What to do with hot and sunny?

Sitting comfortably in my living room, the living room with the wonderful 14′ ceilings….the blinds closed and windows shut tight to keep the heat out and the ‘coolth’ in, this blog begins.  It is early July and after two days of 100 degree heat, I shelter either indoors or in the Willamette River with my dog, Bear. Today, laptopping, I am at home.

While I currently live in a comfortable manor house built c. 1903, turned into officers quarters during WWI, with thick walls and shady trees surrounding us, I dream of the day I’ll be building my own passive solar home!


A friend of mine, let’s call him, Jeff, is an engineer I know in North Carolina.  As a curious attempt to get to know each other better [we are pen-pals from the same high school], we decided to design a house together.  Long distance.  Chatting via Facebook.  Is this a first, do you think? He’s currently gracing a high school as their architecture/engineering/CAD instructor.  So when he has a free moment, we chat about home design.  I’ll try to recap what we’ve learned together so far….

I suggest we aim for a passive solar home.  To me it just makes sense, to make a home work within its environmental ‘window’…besides the obvious advantage to both the planet earth, and the planet ‘wallet’.  Jeff says: “Yeah, but…” “Yeah, but what?”, “Yeah, but usually homes designed to be energy-efficient are usually ‘butt ugly’.  [If he didn’t use that exact expression, it is certainly within range of his typical colloquial voicing.]

Reassuringly I emphasize that this house will be BEAUTIFUL, LOVELY, SPIRITUAL, and more…. anything less would be a waste of time. I can feel it, more than picture it.  I can sense the way light will move around the space, how a breeze will flow coolly from room to room, how the feel of the floor on my bare-feet will be….waxing poetic already about space; holy home space.

I also wrote an article on passive solar homes way back in 1983 for The Christian Science Monitor. So my expertise goes way back…It was on the cover of their book review section, and I got paid $400 at the time for the story.  My architecture degree is from the University of Michgan’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, now called Taubman College, and in the late 70’s, early 80’s we were ALL about solar architecture – having all lived through the oil embargo during Jimmy Carter’s administration and having to line up for gas on odd/even days.  Are you old enough to remember that? Or, does that seem like a fanciful imagination to you younger types?  IT HAPPENED!  So, if seems appropriate after all these years to focus on green design.  I am also LEED-AP accredited, since March 2009, which means I am a design professional with special studies in sustainable, energy efficient practices based on standards set by the USGBC, the United States Green Building Counsel.

This is getting boring, back to the house….

CONCEPT:  Jeff starts the ball rolling one day by asking ‘What room is most important to you?”  A simple question, no?  Well, I respond, “It’s not even a room that matters most to me, it’s a piece of furniture.  I need to have a harvest table.”  What’s that?  Jeff doesn’t know either…  It’s a rather long, skinny table that seats a lot of people.  I fantasize about dinner parties with 12 or more all gathered around this table.  I don’t own one yet of course…it takes quite a room to have such a table.

I follow with a: “and YOU?  What do you most need in this house?”  “A really fantastic kitchen! ” He says… “great appliances, 6 burner stove, lots of room for a pottery collection, lots of space in a walk-in pantry”.  Jeff loves to cook, and although I haven’t had the privilege of tasting his cooking, he does like to write about food. So he’s hitting all my buttons as well.  [Although I do caution him that when angry I have been known to break pottery.  So we quickly agree on locked cabinets.] Other features burst out like outdoor showers, a big empty room [more about that later], a library, a lap-pool and and hammock for my dog, ‘Bear’, etc.  Some of these ideas are highlighted with post-it notes that accompany a couple of architectural digest magazines that Jeff takes the time to review and ship all the way cross county to me.  Sweet.

SITE: Of course, we haven’t really identified a site for this home.  Neither of us owns any land yet.  Number one mistake! Since a passive solar home depends so directly on its orientation for heating and cooling features.  So, in my mind, it’s in North Carolina because that’s where he is.  But I plan to retire to Northern Michigan, so in the back of my mind, it’s there too.  So, this is yet to be determined.  : )

DESIGN PROCESS:  More than thirty years in design have taught me a little bit about my own process of designing something.  Typically, I start by working with words and images to find the context for the project.  I bought a new little sketchbook for this project.  Of course.  It’s small enough to take everywhere because you want to think about your design just about every day it seems.  I’ll write down word associations, write down things like: “What does home represent to me?”  “What does home mean on a neighborhood level, to family, to friends, to posterity, to time and place….”  Pretty much the goal is to unearth, the ‘philosophy of home’ as Alexis see’s it.  I had just barely started this part of the work when…

I am driving one Saturday down to Eugene, OR where my sons were living at the time.  This is a somewhat grueling drive – consider that I HATE highway driving, especially I-5 through the flat, flat Willamette Valley.  Sure there are hills, mountains, orchards, vineyards around…but the road is mind numbingly flat.  [I did this 2-hr drive often last year because Hayes was playing rugby, and there were matches to attend on a weekly basis it seemed.  Hayes is son number 3, soon to start at the University of Portland.  If he plays rugby in Portland, and I hope he will, it will be a lot easier to get to his matches]  Sorry for the sideroad here, but this is meant to be a chatty blog about architecture.  It’s life….

So one trip down to Eugene, this idea for the home comes straight to mind….it unfolds like someone is handing me the plans.  Ideas are streaming in to my thought.  Features, like a forecourt with an asphalt surface covering water tubes to heat the reflecting/lap pool….how about that?  Jeff is also the tennis coach, so this court would have a wall to hit balls against.  [Maybe my swing will improve too?  Or, is that just a golf term???]

It’s all mental.  I can’t sketch while driving…I may read while driving occasionally [shhhhh].  So it is showing up as complete mental images.  This is a first for me because usually the pencil has to be in my hand for my thought to engage fully.  Very cool experience driving down I-5 that day.  Hayes’ team won too, barely.

I did a sketch once I got to a good place to draw…just in case the idea flew away as quickly as it flew in…

This idea, call it, Solar Home FMJ, is really wonderful.  It has a lot of uniqueness to it.  But I think perhaps I have said enough for now…more to follow, and I promise to include more graphics as well.  Number 2 son, Ian, has left his large laptop for me to use and I am learning to work in 3-d graphics on his Rhinoceros program.  Ian is a product design major at the University of Oregon.  I know CAD to a pretty decent degree, but want to study up on my Revitt and Rhino skills.

Although I have to say, I really prefer working on my hand sketches of various rooms within this house.  I have been visualizing how one moves through the space and that of course brings to mind more detailed features.  I also scored a bunch of foam-core board from a frame shop in the Pearl that was recycling them, so I hope to complete a study model in the next week or so and include photos of that as well. 

The main thing to me, is to make this a house of light— a place where the outdoor magic of the sun moving across the face of the planet spills into the house and onto the rough cut surface of my new harvest table.

Now, to finish unpacking – did I mention I just moved in here two weeks ago? And have to clean and cook ’cause I am having Fran and Milt, Brice’s folks over for brunch after church.  [Salad with grilled chicken breast [for them, I am the vegan] and goat cheese rounds and blackberries.]  Did I mention yet, that I need lots of counter space and outlets for uncooking in my dream house…as my mostly raw food diet continues.  That will have to be another blog- unless I decide to post a recipe now and again…hummm.

Published by Alexis Wittman

Artist, Designer, Writer, Facilitator living in Northern Michigan Architectural Engineer/Designer owner of Architectural Research + Design.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great start! Your musings got me wondering about the room that the giant harvest table is in. What kind of room is it? Is it in the form of a formal dining room, closed off by it’s self? I’ve always loved houses where the kitchen, den, and dining room are all together in an open design. Great for entertaining. However, how do you fit a table that will seat an entire tennis team and not compromise the intimacy that this “great room” must have?

    1. Good question, Jeff….I agree, the kitchen being the ‘heart of the home’, I think this particular harvest table is right smack in the middle of things. Of course, too, a nice long table is just so tempting for one those who need a lot of surface area for chopping, sorting, preparing of food…much less scanning through cookbooks [for inspiration, not recipes mind you].

      I see it being custom built in two parts, so that it can be used for dinner parties or card parties with smaller groupings. Also, a big part of my imagery are those Italians and Swiss who are always dining al fresco – out in their orchards, or better yet for you I suppose, their vineyards! So a two part table may be easier to haul out the giant, GIANT, storefront type-sliding doors to the deck.

      But, I am really sick of those spec. built houses with great rooms that mosh things together too much! This particular passive solar home [FJM] uses a level change between the kitchen/harvest table zone and the living room/watching football on tv room. This way, they are connected visually but separated by a few short wide, elegant steps and a ledge that can be used for overflow tennis team seating. The ceiling heights are different as well.

      Also, the kitchen is the penultimate space which terminates the visual and processional axis from Entry>Living Room [Public Zone] to kitchen/Personal Rooms [Sacred Space]. [Prime-dona speak.] >>insert diagram here<<

      Lexis…more to follow. thanks for the questions – keep 'em coming!

  2. Love the level change idea! I think french doors are much more elegant than sliding doors connecting inside to outside.

  3. French doors are more elegant. Good idea. Sort of industrial-techy-french?

    I am so excited to be revealing the ideas this way, although it is driving me crazy not to have sketches included. I suppose I could snap them with my phone. Send them to FB. Save them on Ian’s Laptop and post to blog. Lot of steps…what I really want is one of those fancy tablet computers with the swiveling drawing pad on top! That would be perfect. Don’t know that an I-pad offers sketching capabilities…

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