style. Photo: John Robinson
Don and Minna Doyle’s previous homes had been contemporary in style. Photo: John Robinson

“We selected it for the exposure,” Don said. Along the property’s southern edge, sunlight pours into the glass lining the 14′ rear wall of their house, which was completed last July.

The Doyles’ choice of architect—Schuyler-based Fred Oesch—also reflects their environmental concern. Oesch is known for sustainability-minded homes, and his design for the Doyles maximizes energy efficiency. Largely, that’s achieved through passive means: the shape of the house, its orientation, and simple material choices (like the concrete slab that lies under the floor, soaking up heat during winter days).

“The bottom line, the price per square foot, is about the same as conventional construction,” said Oesch.

Free energy

Even before approaching Oesch, the Doyles came across an idea in a magazine for what would become the basic form of their new three-bedroom home: a shallow V, with its point facing south. Oesch readily adopted the scheme, adding a key element—the entire roof slopes up from north to south, creating tall walls that face the sun.

Architect Fred Oesch designed the house so every room gets plenty of natural light.
Architect Fred Oesch designed the house so every room gets plenty of natural light. Photo: John Robinson

“Pretty much every room in the house gets sun during the day,” he explained. Deep eaves protect the house from summer sun, but in winter the sun’s lower angle means that light and heat are welcomed in. “There are no moving parts; it’s just a natural way of doing it,” Oesch said.

During their first winter in the house, the Doyles observed that their radiant floor heat, powered by solar-heated water, is only in demand a few hours a day. “On sunny days, it gets up to 73 degrees,” said Don. With the concrete slab holding the sun’s heat and slowly radiating it back into the space, “the heat won’t come on again until 4:30am, and it’s off by 10:30am.”

The Doyles also have a pellet woodstove and geothermal heat as backup sources. Meanwhile, in summer, the house is mainly cooled through a passive chimney effect, which draws cool air in through north-facing windows and exhausts through skylights and high windows under the eaves. A mini-split system supplements when needed. Oesch said the mini-split avoids the need for ductwork, “which I try not to do because it’s unhealthy—you can’t clean it inside—and ugly.”

To give the house a tight envelope, Oesch chose structural insulated panels (SIPs) for walls and roof. “We also paid some attention to low-maintenance,” he said. “There’s a metal roof, so rainwater catchment would be easy to add. The fiber-cement siding is virtually maintenance-free.”

Custom cherry cabinetry in the kitchen extends into the dining room. Photo: John Robinson
Custom cherry cabinetry in the kitchen extends into the dining room. Photo: John Robinson

Getting the look

The Doyles’ previous houses had been contemporary in style, and they wanted a home that would suit their collection of 1960s-era Scandinavian furniture (much of which they had painstakingly rescued from Katrina’s floodwaters). “I like contemporary, but it has to be a little bit soft,” said Minna.

The design ultimately feels “clean but not ultra-modern, not stark and cold,” said Oesch. Plenty of wood—hickory floors and pine ceilings with exposed beams—warms up the space visually, and high southern windows in repeated sets of three, along with French doors, merge the indoor and outdoor spaces.

“Everyone today likes the very open concept,” Minna said. “I’m glad I don’t have it.” While the dining and living areas are essentially one space, the kitchen is fairly separate and has its own integrated sitting area. “This is just open enough,” she said.

The entire roof slopes up from north to south, resulting in tall walls throughout the house. Photo: John Robinson
The entire roof slopes up from north to south, resulting in tall walls throughout the house. Photo: John Robinson

The kitchen’s custom cherry cabinets do, however, continue into the dining room, and openings in the wall between the two spaces make a further visual connection (and boost energy-efficiency, too).

A freestanding flue, with the woodstove facing the living room, stands near the front door and creates a de facto entryway, so that guests don’t walk right into the living spaces.

One of the Doyles’ favorite spots is the sunroom, which extends south from what Oesch calls the “prow” of the house (i.e. the point of the V). Lined with windows, it offers a sense of intimacy with whatever the weather is doing outside.

“Looking at the slope, and the nice greenery, is so relaxing,” said Don. Having survived Katrina, he and Minna seem to have found a refuge at last.

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