Case Study: Super-Efficient Sonoma Residence

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July 5, 2016

Located on a steep site with dramatic views, the house design takes cues from the surrounding topography. The house seeks to integrate into the landscape in a respectful way. It is set into the slope of the ridge, the building “steps down” working to become part of the landscape rather than be an intervention in opposition. The shed-roofed volumes are oriented to mimic the slope of the ridge and designed to provide solar shading. The main living space opens to spectacular landscapes to the south and west – sweeping views of golden rolling hills, city lights, and is a perch to watch coast weather movement. On the north side the building is carefully shaped, turning to meet the edge line of a mature oak forest, creating an intimate, protected, courtyard.

Kat Alves Photography

A stunning super energy efficient home was recently completed in Sonoma County, featuring Zola’s Thermo Clad line of windows and doors. We recently had the pleasure of speaking to Mela Breen, Founder & Principal of Atmosphere Design Build, the designer and builder of the Sonoma residence, about this project.

What is the essence of the Sonoma Residence?  What makes it unique?

Integration, longevity, strength, sustainability were the guiding principles for the Sonoma County residence. The owner really loved the rich textural nature of rammed earth and pise (pneumatically impacted stabilized earth). Pise walls are a technique developed by builder David Easton a combination of concrete and earth that looks and performs much like rammed earth or adobe. It was highly labor intensive but worth it in the end. The wall is 24 inches deep! We therefore looked at ways of integrating pise  into a high performance house that were cost effective. The pise wall runs the length of the home – becoming a continuation of the ridge spine (where the house is sited) and grounding the building to the site literally and figuratively.

Kat Alves Photography

What inspired your design for this project?

The site was the main point of inspiration. Located on a steep site with dramatic views, the house design takes cues from the surrounding topography. The house seeks to integrate into the landscape in a respectful way. It is set into the slope of the ridge, the building “steps down” working to become part of the landscape rather than be an intervention in opposition. The shed-roofed volumes are oriented to mimic the slope of the ridge and designed to provide solar shading. The main living space opens to spectacular landscape to the south and west – sweeping views of golden rolling hills, city lights, and is a perch to watch coast weather movement. On the north side the building is carefully shaped, turning to meet the edge line of a mature oak forest, creating an intimate, protected, courtyard.

How does the geography or location compliment or complicate this project? What, if any, environmental factors did you have to consider?

The site is spectacular, which presented enormous opportunities, but with its beauty the site also came with complications. First, it is quite difficult to access. It is up a two-mile very steep road, which made for complicated construction planning and logistics. The Sonoma Super Energy Efficient is in a wildfire zone, so we were careful to not use any wood on the exterior of the building. It is also in a high seismic area, and affected by high winds and significant coastal conditions. As a consequence, the house is constructed from ICFs, pise, and steel – all durable and nonflammable materials.

Which Zola window/door product lines helped you reach your design objectives?

The Zola Thermo Clad line, which includes tilt-turn, lift slide doors, terrace doors, and entry doors, really complements the earthy, integrated theme of the house, and of course meets and exceeds the stringent energy performance values we were going for. As a design-build firm, we are intimately involved in all our projects from start to finish. Our company is dedicated to energy efficiency and building high performance homes. Our clients share similar values. We first came across Zola Windows in 2011, and here we are in 2016 still convinced that Zola’s windows and doors are the best quality for a reasonable price. Ours has been a journey deeper into sustainable design and building. My husband, who is the builder on our projects, went on to become a Certified Passive House consultant. Zola Windows offers the expansive glass options you need on the kinds of projects we do, meeting and sometimes exceeding our energy performance needs.

Kate Alves Photography

How do these window/door product lines complement your design?

Using Zola windows allowed for large expanses of glazing (connecting the building to the surrounding landscape) without sacrificing the overall efficiency.The windows are the holy grail.

Kate Alves Photography

What other innovative products contribute to the success of this project?

The pise wall is something we are pretty excited about becuase it really ties into our mission to integrate projects into their roots so to speak. We also built in rainwater collection on the roofing, increasing the sustainability of the home. We also used Zehnder HRV and Fujitsu Ductless Mini-splits. Plus the house is electric vehicle ready.

What are you working on since the Sonoma Residence? How has the Sonoma influenced and shaped your design theory on subsequent and future projects?

Our firm continues to be focused on designing and building homes that both perform exceptionally well, that are hand crafted, site specific, and function well for our clients. We have a number of high performance and net zero energy buildings, as well as Certified Passive Houses, in development and under construction. We offer design services throughout northern California and provide design + construction services in the Sierra foothills.

Designer. Mela Breen, Atmosphere Design Build. Mela is the founding principal of Atmosphere Design Build, a deign-build firm founded on an impassioned desire to design authentic structures that are built in a conscientious and ecological manner. A family owned company committed to place, people, and the environment, Atmosphere Design Build takes a holistic approach to the process of creating structures and works in a collaborative manner with all the stakeholders throughout the design and construction phase. Its people believe beautiful design and high performance construction must weave together. Mela’s commitment to ecological and high performance design is born out of a life influenced by the wilds of this planet and a concern for the future of her young children.

Builder. David Good, Atmosphere Design Build. Dave is an experienced builder who has cultivated a crew of craftsmen that are involved in the project from start to finish and share the company’s commitment to building energy efficient buildings. He too has spent a life inspired by rivers, mountains, and rocks – and feels the imperative of minimizing our species impact on the planet. Dave is a Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC).

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