Between a River and a Road
Architect Tom Lenchek creates an energy-smart contemporary home fit for its spectacular Montana setting
On a narrow bit of land between Montana’s Gallatin River and the highway to Big Sky, a contemporary home rises from the rugged landscape. Made of concrete, steel and glass, the 4,200-square-foot structure takes its cue from its surroundings: the drama of mountains, river and sky.
Architect Tom Lenchek and his team at Seattle-based Balance Associates, Architects, and homeowners Mike and Andrea Scholz recognized in the challenging site an opportunity to heighten their experience of Montana’s Big Sky country. And so they set about designing a structure with strong ties to the environment, not just in terms of its form but its function as well.
MOUNTAIN LIVING: How did the narrow site influence your design for this home?
Tom Lenchek: The house sits between a busy highway and the Gallatin River. Our goal was to capture specific views of the river and orient the house toward the sun, while shielding it from the busy highway. The solution was an angled shape.
ML: Did the home’s surroundings also inspire the materials palette?
TL: The setting is so dramatic that the house doesn’t need to do much. We wanted something robust-looking sitting in the rough landscape, and I like the mix of rough and sophisticated: concrete and steel with glass and wood. Our main goal was to connect the building to the environment by using the same materials for the interior and exterior. The concrete floor easily extends from the interiors to the outdoors, as does the wood ceiling. The structure dictated other interior finishes, such as the fir windows, as well.
ML: For all its beauty, Montana’s climate can be harsh. Did that present any design challenges?
TL: Yes. The Intermountain West is very cold in winter and warm in summer, and from July to September there are wildfires to contend with. So it’s very important to use building materials that aren’t going to burn, like concrete and metal.
ML: How does the structure accommodate both the warm summers and cold winters?
TL: The structure has a south-facing view and receives lots of sunlight, so we created deep roof overhangs that keep the high summer sun out of the house. In winter, when the sun is lower, it comes into the house and heats the concrete floor, which absorbs and stores that warmth. At night, the concrete gives up that heat, warming the space.
Mike Scholz: We knew we wouldn’t have air conditioning, so we added clerestory windows, which provide cross-ventilation and evacuate the heat in the summer.
ML: Tell us about those great floor-to-ceiling windows.
MS: We wanted the house to feel very connected to the outdoors, and we always pictured tremendous amounts of glass.
TL: We knew we wanted large expanses of glass, but we had to take into consideration snow loads, as well as the fact that this house is situated on an earthquake fault line. The solution was a steel structure—but that created another challenge: Steel transfers cold. To eliminate that “thermal bridging,” or heat loss, between the interior and exterior, we created two separate supporting steel structures, one inside and one outside.
ML: But do the large windows contribute to heat loss?
TL: Really high-quality windows that have a good seal don’t leak cold. We chose windows with a high-performance glazing and an R-value that’s double that of a normal double-paned sliding-glass door. The windows, in combination with radiant in-floor heating, eliminate the big temperature differentials that cause drafts, so the interiors maintain a comfortable, even temperature.
ML: In addition to capturing energy from the sun, you’re also extracting it from the ground via a ground-source heat pump. How does that work?
MS: Several wells draw water up from underground. Heat is drawn out of the water and exchanged into glycol, which runs through a system of tubes positioned beneath the floors, providing radiant heat. Meanwhile, the water is pumped back into the ground. The system allows us to heat our house for 25 percent of the cost of heating a house of the same size with a conventional forced-air heating system.
TL: The system is nearly twice as efficient as an air-source heat pump, which is already more efficient than a forced-air system. It’s a real benefit during Montana’s long heating season.
ML: The house has an interesting water-collection system. What drove the design?
TL: In snow country, it’s best to manage snow on the ground rather than on the roof. Snow management drove the trough-like design of the home’s “gutters,” which are positioned on the ground and collect water as it falls from the roof. The water is then redirected around the house and dispersed into the ground.
MS: The roof has a low slope so that water falls off easily. In the parking area, it falls onto concrete pads; grass planted in between the pads absorbs the water, reducing runoff and slippery conditions.
ML: Why was creating a sustainable design so important to you?
MS: Given our country’s energy challenges, sustainable design seems to be the right thing to do. And technology—as well as tax incentives—makes it economically feasible.
ARCHITECTURE Tom Lenchek, Balance Architects Associates, Seattle, WA, 206-322-7737, balanceassociates.com BUILDER Robert Naert Construction, Gallatin Gateway, MT, 406-763-5729 INTERIOR DESIGN Donna Venick, Summit Interiors, Los Angeles, CA, 310-475-6353 DOORS & WINDOWS Daniel Poschl, Austrian Style Woodwork, Falkland, B.C., 250-379-2161, austrianstylewoodwork.com CABINETRY Rick Zaik, Centermark Industries, Belgrade, MT, 406-388-3347 LIVING ROOM SEATING Crate & Barrel, crateandbarrel.com BRONZE SCULPTURE “Frolic” by Linda S. Raynolds, Visions West Gallery, Livingston, MT, visionswestgallery.com DINING ROOM SOLID FIR TABLE Big Timberworks, Gallatin Gateway, MT, 406-763-4639, bigtimberworks.com/specialties/timberwork CHAIRS Folio Ebony Leather Side Chair, Crate & Barrel, crateandbarrel.com STEEL SCULPTURE “Ball of Squares” by Frank Donahue, Visions West Gallery, Livingston, MT, visionswestgallery.com BEDROOM OIL PAINTING Ralph Wiegman, Visions West Gallery, Livingston, MT, visionswestgallery.com ALPACA THROW Two-sided alpaca throw, Rosemary Hallgarten, Westport, CT, rosemaryhallgarten.com BATHROOM BIRD SCULPTURES White Bisque Birds by Sue Tirrell, Visions West Gallery, Livingston, MT, visionswestgallery.com