Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What if we turned it 90 degrees....

It's funny how one simple starting fact can affect the entire plan. You start with one step that seems obvious, and before you know it you've got a plan that makes sense. But what if your initial step is wrong?

For the past few months, every house plan we've drawn up has had a couple of common features. Among them is the orientation. This is step one.

Our lot has a substantial slope in the area we want to build -- roughly 4 in 1, dropping from the road side (east) to the river (west). That's not a problem, because we want to build a place with a walkout basement. In fact, it's just about perfect: if the house is 40 feet long, and each floor is roughly ten feet high, then a 4:1 slope means that there's very little earth moving required to have a front door at ground level on one side of the house, and a basement door at ground level on the opposite side.

Step two: Because we have a sort-of view through the trees toward the river (that is, we think we might be able to see the river with some selective pruning, and even if we can't we've got a nice view down the wooded hillside), we've naturally been thinking of putting most of our windows on the west side.

Step three: We want a simple roofline (to save money) and we like the "wall of windows" look, particularly if we have a cathedral ceiling in the living room. Therefore, the roof ridge should run east-west, with most of the windows on the western end.

Step four: We'd like to have a deep porch on the entry side. Kind of like this home from Beaver Homes. Now we're getting somewhere. Picture this place sitting on a sloped lot. The porch would be on the south side, and the land slopes down from the east (right side of the picture) to the west. The wall of windows you can see in this picture would be moved so it's on the opposite end of the house -- that is, on the west side. Looking good?

Not so fast, there, homebuilder. Now we come to step five: the problems.

As I've mentioned before, it makes sense to incorporate a lot of passive solar elements in the house, which means windows on the south side. We need an overhang to block the summer sun, but a six- or eight-foot overhang that you get from a deep porch is too much: we'd still get sun in December, when it's really low, but we'd lose it by February.

There's also the question of what this house would look like on a slope. You don't see too many homes that sit across the slope: usually the're oriented so that the land falls away to the back or the front. Is there a reason for this? Quite likely, and I don't want to discover that reason by building the house wrong.

A third problem is what we do about a screen porch. We eat outside a lot, and when you're building on a wooded lot in Muskoka a screen porch is pretty much a necessity. They don't call 'em Muskoka rooms for nothing. On this plan the natural way to build one is to screen in one end of that nice deep porch, but that blocks off even more of the southern light. Or we could put it on the west end, but then it's right in front of that lovely wall of windows, and raises some serious roofline questions.

We've been wrestling with this for weeks now and getting nowhere. And then we visited friends and had a look at their house. And suddenly thought: "what if we took this design and turned it 90 degrees?" What if we, in effect, went back to step one and changed our assumptions?

Now we've got a gable end wall of windows facing the south, allowing plenty of solar gain. The land slopes away from the front of the house, in a more conventional arrangement. And the screen porch can go on the west side.

There are still some issues. We've got a lot of windows facing south, where the view isn't as grand. But perhaps we don't put quite as many windows there as we had initially planned, and add more windows on the west, balancing that out. We'll need to calculate the overhang on the south side carefully to ensure we're not bringing in too much sunshine in the warm season.

We'll also need to do a bit more land-shaping to make the walkout basement work. But since the footprint we're looking at is 32 by 40, it's not that big a difference.

Is this the solution? Perhaps. We've got to live with the idea for a little longer and see if we can spot the flaws. But I know one thing for sure: it was a lot easier to turn the house 90 degrees now than it will be in a year or so.

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