Enchanted Homes

Four Ski Valley homes raise the bar for sustainable living

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Taos’ signature “Passive Solar” design long ago melded into the broader rubric of “green building.” Building technology continues to evolve in pace with the mounting concern over carbon footprint and climate change.

Here we look at four high-performance homes in Taos Ski Valley.

All were built by Jed Magee – two of them designed by Jonah Stanford of Needbase Inc. in Santa Fe, one by Doug Patterson of Living Design Group in Taos, and one by Balance Architects-Method Homes in Seattle, Washington. All address, in different ways, the rigorous 10,000 foot climate and the insane challenges posed by tiny building sites on steep, granite slopes.

The first of these homes, sited along the return trail upstream of the Beaver Pond, is a 4,000 square foot pre-fab structure that traveled 1,500 miles in seven modules on six semi-trucks – a daunting logistics challenge! Jed Magee and his team had already done the site work, including 350 feet of 15’ high concrete walls, imprinted with a rough-sawn wood texture, that provides a downstairs garage, ski locker room, game room, mechanical and storage space. The catch: the concrete walls with their 16 corners had to be perfectly square and calculated to precisely accept the seven modules.

Excitement (and stress levels) mounted as installation day approached. While the caravan of mods rolled up the canyon under State Police supervision, a 240-ton crane with a 96-foot boom finished its journey from Denver and positioned itself to hoist the 28,000 pound modules onto the concrete base. The semis carrying the modules were so heavy that Magee’s sub-contractor, Dominic Duran, had to hitch up his front-end loader and help tow the rigs up the mountain. A sizeable crowd watched all afternoon as the seven modules clicked into place - yes! - without a glitch. (Amazingly, the mods arrived complete with all the finishes including cabinets, tile and bathroom fixtures.)

Next up was the striking “9K” Passive house, designed by Jonah Stanford, a leading exponent of Passive House design. This system, originally developed by a German physicist, fundamentally relies on super-insulation and a continuous, air-tight thermal envelope – minimal heat can escape, and no cold air can sneak in. In most cases this entails double-framed walls and roof systems, top-quality triple-glazed windows, and the deployment of high-tech vapor barriers.

R-values in Passive homes are commonly three to four times greater than code requires, resulting in heating loads so minimal that occupant body heat is a significant part of the calculation! The buildings are so tight that an ERV (energy recovery ventilator) is needed to exhaust stale air from kitchen and baths and continuously replace it with fresh air – with no heat loss due to its heat exchanger. In this case, a blower test upon completion achieved a near-perfect .57 air changes per hour, one of the highest ever recorded at this elevation.

At 2,400 square feet, “9K” is remarkable for its verticality, its gorgeous interior volume, and the spare façade achieved by the dominant ribbed wood finish and walls of slate reclaimed from the 1860 Silverton County Courthouse. Yet it is, after all, a ski home: it sports a hot tub and detached sauna, it sleeps 12, and it has direct access to the return trail.

Farther up the mountain is the 3,450 square foot McAlister home, designed by Doug Patterson and built by Jed Magee in collaboration with the owner, who himself is a contractor in Oklahoma City. The charcoal cedar plank exterior is consistent with contemporary trends, while inside you’ll find a classic ski lodge that sleeps 12 with three bedrooms, multiple-bunk spaces, bathrooms around every corner, and a classic alpine great room with kitchen, dining area and living space.

The ground level is built into the hillside using insulated concrete forms (ICF’s) to retain the slope while the two upper levels employ SIPs (structural insulated panels) fabricated offsite and lifted into place by a crane. The roof is also built from SIPs, whose primary advantage is an unbroken internal foam core that provides very high insulation, minimal air infiltration, and quick installation time.   

Back at the return trail, “10K” is just entering the finishing stages. Designed by Jonah Stanford, it was built in collaboration with Collective Carpentry out of Invermere, B.C. in a partially pre-fab package.The accompanying photos illustrate key elements of Passive house design applied to the demanding TSV building conditions: double exterior walls, meticulously wrapped with a high-tech air barrier; triple-pane windows and doors; a double membrane of waterproofing and geotextile fabric protecting the insulated concrete stem walls; and the impressive bundle of 4” tubing connecting the inlet and exhaust vents of the Zehnder ERV.

Because the house has two stories with a mid-level entrance, “10K” appears small from the roadside. But it’s actually 3,000 square feet, sleeps 10, and includes a large deck overlooking the creek alongside the return trail. The house is scheduled for completion in time for the holiday ski season.

Jed Magee is the principal of Magee Design Works and is a designer in his own right - but he’s a team player, happy to build designs by other professionals and broaden his skill set. He adds his kudos and thanks to all who contributed to these projects.

Vishu Magee has designed homes in Taos since 1973 and may be reached at vishu@vishumagee.com

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