Sustainable Design in Two Oregon Homes

Kitchen and dining room of the St. John and Chisholm residence. / Photo by Joni Kabana

Sustainable design and low-impact living in two small Oregon homes. Two of the most important considerations are building small and using the right ‘Finish-ing’ elements.

Project: St. John and Chisholm Residence
Architect: HGE, Inc.
Location: Coos Bay, Oregon


Compact 1,900 square feet • Passive solar design • Slab-on-grade, which acts as thermal storage mass • Evacuated-tube solar hot water system • Formaldehyde-free fiberglass insulation • Tulikivi soapstone stove • Low-VOC paints • Locally-sourced wood for exterior and interior • Energy Star appliances

To assess the practicality of their home design plans, Perry St. John and Cathy Chisholm slept beneath the stars on their newly purchased hillside property that overlooks Coos Bay in North Bend, Oregon in 2007. Their campout provided them with some crucial information.

“We realized that it can get quite windy up here,” St. John explains. The couple replaced the drawings for a vertical house and upstairs deck with a new design that protected the house from the strong northwesterly winds and relocated the master bedroom to the ground floor.

May 2009 offered the couple and Chisholm’s 13-year-old son, Drake, great cause to celebrate. After years of waiting, the three of them had a comfy new cottage they could call home. The family had been living together in North Bend since 2006, but didn’t buy the property for their future home until 2007.

St. John, who worked for more than twenty years as an architect and is now a project manager in Coos Bay, lent his expertise to nearly every phase of the home design process. Chad Dixon, who works with St. John at HGE, Inc., served as structural designer on the project. Both St. John and Chisholm were committed to integrating as many sustainable features as possible—including a passive solar heating system. Still, from the outside, they wanted their home to have the appearance of a seasoned beach house.

“We kept the image of a coastal weathered gray cottage in our heads, and we’ve always liked the way that Craftsman bungalows feel, with taller ceilings, trim work and built-ins,” says St. John.

In the end, the trim they installed was made from poplar harvested less than ten miles from their home. The exterior siding is made from regional Western red cedar, known for its ability to withstand coastal weather. Inside, the stairs and beams are regional Douglas fir, and the banister is made from Central Oregon juniper. Even their kitchen cabinets are made from a regional wood, alder.

The couple looked to Sarah Susanka’s, The Not So Big House series to help them create thoughtful, compact spaces that lived larger. “The hearth as the center of our family living space was important to us,” explains St. John, and a Tulikivi stove proved to be the perfect solution.

Though St. John and Chisholm’s bedroom ended up on the ground floor, they haven’t missed out on what may well be the best part about living at the coast—listening to the calming waves of the Pacific Ocean at night.

Price and Keller Residence

Project: Price and Keller Residence
Architect: John Duffié
Location: Ashland, Oregon


Compact 1,480 square feet • Locally sourced straw bale • Passive solar design • Hybrid convective air slab (solar slab) • Wastewater heat recovery system • Gas tankless water heater • Tulikivi soapstone stove • R55 ceiling insulation with radiant barrier • Operable roof vent designed to release excess heat • Thermal drapes and blinds • Ecotop countertops (Kliptech) • American Clay Plaster interior finishes • Non-VOC stains and finishes on interior cabinets and woodwork • Energy Star appliances • Dual flush toilets • Low flow showerheads and faucets

Fifteen years ago, John Price visited a house that made a big impression on him. The home sat off the grid and relied on natural forces and materials to provide its inhabitants with warmth and electricity. Price was drawn to the way its careful design imposed an unusually close relationship between the homeowner and the natural surroundings. Some day, he decided, he would “build a house that worked with nature rather than dominating it.”

As Price discovered, designing a one-of-a-kind, green home requires a willingness to do your own research and the patience to carry through the selection and revision processes. This past August, he and his partner, Erin Keller, were officially able to move in to the home that they had long dreamt about.

With the aid of seasoned architect John Duffié of Medford, they decided to build a 1,480-square-foot, Craftsman straw bale home with a passive solar design in the historic district of Ashland. Straw is known for its insulating properties, and Price and Keller were able to use locally grown straw.

The homeowners anticipated some resistance to their design in a neighborhood known for its older, clapboard siding homes, but were heartened to find the historic commission receptive to their plans.

“Since building, our neighbors’ reactions have been extremely positive,” explains Price. “Most Ashlanders are very supportive of sustainable design.”

Inside, the walls are finished with environmentally safe American Clay Plaster, giving them a buttery smooth texture. With no carpeting, forced air heating, or toxic finishes, the air quality is excellent, too.

A beloved Tulikivi soapstone stove from Finland burns wood at such a high temperature that it keeps the house warm for twelve hours at a time while emitting little air pollution. Architect Duffié’s favorite feature is the innovative hybrid convective air slab, or solar slab, which makes use of a series of channels beneath the floor to circulate and siphon warm air throughout the space.

“It takes a bit more thinking and intention when living in a passive solar house,” explains Price. “Opening and closing thermal blinds to let the sun in, deciding when we may need to use the stove to supplement heating—you don’t just throw a switch and forget about it.” Still, much as he anticipated years ago, he and Keller are finding this new way of living rewarding. “It connects you a lot more with nature,” says Price.

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