BY BRIAN LIBBY
Although it's called the Skidmore Passivhaus, I might have named this home and workplace for architect Jeff Stern and his wife, artist Karen Thurman, the Yin-Yang House for its inherent balance.
As its name suggest, the home, designed by Stern's firm, In Situ Architecture, meets Passive House standards for energy efficiency, yet these added costs are offset by a series of architectural and material choices that also give Stern and Thurman's home an industrial-chic sense of style.
The design also creates an ingenious balance between home and work spaces. As I can personally attest, working from home often makes one desire some kind of demarcation between domestic and vocational spaces without actually renting work space at a remote location. With the Skidmore Passivhaus, Stern created two separate architectural boxes, a single-story one for the two studios and then a two-story, one-bedroom main house. The two boxes are free-standing from one another yet connected with a translucent awning and a continuation of the back yard's elegant mahogany decking. (That's right: the outdoor decking is a more luxurious material than the indoor concrete floors.)
Standing in this covered connecting zone felt a little like being in a Rummer house of yesteryear, where one is staring at exterior cladding within an interior space. It's blurring the borders between indoor and outdoor. And because the home interior is completely white, and the wood-clad exterior stained a dark ebony, it emphasizes a demarcation point where Stern and Thurman can leave work and walk just a few steps into a space that feels markedly different.
"Way back when we conceived of it we thought about this more literally being an outdoor space," explains Stern, who previously worked for Portland's Opsis Architecture before forming his own firm. "Then we kind of got wise about the weather. We didn’t want to literally go outside but we wanted to keep that feel."
Passive House design is about creating a thermos-like environment that's well insulated and completely air-tight. So Stern and Thurman devoted an increased percentage of their budget to high-end windows (overwhelmingly south-facing with minimum glazing to the east and west) and mechanized exterior shades that keep out unwanted summertime heat. Though Thurman enjoys leaving the shades open out of an affinity for warm temperatures, Stern says last summer during the biggest heat waves, the house would maintain interior temperatures in the low 70s when they closed the shades in the morning. "Some people thought we had air conditioning when they walked in," he remembers.
In the winter, the house has remained toasty even though it relies on only four small wall-mounted electric heaters. "It's the equivalent of four hair driers and yet we were perfectly comfortable," the architect adds.
While vastly reduced energy bills (versus a house designed to code) help offset the added cost of meeting Passive House standards, Stern's design also makes use of affordable and materials in a way that doesn't compromise the aesthetics. In fact, it forms them. Bifurcating the living room from the kitchen, for example, is a stairway made from folded steel. The floors are concrete, which helps the home hold its thermal mass. The kitchen counter is made from plastic laminate and the cupboards are made of plywood, while the upstairs bedroom counter from poured concrete. Doors and other surfaces are often cast in bold primary colors that give the industrial feel of the concrete and steel a nice touch of whimsy.
Stern's design also creates a nice balance between loft-like openness and closed-door intimacy. Like a loft, the house places a bedroom above the kitchen but keeps the living room double-height. The bedroom looks down like a balcony onto the living area, but instead of keeping the bedroom open, Stern placed an interior window there as well as a pocket door at the top of the adjacent stairway.
As a result, the bedroom receives the natural light pouring into the living room, but a greater sense of privacy. When I stood at the top of the stairs beside the bedroom, I could literally hear my speaking voice create two sets of acoustic conditions, carrying almost echo-like into the living area below but resonating warmly in the bedroom. I've often wondered how two people living in a loft could live with having a bedroom share acoustics with a living room. This solution finds a yin-yang of privacy and light: like much of the house, it's the best of both worlds.