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Jackson Hole SIP Home

In Wyoming, an updated version of an old farmhouse adds up to an affordable home for a young family.

Fine Home Building Annual Houses Issue• June 2002
The following article appeared in 147 Fine Homebuilding magazine, Spring/Summer 2002 Annual Issue on Houses, pp. 106-10. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2002 by The Taunton Press, Inc.
Article by: Paul Duncker

If you want to work in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, you might end up living in Idaho. That's because houses are a lot more affordable just over the pass in Victor, 24 miles away. But that can be a harrowing 24 miles, especially on a winter night. My wife, Peggy, and I made the drive one day to go house-hunting, and on the way back to our rental house in Jackson, she said she'd rather move back to New York City than make that drive every day.

So we concentrated on finding the nearly impossible: an affordable building site in Wilson, a little town a few miles west of Jackson Hole. Wilson is a quirky mix of old-time ranchers, former hippies turned business- people and every variety of mountain junkies from well-heeled trust-funders to dishwashers with three jobs and six roommates. It's the kind of place I've always wanted to call home.

Our dream of a sloping site on a wooded hill with streams and wildflowers turned out to be just that: a dream. After a quick reality check, we set our sights on the valley floor, where a new subdivision was being carved out of an old hay field. There were lots more buyers than lots, so we put our name in the lottery hat and were lucky enough to draw a good number. To be honest, we would have been happy with any patch of dirt that the bank would underwrite, but we ended up with a great corner lot that others had passed over because it was on a corner. Some saw it as a drawback because of the extra exposure to the street. We saw it as an asset that would let us put the house up front and set the garage to the side.

A new angle on an old house

We started with a tight budget and a rough image: a simple farmhouse like the ones that used to be common in this valley. We want- ed the house to have a metal roof, a deep porch to escape the summer sun and a crackling fireplace to combat the winter chill. This image led us to a two-story gabled structure with bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs; and below. A shed-roofed living/ dining room abuts the rear of the house.

Fine Home Building

Our public living /dining room is wide open to the outdoors and to the neighborhood. We can drink in the last rays of the setting sun through the large west-facing windows, and our friends can wave to us while we sit at the table as they cross-country ski along the adjacent bike path.

A generous porch wraps around the two most public faces of the house. The porch tapers along the west side of the house, resulting in a distinctively angled roofline. Midway, the porch roof covers a bump-out that penetrates the house's wall near the kitchen. Made of insulated concrete block, this bump-out contains the mudroom and is part of a long, narrow concrete block enclosure that emerges on both sides of the building. Using the exposed concrete blocks, which support the stair landing on the east side of the house, helps to tie the house to the tradition of local agricultural buildings.

The corner-lot advantage. Both house and garage are close to the street, which is a real advantage in a snowy climate. Photo left taken at A on floor plan. Sheds, gables, an angled chimney and a compound slope on the porch roof energize the western elevation.

Cohesive color and texture. On the east side, the landing to the second floor sits atop a split-faced concrete-block cube. The gray board-and-batten siding above the blocks and the steely corrugated roofing (see sources) create a subtle palette of related colors and textures. Photo taken at C on floor plan.

A house built like a beer cooler

The roof and walls of our house are made of structural insulated panels (SIPs), which are close cousins to the stuff that keeps drinks cold in a picnic cooler and warm in a foam coffee cup. The panels (see sources) that we used are 10 1/2" thick on the roof, for an R-40 rating, and the walls are 6 1/2 in. thick (R-26). Each panel is made up of an expanded-polystyrene core sandwiched between layers of 1/2-in. thick structural skins of oriented strand board (see photo below). SIPs made of OSB go up ASAP. Structural insulated panels (expanded-polystyrene foam insulation sandwiched between two layers of oriented strand board) makes for a tight, highly insulated house shell. As they are assembled, the panels are glued together into a single unit.

In addition to the high insulating value of SIPs, the fact that every exterior wall has structural sheathing on both sides is in our favor. heavy snow loads and an active earthquake zone have combined to make for some tough code requirements around here. The SIPs easily meet or exceed them. Furthermore, once the panels come off the truck, they can be assembled in a fraction of the time required to stick-frame a comparable building. Our house went from subfloor to completed roof in nine days with a crew of four. Cedar clapboards (barn red, of course) give the newfangled walls an old-fashioned look.

Concrete floors warmed by the earth

Inside the house, rural imagery gives way to contemporary detailing. We wanted honest materials, exposed hardware and connections, and durable finishes -- important when half of the occupants of the house are 8-year-old Alexandra and 11-year-old Christopher. Soccer balls, skateboards, books, Legos, and cat toys seem to make up roughly half of the mass of our house. With this in mind, we chose an indestructible concrete-slab floor for the downstairs. It is finished with two coats of boiled linseed oil and is heated by way of hot water running through polyethylene tubing embedded in the slab.

To heat the water, we chose a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This technology allows us to extract heat from the ground using only the amount of electricity needed by the pumps and compressor (for more on geothermal heat pumps, see FHB #133, p. 104). Warm floors are a wonderful way to heat a house, and we would choose this solution again in a heartbeat. We would, however, make an important change in the location of the geothermal heat pump ("Feedback"). Some bedrooms are still evolving.

The upstairs bedrooms are small but comfortable, with a master suite on the north side and one large room for the kids on the south. The kids' room currently has two doors into it, and the room has no closet. The plan is to build a long wall of cabinetry to divide the room into two and to incorporate built-in closets and desks.

Until the day that the Britney Spears half of the room has to be acoustically separated from the Jimi Hendrix half, the kids like each other's company. And just in case you're wondering: Yes, the house is named after our favorite Jimi Hendrix song.

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