Nature by Design

To settle in Park City, Utah is to celebrate nature in large measure. Some residents take that to heart more than others.  Built in 2010 by Kevin and Svetlana O’Meara, the Sungazing House was designed and constructed to honor the power, energy and movement of the sun.  The 3,700 square foot home, intimate by Park City standards, perches on the south slope of the Wasatch Mountains above Snyderville Basin.  Consciously designed for energy efficiency and sustainability, the home is likely the first Platinum LEED certified residence constructed in the state of Utah. As important, it follows the principles of the Passive House movement, with energy efficiencies in all systems including the added efficiencies of an airtight structure.  “The house is kind of like architecture meets eco-warrior,” says owner Kevin O’Meara.

Designed by architect Jean-Yves Lacroix as two rectangular structures connected by a three story tower, Sungazing House invites the outside in. Mountain views dominate the landscape from every window and deck. Solar panels atop the roof harness the sun’s energy and power the house.

house, arch rendering

O'Meara Residence, Architectural rendering

floor plans

With the knowledge that it is 3 times more cost effective to conserve rather than create energy, the O’Meara’s set out to build the most energy efficient home possible. Research led them to the PassivHaus movement, which originated in Germany.  The PassiveHaus building principles include airtight construction, super insulation and high performance windows. House built to the PassiveHaus standard uses only 5% of the energy of a conventionally built house. Currently there are 2500 passive homes built to PassiveHaus standards in Europe but less than 20 in the United States. PassiveHaus principles have been adapted to modest and low income housing.

Sungazing House’s additional energy efficiencies include Structural Insulation Panels (SIP), which were used for wall insulation and help meet the stringent airtight requirements of PassiveHaus design.  Quadruple pane windows surround the structure.

The residence is an interactive solar house. Blinds and windows are synched with thermostats to open and close to automatically control indoor temperatures. Two 5,000 gallon underground water tanks are situated behind the house to store heat energy. Heat recovery drains which have no moving parts and pay for themselves in five year’s time, reclaim the heat from  drain water to preheat shower water.

The Sungazing House’s square footage is realized more in the common areas rather than separate rooms. The floor plan is spacious yet spaces are intimate.  With 3 bedrooms plus master bedroom wing, 4 baths, a cozy, but state of the art media room, playroom,  spectacular mountain-gazing kitchen and companion great room, the design flow is spectacular. A 3rd level den/office space is a bonus of the connecting tower design. In the playroom, whimsical cubby holes painted in rich copper color with inset LED lights punctuate wall space for necessary display and storage areas.

“We wanted to blend energy efficiency with architecture that was molded by the landscape and the sun,” says O’Meara.  “Finding the way has been like exploring a vast system of canyons without the benefit of maps.  We remained open to all possibilities, did our research and assembled a remarkable team of construction partners. We believe we have the most energy efficient home possible that also celebrates the sun and nature by design.”

From Legos to Lacroix

After finding the sweet spot of land, the decision to build Sungazing House became more complex.  The O’Meara’s looked at plenty of house plans in books and online, but couldn’t find any to meet both their functional desire and aesthetic taste.  The logical decision was to design it themselves. Next came libraries and bookstores, friends, and a borrowed collection of many years worth of magazines. The more they studied, the more they realized the tremendous passive solar potential for the home. They wanted a “smart house”.  One that would let the natural elements dictate the design. They started modeling houses with Legos, then advanced to Google’s “Sketch Up”, and finally jumped into architectural software.

Then “smart” really kicked in.  It was time for a real architect.

Enter architect Jean-Yves Lacroix, renowned for his luxurious, exclusive properties designed near Park City ski areas.  Lacroix embraced the concept and ideals of Sungazing House, but had yet to be presented with an opportunity to design such a home.

To map the most favorable location for the house on the site, a composite image made from a Google Earth satellite image with a topographic overlay was created.  The method allowed for a driveway that was compliant with multiple Summit County regulations, while minimizing the impact to the scrub oak trees. Prevailing wind direction to decrease snow drifts and maximize sun exposure for snow melt was accommodated.  Sun angles and simplicity drove the design process.

The roof design uses solar tables to allow the sun in to hit the back wall of the house at noon on winter solstice, while keeping the interior of the house shaded during the summer months. To change the design from an aesthetically undesirable long straight house, the two pods had been slightly angled to create architectural interest. Lacroix’s solution to join roof angles was to create a 3 story tower to join the two pods. It is dramatic, solved the roof puzzle, and added a small bonus “Eagle’s Nest” office nook as a third level. The tower was also designed to allow excess heat to rise up and out of the house via a ceiling fan and windows on all sides, as is done in the desert southwest.

Promotional pricing was offered by many material manufacturers if the house was built for green or energy efficient certification. Many programs demanded rigorous energy efficiency to achieve the highest levels, and in their research, the O’Meara’s realized that they had already accommodated many of the certification requirements. It is believed the home will be Utah’s first LEED platinum/ NAHB Green Build Emerald certified residence.

Make it Happen

Finally the decision had to be made who was going to build the house. The couple had considered trying to do a lot of the work ourselves, as Kevin had some experience building and remodeling. However, since the couple both work full time and they have growing kids that need attention too, the "smart" way wins again. The O'Meara's started interviewing general contractors. They talked to nearly a dozen contractors, each of one of them are similar by their strong professional records and strong portfolios of homes that they had built. Typically, with that much competition and with the slowdown just getting started, you would put the contract up for bid. However, creating a bid is a lot of work, even more so, since nobody had experience with some of the construction materials and techniques that were already in the plan. Garret Strong, the owner of Tall Pines Construction, won the O’Meara’s’ minds and hearts with his intelligence, diplomatic approach and enthusiasm.

Garrett Strong, and his company, Tall Pines Construction, have been an absolute delight to work with.  He has brought ideas to the project that have enhanced it both functionally and aesthetically.