Solar gain: A prairie-style house makes the most of the sun

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Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

Ray Gaines has been involved with sustainable architecture since the energy crisis of the 1970s—long before “sustainability” was a term du jour. So when an old friend approached him about building a house with passive solar functionality and other green attributes, he was more than ready to accommodate.

“We talked in generalities,” he says, as the client searched for the right piece of land. “I talked about how it would be good if the land slopes off to the south; that would allow us to design the house for some passive solar response, which is a fairly easy and common sense thing to do. When she found this piece of land, it slopes due south. It could not be more perfect for a house that has southern glass exposure.”

High clerestory windows in the 14-foot-high great room provide a kind of natural air-conditioning. When open, “The sun is basically driving a breeze through the house,” says architect Ray Gaines. Photo: Stephen Barling

Gaines (founder of the Gaines Group) was able to make the attributes of the site work in tandem with the project’s environmental and aesthetic goals, designing a modestly sized dwelling that pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright and the prairie-style homes that Gaines and his client have both long admired. “At least in certain ways, [Wright] was one of the early green architects,” says Gaines.

The lot is in northern Albemarle and, on its south side, it opens not only to the sun but to a great view. Connecting to that mountain vista went hand-in-hand with capturing solar energy. Extra-large overhangs on the south, says Gaines, “keep the sun off those large windows in the summer at the peak of the day, but let the winter sun into that great room.”

Gaines also employed a natural “chimney” effect to keep his client’s energy bills down, specifying high clerestory windows near the 14-foot-high ceiling of the great room. When open (they can be operated with electric controls) they provide a type of natural air conditioning. “The sun is basically driving a breeze through the house,” explains Gaines. “The air is warming up so it rises and goes out through the upper windows, and lets air in through lower windows.” In winter, reversible ceiling fans push warm air back down toward the living space, cutting down on heating costs.

Photo: Stephen Barling

The client cites those clerestory windows as not just an energy boon but a simple pleasure of living here. “The clerestory floods the house with light,” she says.

Building small—the house is 1,200 square feet on the main level and has just two bedrooms—was another way to keep the house’s impact lower. The client calls its scale “a happy medium between a tiny house and one that was more than I needed.”

“The house is designed on a 4×4 grid,” Gaines says. “The reason for that module is it’s very economical to construct. Four feet is three cinderblocks, six bricks, three joist spaces or half a sheet of plywood. You’re able to maximize the use of materials without a lot of waste.”

Gaines says he kept functionality at the front of his mind. “It’s particularly important to put my desires in the background when designing for a friend,” he says. “I’m not building a monument to myself.”

Photo: Stephen Barling

Luckily, he and his client agreed on the prairie style aesthetically, and as an embodiment of certain values. “Simplicity, endurance and character constitute beauty to me,” says the client. “These values also reflect my commitment to live within my means, not just financially, but environmentally.”

The house’s hipped roof, side-by-side assemblies of vertical windows and broad eaves are all hallmarks of the prairie style. A strong gold palette on the HardiePlank exterior got a twist at the entryway, where the gold gives way to blue. “That was something that we recommended to draw attention to the entry since the door faces west and the approach is from the northeast,” says Gaines. Builder Kenny Williams installed the siding at a 45-degree angle.

The client especially loves the outdoor rooms —a screened porch and a rear balcony—and the way livestock wire fence panels, a common and unassuming material, became their railings.

“This was probably one of the easiest houses for me to do because of the fact that we were on the same page philosophically,” says Gaines. “It was easy just to sit down and put this on paper. [As built], it’s close to the first sketch.”

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