A Sun Valley Solar House
photography by Tim Brown
A quarter century has passed since Seattle architect Arne Bystrom pulled together a cadre of local Wood River Valley builders and craftsmen and pieced together this complex yet stunning solar home in the Trail Creek Valley. Cuddled up to the primitive rolling hills, sunlit meadows and a thick hedgerow of trees, this 8,600 square-foot glass, concrete and wood home was ahead of its time when it was completed in 1986 and still holds a place among the most impressive examples of state-of-the art technology and old world craftsmanship.
Bystrom has said his design was inspired by the style and works of prominent architects such as Carlo Scarpa, Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene & Greene. The five bedroom, five bathroom vacation home took three years and $5 million to build, including the computer technology and interior furnishings, and generated more than 150 sheets of design plans.
“The original owners gave him (Bystrom) free range," said Elmar Grabher, whose Ketchum firm Grabher & Associates built the home. “They basically said ‘We want a house that’s special and you draw it up and we’ll leave you alone,’ so he could dream all this up and didn’t have to worry about the cost.”
Viewed from the street the house is not overwhelming, but as you approach through the carefully detailed walls and gates, and past the water-filled moat and courtyard fountains, you see why builder Grabher calls this home “complicated.”
Throughout, the attention to detail is striking. Each massive sandblasted concrete slab on the wall and floor contains perfectly colored Teton gravel from the Snake River near Twin Falls and is striped with a line of individually hand-laid tile. Cabinets are faced with a patterned inlaid motif of contrasting fir and redwood; drawers are dovetailed together using no metal; the redwood siding is incised every third plank, a detail found both inside and out. Grabher said that every piece of wood in the home was cut individually.
“This is by far the most complicated home we’ve ever built, but we figured it out,” the builder said. “One of our biggest challenges was keeping the house continuously protected. If something had been scratched up during construction you have to replace it, you can’t just come in and fill it with putty and paint it. You had to know the right height and the right angle. There was no way to fix mistakes because everything was exposed.”
To that end, workers wrapped all the glue laminated columns and wood construction in brown paper and Visqueen, and covered the concrete with soft board, every day. “Then the owners would show up and want to see what we were doing, and it took us a half a day to unwrap everything, and another full day to re-wrap it,” Grabher chuckled.
Grabher points out that every line lines up with another. The inlaid strip of tiles in the concrete flooring precisely line up with the vertical window frames where they meet at the wall. The window frames line up with pillars and the beams across the ceiling. This exactness is seen not just inside the home but also in the garage, on the outside walls, and in the garden.
“The architect has done some incredible stuff, and he’s a very detailed guy,” noted Grabher. “Everything is at complex angles and they had to be dead-on because if they weren’t nothing would line up. Hundreds and hundreds of slats had to be individually cut and pieced together. The thousands of angles were calculated out mathematically and we had to understand how the angles work and come together or we weren’t going to get the right numbers.”
Perhaps the most evident examples of the craftsmanship in this house are the two stairways, one a spiral staircase enclosed in a column of wooden slats, the other boldly bracketed to the concrete wall in the entryway and topped with a layered and inlaid wood bannister. With the latter, all the exact angles and heights.
Here comes the sun
In addition to the rich tapestry of textures, colors and angles in every corner, the house also incorporates elaborate, state-of-the-art energy systems, beginning with the steeply sloping copper roof designed to shed snow. It actually is two roofs—a ‘cold roof’ that sits over the structural roof sloped to accommodate the winter sun with a large overhang to block out the penetrating summer sun.
Panels of evacuated glass tubing hang across the facade, collecting solar heat for water and space-heating systems. There are 1,600 dual pane windows with a “heat mirror” and argon gas between the two pieces of glass. “It was the first time they used argon gas in windows for insulation,” Grabher noted.
The cooling systems use water from a pond and airshafts collect cold air from the north side and bring it through the house. The home also has backup furnaces and generators, computer controlled window blinds and computer activated upper vent windows that automatically open when the air temperature reaches 80 degrees.
The architect designed the rooms in a zigzag configuration. Each of the bedroom-bathroom suites is self-contained with their own heating and cooling programmer. Upper floor bedroom windows overlook the solar gallery below, as well as the miles of horizons outside the home. Angle-topped window shades withdraw into pockets in the walls below each window. “When you’re up here you can open up the windows and it’s like you’re in your own little house looking down into the street like in Europe,” Grabher said.
In the basement are the brains of the system. Boilers, water tanks, cooling systems and computers are tucked neatly into small rooms. “The owner wanted the latest technology in the house, but the architect told us, ‘that’s all the room we have, you guys have to figure out how to get it into the space,” Grahber explained, adding, “the solar panels, where the heat comes from, the cold air that comes in, the cold water advance through the floors, all of it is monitored through a computer, which can be remote-controlled by a phone or laptop.”
A decorative waterwheel and pond outside in the courtyard serves as both an art piece and a pump for the cooling system. “The original owner loved steam engines and the waterwheel is a replica of a steam engine wheel and piston, which pumps water through the system,” Grabher explained.
Throughout the outside terraces, entryways and the garage, the design and intricate details of the sandblasted concrete and incised redwood siding from the inside have been duplicated. In a written description of the home, architect Arne Bystrom described the grounds as, “richly sculptured to form living terraces, levels, sculpture and cooling pools. A great berm shelters the back from the prevailing winter winds.”
25 years later
Walking through the home with Grabher and hearing his description of how it all took shape was akin to listening to a proud dad boast. Even though the home is 25 years old, Grabher still seems to have a certain delight and passion about having been connected to this unusual multi award-winning residence.
As Bystrom wrote in his American Institute of Architects submission for the AIA 25 year award, “If this house had only an architectural aspect, it would stand on its own as a major work, but to combine it with a statement of pure technology takes this project far, far beyond that.”