Every house is a passive solar house, by the simple fact that every home that is built sits in the sun. But architect Jeff Sties argues that that isn’t enough.
“We live on a finite planet with a finite amount of affordable resources,” Sties says. “The alternative is to incorporate the free, abundant natural energy available to us into our built environment,” which is why, through his firm, Sunbiosis, he makes each of his projects energy-efficient.
Energy efficiency became a central focus of Sties’ work from the moment he decided to pursue a career in architecture—in fourth grade. He says he’s been drawing homes with photovoltaics on the roof since before he entered high school; as an intern in Baltimore, he co-founded the area’s AIA Committee on the Environment; and, his move to Charlottesville from Baltimore, to work at William McDonough + Partners, was motivated by the opportunity to focus on that aspect of his career.
We asked him to tell us more about knowing what he wanted to do from a young age, his architecture influences and what he’s currently working on.
Architecture was a natural calling. I knew I wanted to be an architect by the fourth grade. I think it started with my parents building a house in a new subdivision in Midlothian when I was about 2 years old. More houses were built over the years, so there was always the sound of construction, the red clay and the smell of fresh-cut lumber. The half-finished homes emerging from the woods beckoned like a siren song to adventurous boys.
My father would bring home scrap paper from work—this was before recycling—and I would spend hours quietly drawing. But it wasn’t great works of architecture that inspired me as a child; it was the archaeology of ancient civilizations. I still have this fascination today every time I tour the ruins of Britannia or see an abandoned home. I am intrigued by the idea that someone lived there.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
Virginia is home and much of the family still lives here. I went to Virginia Tech, where I received my professional degree and met my wife, Stacy. After college, we lived in Maryland, where I did my internship. In 1999, after our son Ben was born, I accepted a position with William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville, which brought us back to Virginia.
What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?
Although we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, I had a wonderful childhood. My father’s parents lived in a 1920s house at the end of a dirt road on the Rappahannock River. Coming to the end of that road on a Friday night and seeing the house lit up through the large plate glass windows in the dining room created a sense of arrival. Moving through the house and climbing the stairs to the narrow front bedroom with a row of windows overlooking the river—this experience of living in a place was formative. The book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (et al) talks about this.
My mother’s father designed and built houses for a living, so there’s definitely something in the genes. He taught himself design and construction. He would buy city lots in Richmond, design a house and build it himself with hired labor. My mother and her siblings were required to help him after school by picking up nails and stacking bricks. The house he built for his wife and children was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and included features such as sub-slab heating, mechanical cooling and a prairie-style roofline.
Tell us about your college experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
I was accepted to both state schools with accredited architecture programs, but the decision to attend Virginia Tech was a simple one—the drill field as a central organizing element for the campus made the transition to college life both physically and psychologically navigable. University architecture programs are notoriously difficult, and the five year program at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech was no exception.
Among the faculty that inspired me was a quiet regionalist named Donald Sunshine, who had a great love of seaside villages, tobacco barns and other vernacular forms. And there was Ellen Braaten, who taught ceramics as part of the multidisciplined, Bauhaus-based architectural program in the bowels of Cowgill Hall. It was under her guidance that I began to explore architecture as a vessel.
On process: How does it begin?
It all begins with the site. One of the things I really enjoy doing is walking the site with a client and listening to them talk about the house they have in their mind. We discuss the approach to the house site and how to create that sense of arrival. Views, connection to the outdoors, massing and orientation are all critical in the early planning. Since many of my clients have never built a house and struggle with visualizing three-dimensional spaces, I make sure to carry a roll of tracing paper with me. Never underestimate the power of a quick, hand-drawn sketch as an effective tool.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by my clients’ enthusiasm at the start of a new project, the natural beauty of their property and seeing the house completed. It’s the challenge of designing something new, often in a place where no one has lived before, that inspires me to create unique, energy-efficient homes for my clients, which I hope inspires their daily lives in return. Architecturally, I admire the modern vernacular work of Sam Mockbee, David Salmela and other regionalists. Since college, I have drawn inspiration from the Usonian and prairie-style residential work of Frank Lloyd Wright, architect Malcolm Wells, who pioneered earth-sheltered design, and the Endless House concept by architect Frederick Kiesler.
What are you working on now?
Currently I am working on two new residential projects at Bundoran Farm in Albemarle County. One of the houses is next to the airstrip, which is still in use, and it will have a large photovoltaic array, effectively making the house “net zero.” The other is going to be a small traditional farmhouse on a hill with breathtaking views to the north. Like most of my clients, the owners of both projects are from out of town and have decided to retire in the Charlottesville area.