Passive House Design in Colorado

Bathed in sunlight during most of the year and resilient to harsh winters, this cozy guesthouse stands amid a ponderosa pine mountain forest in Colorado. Its overall form takes in the surrounding peaks and pines, while at the very core of its design is the intention to minimize environmental impact – both in terms of its energy consumption and the materials used.

In bringing this guesthouse to life, architect Andrew Michler has followed requirements set out by Passive House Institute in Germany: the leading research institution for energy-efficient building.

Passive house design creates comfortable spaces which need little energy for their heating, cooling or ventilation. This is done through a variety of ways such as maximizing insulation, creating an airtight building envelope, and making the most of solar energy, to name a few.

The guesthouse is fully powered by solar-panels and most of its heating comes from the sun’s warmth entering through triple-pane windows, which are mostly found on the south-facing side of the house. With the house receiving an average of 300 sunny days a year this is a well-suited choice of energy source, so much so that even when winter brings an outdoor temperature of -10°F (-12°C) the small back-up hydronic heating system is needed only sparingly.

As well as saving energy, these windows frame the idyllic views all around, as you can see!

From drawing board to realization, the project has used materials following a cradle-to-cradle approach as much as reasonably possible. This means that come the end of its lifespan generations later, the majority of the building’s constituent parts can either be fully digested by the forest or recycled and reused elsewhere. The use of petroleum-based materials is kept at a bare minimum for this reason and no foam is used. Instead, the wall-cavities are filled with locally-sourced cellulose coupled with fire-resilient mineral wool on either side — important in this region prone to wildfire.

With surroundings like this you would be especially conscious of your impact on the natural environment.

Inside the home is an equipped kitchen and living room space, focusing on sustainably sourced materials.

The use of the wood grain to create different shapes in the wall and stairs is a lovely use of its natural pattern. The stairs provide storage too!

The furniture is light and simple so that although here it’s laid out for everyday use, come a big get-together or time for indoor games everything can be pushed to the side, rearranged, or stored away in the workshop. With the simple, breezy feel to the decor we feel closer to the outdoors.

The lower level of this 1200 square foot (365.76m²) building is open-plan, enabling air flow for greater temperature control and air quality as well as making it easy to adapt the space to various uses.

Soft neutral colors make it easy to feel further connected to nature.

Smooth and spacious with a sunken shower, this bathroom has been built for easy access and use for varying levels of mobility. The non-potable water of the house comes from the 1500 gallon (5678 liter) holding tank fed with rainwater from the roof, which in turn is heated by a solar-powered heater before entering the house. The wooden towel-peg plinth provides a nice link with the ceiling, while serving a practical purpose and taking up minimal space.

The bathroom and kitchen are also found on the ground floor, perfect for catering to elderly relatives who may no longer sprint up the stairs like they used to!

Linking the lower level to upstairs is the net bed, a favorite spot for every child who comes to visit. Not only is this a fun, inventive use of space but the opening between the two levels lets them share light, warmth and circulating fresh air.

Taking us to the upper level is this great staircase with built in shelves and boxes. Some of the boxes can even be pulled out for use as small tables for parties.

The building’s wedge-shape is informed by the peaks of the surrounding hogback mountains and is in keeping with Passive House design, meaning that it is compact and leaves no space for pockets of cold or hot air. The shape is also just right for catching the most of the sun.

The beams supporting the porch are a lovely touch, complementing the nearby pines.

It’s been fascinating taking a tour of this guesthouse and learning more about Passive House design. There’s so much more to learn about the low-impact techniques and materials used, and I hope this has piqued your interest to find out more. What’s more, the aesthetics are light and simple, emphasizing the natural beauty of the building’s location and cherishing a holiday atmosphere.

Project: MARTaK Rest/Work Space

Design: Andrew Michler

Photo credit: Andrew Michler