CATEGORY: PORT TOWNSEND
PHOTOS: 1) VIEW FROM SITE
2) WOJT HOUSE ENTRANCE
5&6) DRAWINGS OF CAVE
If there was any view in Port Townsend that was more beautiful than the view of the Cascade Mountains across Port Townsend Bay, it was the view of the Olympic Mountains from Hastings Avenue. There was one corner, the corner of Hastings and Ivy, that was especially magical. The foreground was an extensive field with a gentle slope down to a large pond. Beyond the pond, the land rose up to woods that blended into blue and purple foothills snuggled against the multiple snow capped peaks of the Olympics. At times I would stop at that corner just to absorb the marvel of it.
In 1979 Richard and Kay Wojt (pronounced Voit) asked me to design an energy efficient house for them. Until then, I had only done remodelings, but one of those had also involved building a large, energy efficient addition, and they had seen an article written about it in the paper. They had purchased seven acres near Port Townsend and took me out to see it. Imagine my incredulity when I discovered that their site was my favorite view corner. It was a part of the field and all of the pond on the corner of Hastings and Ivy. Richard, who was a mountain climber, motioned to the unsurpassable view with a sweep of his arm and said, “I have been on the top of every one of those peaks.” This was indeed a special assignment.
At first, I disliked thinking of a house there. On another corner on Hastings beyond this one, where the view was almost as wondrous, someone had built a big two story house and it seemed to dominate the site in a blatantly obtrusive way. I determined to impact the site as little as possible and immediately thought of underground houses, newly being called “earth sheltered,” and being promoted by a New England architect, Malcolm Wells. I thought earth sheltering would be a good solution, combined with passive solar heating for which the site was ideal. Both were new concepts in architecture at that time. The earth, which maintains a constant temperature of about 52°, is a modifying influence both in summer and winter. The view and slope were southwesterly, which in that area was better for solar collection than due south because of the prevalence of morning fog. The Wojt’s eagerly agreed with my ideas.
Also the slope had just the right drop, so the house could be tucked into the hillside and the view windows provide passive solar heating. The soil that came from the excavation could be used to load the roof, and there would be enough left over for mounds between the house and the road, rendering the house almost invisible. I designed the front entry to look like a Hobbit house with an arched glu-lam clear to the ground over a recessed doorway. The entry pathway curved down between mounds.
When the front door was opened, it would be a surprise to look through the house and out at the view.
The Wojts had requested a wood burning stove in their want list. I liked to make special places for stoves or fireplaces. I was an aficionado of inglenooks: a cozy place to sit around a fire, usually with a lowered ceiling and built-in seating. In Eugene I had seen a house designed by a local architect that had a concrete vault in the living room. The vault was long and narrow, had upholstered benches along the sides and a stove at the far end. It functioned as a heat storing device. The long, narrow shape didn’t seem very inviting, and the benches looked uncomfortable, but I loved the basic idea.
I remembered it and thought, “What could be more fitting for an earth sheltered house than a cave?” so I designed a free standing ferro-cement cave as a combination inglenook and solar collector. It was basically an 11 ft. wide half-circle/half-dome that backed up to the house entrance which was four feet higher than the living room. Its open side faced the living room and the main view windows which were in a bay with a window seat beneath and sky glass above. The cave’s entire floor was a foot high raised hearth. The view from the entry was over the top of the cave and out to the mountains. There were steps descending to the lower level around both sides of the cave.
The stove we chose was a big, round Hobbit looking stove. Its body was a cement globe with a covering of tiny gray tiles, and it had a glass door. The stove was at one side of the cave and a big floor sofa swept around the rest of the curve with recessed lighting above it built into the cave wall for its full length. At that time, the really “cool” architects in the country, like Donlyn Lyndon and Charles Moore, often used floor pads on raised floors instead of sofas, because the “young” thing to do was to sprawl instead of sit. I endorsed that idea. The only thing that would be more cave-like than sprawling around a fire would be chewing on bones.
To further emphasize the cave atmosphere, I designed its exterior surface to resemble a huge boulder with tree roots growing over it; the flue was the tree’s decaying trunk. Openings through the roots made peep holes into the cave’s interior. I wanted a mosaic of varying sized flat pebbles in the indentations beside the roots: it would be restrained but artful. I started collecting flat river rocks from the upper Dungeness River, thinking I would do this myself. I wanted it done on the inside of the cave as well, tucking pebbles around the lighting flange and streaming them off the root openings.
I was influenced in this endeavor by one of my favorite designers, James Hubbel. I had seen photographs of his mountain top house in California. It was a small, meat pie shaped, sand colored plaster structure with blue, lavender and turquoise tile mosaics on the slightly domed, but curb-edged, roof and in the places where rain water flowed down the walls. I visualized the pebbles on the cave having a similar effect.
The cave’s solar collector function was that its concrete mass would be a heat sink. The sun through the southwest glass, plus the stove, would heat the cave’s concrete during the day and release it in the evening when it would be most used. If the rest of the house cooled at sundown, this cozy nook would remain warm.
The building of this house was a revelation to me about the efficacy of concrete for storing heat. The sun facing walls of both the upper and lower levels and all the floors were concrete, and all of it was insulated on the outside. Construction started in March when it was still cold. It even snowed before the house was enclosed. As soon as the concrete was unsheathed and the framing started, the workers reported that every morning when they came to work the whole area was warm and would remain so all day. Even the garage had a concrete back wall and south windows and always stayed warm.
We used active as well as passive solar heating. The active part consisted of a solar collector to heat the water for a hot tub which served as a heat exchanger between a pressurized and a non pressurized system. The back-up heating system was an ordinary electric water heater. Solaroll coils for warm water in the floors were part of the pressurized system. The stove also heated water for the floor via copper pipe wound tightly around the stove pipe. Richard did this himself.
We had planned to load the roof with 18”of soil. The load on the roof had to be calculated as if it were water, because the soil might be fully saturated during wet weather. At the outside edges of the cave opening were two peeled ten inch support poles. The concrete of the cave curled organically around them without the concrete touching the wood. These poles were to support a slightly cambered glu-lam across the whole cave and its adjoining stairways. Under the floor beneath them the engineer specified huge footings–4’ sq. x 2’ deep. The poles were fastened to the glu-lam at the top with heavy iron connectors anticipating that, when the roof was loaded, the camber would flatten and the two poles would support the whole central section of the roof. Richard loaded the roof himself and decided to use only 10” of soil. Those posts have NEVER touched the floor.
Those footings are still sitting there—–waiting—–waiting——WAITING.