HomeLink Magazine Summer 2017: Dowski Residence

What Time Will Tell
The Dowski Residence, built for longevity
By: Scott Conner
Photos: Tim Stone Photo

It took more than 25 years of traveling to the Yampa Valley for Ed Dowski to find, “the right place” to build a home. He looked for a combination of views, solar access, interesting topography and a general feel that made him comfortable. Then it took five more to carefully design and finally build the house he calls Blacktail Ridge, or BTR. The goal was to construct a house that will continue to be architecturally relevant and comfortable for 200 or 300 years, a pretty tall order for architect Tim Stone of Kelly & Stone Architects, Inc.

Ed described how he and the team at KS|a spent many hours discussing and philosophizing about how the house should feel. How it should evoke all of the senses and how size, smell, orientation, color, light and sound should all interplay to create an emotional and physical sense of place. They agreed the house should be bigger than any one person or family, and have a special relationship with the land and should age with dignity. These are interesting ideas, and if the house is going to be here for 300 years, they needed to get them right.

Before I toured the house, I saw the construction documents and was struck, not just by the architecture, but by the level of detail included in the documents. The drawings were clearly defining a project envisioned with extraordinary thought and care. 

The construction documents were developed utilizing Building Information Modeling (BIM) software and then shared with Spearhead, a timber fabrication company located in Nelson, British Columbia. Spearhead used the highly accurate drawings to directly drive their Computer Numerically Controlled milling machines as they fabricated and assembled the wood and steel structural components.  This process created joinery that is both beautiful and incredibly precise. The main bones of the structure are large Douglas fir posts and beams, intertwined with powder coated steel beams, tensile steel rods and custom clevises which all form structural elements inside and outside the house.

Bob Childers of CCH, Inc. was awarded the task of transforming the home from a set of ideas on paper to a beautiful, habitable structure and did an excellent job. “It was a fantastic project. The process with Spearhead required several iterations of shop drawings but the end product is of unbelievable quality. You can’t slide a credit card into the joints, that’s how perfect they are,” said Childers.  

Designing for longevity often means you strive for simplicity. To that end, Ed has avoided overly complicated lighting control schemes and elaborate building automation systems. Supplying 50 percent of the heat in the house is the simplest of all systems, a very large wood-fired masonry heater that is lit once or twice a day during the heating season. BTR lies within the Steamboat Springs air shed and therefore the heater must meet EPA requirements for air emissions. Masonry heaters are notable because they burn hot, quick and relatively cleanly. In the Dowski residence, the heat is captured by nearly 12,000 pounds of concrete and stone surrounding the firebox and then re-radiates back to the room for hours. Standing dead aspens are harvested from the property and burned in the heater, so no additional fuel is used getting the wood to the site.

Homebuilder Childers enjoyed building the masonry heater but noted it didn’t work quite right once installed,  “We spent two weeks building fires in the stove and filling the house with smoke until we sent a camera down the chimney and found there was a small constriction in the last bit of flue. Once we got that cleared out, it worked great.”  Childers was a good fit for the project because he brought a level of construction quality and perseverance the project demanded.

The remaining mechanical system departs from the simplicity mantra, but it is highly efficient. The system is comprised of a ground source heat pump, nine solar thermal panels, a 95 percent efficient boiler and a labyrinth of heat exchangers, pumps, zone valves and piping. The ground-coupled heat pump picks up heat from three vertical wells adjacent to the driveway. During the summer when the capacity of the solar thermal collectors exceeds the needs of the house, the heat is pumped back into the wells and raises the ground temperature so it can be used when the heating season returns. Year over year monitoring of the ground loop temperature proves its efficacy. The heat pump, solar thermal panels and boiler feed in-floor radiant heat throughout the house. While the heat pump has the capacity to also cool in the summer, BTR does not require any mechanical cooling.

 Large overhangs shade the south and west facing glass which ensures the solar gain in the summer is kept to a minimum. Even with a significant amount of west facing glass, traditionally a sign the house will overheat late in the day, the triple pane windows do an excellent job rejecting the late day solar heat gain. The heat that does manage to get into the house during the summer is collected in the high ceilings and released through a set of windows designed for that purpose. 

At 3,600 square feet of living area, the house is bigger than average, but it performs quite well.  Totaling up the annual wood, propane and electricity used, the energy use intensity is 24 kBtus per square foot per year. The national average for all homes is about 55 and for homes in our climate zone is approximately 80. So the BTR home uses 70 percent less than the average in our area.

The views of the Yampa Valley from the rooftop deck are unsurpassed, and the deck itself is a green roof comprised of special soil, native plants, and Colorado Buff Sandstone pavers from Lyons, Colorado. What little water the plants require is collected from roof drains, stored in a cistern and then pumped through a subsurface irrigation system to water the plants during the summer. 

Colorado Buff is used throughout the landscaping for all outdoor patios and gathering spaces.  Native plants, grasses and trees fill in the space between patios and retaining walls. The stone used for the retaining walls, exterior building facade and interior fireplace was quarried near Telluride. Above the stone on the exterior, siding is fashioned out of reclaimed snow fence from Laramie, Wyoming. The weathered wood has been milled so it fits together nicely and looks like it has seen a few snow and wind storms characteristic of its heritage. The material used for the decking, a composite with recycled material blends well with the rest of the house.

Indirect LED lights are used throughout the house and cast a warm yellow glow over the beetle killed blue stain pine ceilings. Only five incandescent fixtures over the kitchen bar and a few fluorescent fixtures in the garage and mechanical room ensure the lighting is a tiny fraction of the energy use in this house.

So how well will Blacktail Ridge fare over the next 300 years? Only time will tell.

Sustainable Features:

Local Stone from Lyons and Telluride Colorado

Reclaimed snow fence for siding

Local beetle kill pine ceilings and paneling

Composite decking

Wood fired masonry stove - fired from on-site dead wood

2 Green roofs

Ground source heat pump

8 solar thermal water heaters

Rain water catchment for subsurface drip irrigation

Triple pane windows

99 percent LED lighting