A Lookout Above: A Cozy, Solar-Powered Home in Oregon

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Photo By Susan Seubert
Most mornings begin with coffee in the middle-floor bed where Glenda and Dick can watch dawn light up the mountains and birds arrive at the feeder. Dick built the queen-size bed on a box with drawers for ten cubic feet of storage. The beams, floor, and wallboards are recycled wood. The built-in, multi-shelved headboard and window casings come from a local pine mill’s over-runs.

As a small girl, standing 75 feet aloft on a fire lookout tower, I told my dad that someday I would live in a house of similar design. That was in 1946. More than fifty years later, that intention has become a reality. My solar-powered, 1,000-square-foot home rises three stories into Central Oregon’s high desert, with windows and a catwalk deck wrapping the entire top floor to capture sweeping views of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains and the rugged cliffs of Deschutes River Canyon.

Off and on for six years, I lived in a funky little trailer under a juniper tree, getting to know my five acres in all seasons and conditions. During a snowy Thanksgiving weekend in 1998, my son Brent Alm, an architect in Vail, Colorado, created a model of my future home using a kitchen knife and cardboard retrieved from a Dumpster. All my life I’d been fascinated with the historic lookout towers built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, so I asked him to base it on the traditional, fourteen-foot square, Forest Service L-4 fire lookout. While I wanted a small footprint, that seemed a little too small for year-round living, so we bumped up the size to twenty square feet. We also added interior stairs so that all floors could be accessed without going outside, as temperatures at this 3,000-foot elevation can plunge to zero degrees in winter.

Making progress

Several builders rejected my project, scared off by the complexity of building a 35-foot-high structure on a 20-by-20 footprint, but a series of fortuitous events jump-started my progress. The engineering plans called for hefty posts and beams because of the house’s height and wind-prone location. I wanted to use recycled materials, and a local classified ad led me to a used-lumber broker. He suggested I talk to a local builder, Danny Richter, who works with old, reclaimed wood. When I saw Richter’s work, I knew I had found not only the wood I wanted, but the builder as well. Too busy to take on the complete project, but fascinated by the design, he agreed to frame the house and suggested that I–an inexperienced 60-year-old woman–act as general contractor to finish the project.

At his backyard mill, Richter had piles of Douglas fir posts, beams, and boards from the dismantled Oakland Naval Base, where my father had been stationed in 1942. We planed and sanded off navy-gray (undoubtedly lead-based) paint. As Richter shaved off inches of grime, beautiful wood emerged–rich with decades of nail holes and other signs of use. He sized timbers and laid out the radial of support beams, then transported them to the house site on his boom truck. Once at the site, it took some creativity to put together the system of spoked beams that supports the roof and cantilevers out to support the deck. Thankfully, Richter is very comfortable adjusting and creating as he goes.

I’m still amazed that this busy builder who had much bigger, more expensive homes to build agreed to frame my house. He probably made nothing–or perhaps lost money–on my job, and I’ll be forever indebted to him.

Thinking small

The challenge of making 850 square feet of living space functional (the stairways gobbled up 150 square feet) led to several space-efficient, multiple-use features. In the living room corners are four studio couches whose boxes, on glides, slide out to create additional sleeping spaces and a whopping 76 cubic feet of storage. In the bedroom, a queen-size plywood “box” is topped by three-quarter-inch plywood and a custom queen-size mattress. Deep drawers on the front provide additional dresser space, and cubicles on the back store shoes and boots. In the kitchen corner, an heirloom tabletop is supported by a cabinet that creates easily accessible storage for tall appliances and bowls.

Propane wall heaters (and a free-standing propane fireplace on the top floor) allow area heating as needed. An on-demand, propane water heater eliminates the need to store hot water, thereby reducing my energy bills.

Energy (and more) from the sun

My concern over fossil fuel’s effects on world politics and the environment spurred my research into alternative energy. My house plans already called for passive solar heating: The 30-inch roof overhang lets only early-morning and late-afternoon summer sun into the upper level, yet it accommodates the low, southern sun in winter. I thought it only natural to produce electricity with photovoltaic panels, so when Dick Kent opened a solar shop nearby in 1999, I was an eager customer.

I had many visits there with Dick, and he made many site visits, becoming an active construction participant in addition to installing the solar system. And here comes the unexpected addition to my dream: Dick and I discovered we shared the same passions in life. We became committed partners later that year.

Our eight 120-watt photovoltaic panels bring direct current to eight Trojan L-16 deep-cycle batteries. This battery bank gives a week of backup power. An Outback Power pure sine-wave inverter provides 120-volt alternating current for lights (all fluorescent) and home appliances and electronics. Managing phantom loads and practicing energy efficiency makes for a very comfortable lifestyle on less than two kilowatt hours per day!

Dick also solved my quandary and concern for those who can’t climb stairs. His years of living on a sailboat prompted him to design an electric bosun’s chair lift, with hatch doors on the mid and upper floors so that visitors can be safely winched up and down between floors.

A playful refuge

Dick and I both choose to live simply and close to the earth. The house is a delightful place for quiet contemplation and writing, as well as for good food and laughter with friends and family. On the deck we simmer wondrous meals in the sun oven, and we often pull the studio-couch futons outside for summertime sleeping under the stars. The natural vegetation–juniper, sagebrush, bitterbrush, and spring wildflowers–augmented with bird feeders, attracts many bird species and animals. Raptors soar up from the Deschutes River Canyon (300 yards to the west) and lift over the house as if it were just another old-growth juniper; they sometimes perch on the deck rails.

We believe that our culture tends to confuse quality and quantity. Our modest-size house should last well into the twenty-second century, and our solar electric system keeps more than a ton of pollutants out of the atmosphere each year.

This project, built at a cost of about $125 to $140 per square foot, was one of intention, innovation, and perseverance. I imagined these spaces and walked these floors in my mind hundreds of times before they became a reality. My determination to enjoy the process worked most of the time. To follow your dream is good advice, but first you must dare to dream.

What makes this home green?

  • A one-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array produces all the electricity for this off-the-grid house.
  • An under-stair battery bank stores a seven- to ten-day electrical backup.
  • 75 percent of the wood is recycled.
  • Windows are low-E glass with sustainably harvested pine frames.
  • Six-inch walls are well insulated with blown-in rock wool (recycled slag from a steel mill with volcanic-pumice rock and mineral oil) for sound and fire protection.
  • On-demand water heater means no hot water is stored.
  • There’s ample natural lighting; all electric lights are fluorescent.
  • Old classic radiators circulate water heated by solar collectors.
  • Recycled fixtures include doors, sinks, claw-foot bathtub, lighting fixtures, sound system.
  • Walls on the middle and top floors are made of red fir from Sonoma Valley pickling vats.
  • Bathroom wallboards are from a demolished Oregon warehouse.
  • Kitchen counters are old-growth Douglas fir milled from a log washed up on a Whidbey Island, Washington, beach.
  • Wheatboard forms the walk-in closet.
  • Six-inch custom futons on studio couches are filled with recycled, spun plastic jugs.
  • No- or low-VOC finishes are used throughout the house.
  • Native vegetation is maintenance and irrigation free. Native grasses in disturbed areas have been replanted.
  • Nearly three-foot overhang allows passive solar heating in winter and blocks most summer sun.
  • Operable windows allow natural convection ventilation in summer. A small evaporative cooler can be used on very hot days.
  • Space heaters warm specific areas when needed.
  • Appliances (refrigerator, freezer, washing machine) exceed Energy Star standards.