written by:
May 13, 2009
Originally published in Think Smaller

By creatively manipulating the angles and levels of exterior surfaces on this modest Polish country house, architect Peter Kuczia achieved exceptionally high solar exposure, increasing its capacity to gain energy from the sun.

The sun shines over the meadow on the backside of Kuczia’s carbon-saving creation, whose central atrium contains the living room. In summer, the glass doors open.
The sun shines over the meadow on the backside of Kuczia’s carbon-saving creation, whose central atrium contains the living room. In summer, the glass doors open.
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The main living area of the house is in the larch-wood-clad ground floor. The “black box”—–a three-story structure made from charcoal-colored fiber-cement panels—–contains another living room. The facade absorbs warmth from the sun, preventing heat loss i
The main living area of the house is in the larch-wood-clad ground floor. The “black box”—–a three-story structure made from charcoal-colored fiber-cement panels—–contains another living room. The facade absorbs warmth from the sun, preventing heat loss in winter; in warm weather, hot air escapes through the top window.
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The garden-ready rooftop can provide additional insulation and soundproofing.
The garden-ready rooftop can provide additional insulation and soundproofing.
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The sun shines over the meadow on the backside of Kuczia’s carbon-saving creation, whose central atrium contains the living room. In summer, the glass doors open.
The sun shines over the meadow on the backside of Kuczia’s carbon-saving creation, whose central atrium contains the living room. In summer, the glass doors open.
Kuczia Residence

Architect Peter Kuczia built his second home on the edge of Lake Laka in Poland on a site that weathers subzero winter winds and 90-degree summer heat. The house earned the nickname “chameleon” for its ability to adjust comfortably to the region’s extremes using advanced sustainable design.         

Kuczia’s carbon-saving getaway makes use of more than 180 tons of recycled construction material from the surrounding area and a modular facade made of untreated larchwood. It is strategically positioned to catch the sun and features a thermal recovery system—–self-regulating ventilation—–in order to gain efficiencies. All told, energy use at the house is about 25 kilowatt-hours per square meter annually (7.9 Btu per square foot), which for the 1,900-square-foot space averages out to between seven and ten times less than a traditional home.

Kuczia’s design demonstrates that efficiency and affordability don’t have to come at the expense of style. The place cost the same amount to build as a conventional house of the same size. The lake views and rear atrium add upscale touches to a sleek and graceful design. “I am not an ascetic, but I am definitely ecologically conscious,” the 40-year-old architect says. “I live in Germany, but my wife and I come from Poland and I am often there. I need a place where I can feel at home.”

Laka is a small lake in the rolling hills and farmland of the Silesian province, near the old town Pszczyna about a half hour from Katowice, the Upper Silesian state capital. “You can sail and windsurf here, and in good weather you can see the Beskidy mountains from the window of the house. It’s only a half hour from Szczyrk—–a good skiing region.”

Kuczia was born in Pszczyna, so he has a longtime attachment to the area. But it was later in life, while working on his graduate thesis, that he started thinking seriously about Lake Laka. His architectural project—–purely academic at that point—–was to design a solar-powered residential settlement by the lakeside. “Not so long ago I had the opportunity to purchase land at almost the same place. I could actually make my student’s dream into reality.”   

So it came to be—–the architectural concept leaping into Kuczia’s mind during a night drive between Germany and Poland. The development of the idea drew on his thesis as well as years of practical experience and research into reducing carbon emissions and building with local materials. He consulted with a scientist from a technical university in Silesia and got support from the German environmental foundation in Osnabrück, the northern German city where Kuczia is based. 

Viewed from above, the house is basically two long box-shaped structures with a wedge rising between them, forming a right triangle from the side. The interior of the triangle contains a loft and the exterior slope provides the main space for future solar panels that will make the house completely self-sufficient. “The roof at the top of the house is designed for photovoltaics. There are no parts that could cause shadows, no chimneys. That’s important. At the moment, I use a solar heater above the atrium for heating water. I’d say it heats about 30 to 40 percent in winter, and in summer, it’s 100 percent.”

The sun-catching glass atrium below acts as a winter garden but is open in summer. The orientation of the house on the property is specifically intended to keep 80 percent of the structure exposed to light and warmth through the sun’s daily arc. (In a conventional building, the total surface available for solar gain is about 65 percent.) The long side of the wedge means there is more surface area to absorb solar energy. The bulk of the roof slopes north to south, and all sides of the house have the potential to harvest power.

The advanced efficiency of Kuczia’s design is best seen as a sum of many technologies and features working together, much like how a bicycle achieves its overall aerodynamic advantage through fine structural details. The use of local larchwood saved transportation costs by being sourced in close proximity to the site, and the wood was left untreated, eliminating the need for toxic finishes. The garden-ready rooftop can provide additional insulation and soundproofing. “Not to mention, green roofs simply look nice,” adds Kuczia.

Probably the greatest overall contributor to the home’s efficiency is the thermal recovery ventilation system, which keeps fresh outdoor air flowing in, warmed by the leftover heat of expelled indoor air that travels out through ducts. Structural materials serve dual purposes, with perforated brick load-bearing walls storing heat, making an airtight construction and breaking up the sections of black-fiber concrete. From the outside, both brick and concrete are obscured by a softer facade made of wooden planks, each placed a half inch apart to facilitate circulation. The orange and yellow accents are intended to reflect the colors of the lakeside and the architecture’s connection with its surroundings.

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