Ruby House–Certified Passive House* in the Avenues Historic District

This is where it all started–right behind that big bush in the center of the picture.  It is a sliver of a lot by most American standards, about 40 feet wide by 130 feet long, sitting dormant form many decades between a heavenly-oriented Victorian to the east and a more modest, earth-hugging, working class bungalow to the west.  What kind of house would possibly be able to mediate between these two distant cousins, who had been silently and peaceably coexisting on the  hill above downtown Salt Lake City for so many years?  And even more to the point, since the houses themselves can’t talk, what kind of design was going pass through the gauntlet of the historic landmark review process, and neighborhood approval, while still maintaining the vision of the owners: a modern-style home with clean lines built to the Passive House Standard?

When I first visited the site and  noticed immediately that the narrow side of the lot faces south, it did not seem like the prospects for passive solar heating and cooling were very bright, let alone meeting the super-efficient Passive House requirements.  But the ensuing months were full of frenzied exploration of  different design options and strategies and time eventually revealed that it would be possible to capitalize on the three core constraints of the design: the narrow northward sloping lot, the neighborhood historical context, and the no-nonsense practical and sustainable vision of the owners.  If we could address each of these considerations in a thoughtful and meaningful way, then we would have what we were looking for….

The three simple and poetic volumes that evolved are really anything but simple in their relationship to each other, to the lot, and to the neighborhood.  But somehow the whole thing works.

The wood volume  houses the heart of the house: the cooking and dining spaces where the owners spend the majority of their waking hours–this space is special, with its 12′ tall ceilings, lots of high windows and natural light, and its easy-flowing relationship to the front porch and the private garden/patio off the back of the home.

The brick volume encapsulates the living room and is the most prominent appendage from an urban standpoint.  It has a commanding view of the front yard and the street, but is very intimate and enclosed with lower ceilings and access only from one corner of the room, which is adjacent to the dining and entry area, making it very much like the sitting rooms in older, more traditional homes.

The stucco volume–largest  and tallest– is set back farthest from the street and houses the other core functional spaces in the home: bedrooms, home office, bathrooms, mudroom and storage spaces, basement family room–all interconnected by a central open steel and wood stair that just narrowly slices through the center of the structure.  The crowning piece of the whole assemblage is the master bedroom, stepping back to north and opening up onto a roof deck over the living room with beautiful views of the Wasatch.

Each volume is clad in a different natural material in deference to the authentic and historic pallet of materials existing in the neighborhood. But of course historic reproduction was not the goal here, and the owners’ tastes and personalities. come forth in the details: Aluminum clad wood windows with metal sills which match perfectly the painted metal used on the roof eaves, the front porch railing and canopy, and also the roof and enclosure for the rear patio.  The wood cladding is a nod to the ubiquitous use of the material in the neighborhood, but the burgundy color and stainless steel exposed fasteners leave give it a very contemporary feel.  And although the generous front porch is an element shared by almost all traditional homes on the block, the concrete deck and steel guard rails place this Passive House squarely in the 21st century.

**This project has been submitted to the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) for certification but has not been formally certified yet.  I expect it to be the first certified PH in Salt Lake City, and the second in Utah.  To the best of my knowledge it will also be the first certified PH in a government-designated historic district anywhere in North America. You can see more pictures here.  Let me know what you think and please come see it in person at the open house on Saturday September 8th from 3 to 6 pm.






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