High-Performace Courtyard House

High-Performace Courtyard House

By Arkin Tilt Architects / Published by Arkin Tilt Architects
On a north-sloping site in Palo Alto, CA, the High-Performance Courtyard House is carefully sited and detailed to maximize the experience of its semi-rural site, while remaining comfortable year-round.

Internally focused, the three distinct volumes are jointed to create a private courtyard adjacent to a mature stand of live oak trees that provide afternoon shade.  The outdoor room opens to the north, stepping up to a terrace and pool surrounded by meadow.  The change in grade is retained by gabions providing habitat and filtered drainage.  Surface water from the upper site is collected in a planted rill, routed under a bridge between the living and office to a swale below the house; this swale becomes a feature along the entry path.

Balancing passive and active solar, the roof of the bedroom wing lifts to the south with a dormer to the north to provide balanced light and  a location for rooftop solar hot water.  The living wing lifts to the north to provide a south-facing sloped roof for photovoltaics.   A dormer at the great room provides southern light.  The link between these two wings serves as both circulation and a play space for the owners' three boys.  Extensive modeling in the design phase honed the solar control strategies at the detail level: large overhangs are supplemented with shading fins, espaliered fruit trees, and sliding shutters.

The building envelope is carefully detailed with blown cellulose insulation, air-sealing, a wrap of mineral wool insulation board, and a fiber-cement rain screen to minimize thermal transfer while providing an elegant and durable finish.  The house runs entirely on electricity, which is offset by the 6.75 kW solar electric system.  An ultra-efficient Altherma air-to-water heat pump provides supplemental heating and cooling, as well as domestic hot water.  Rigorous testing during the design and construction phases have made this house a fresh, energy-efficient take on the classic California courtyard house, celebrating indoor-outdoor living.

The simple, modern volumes of the structure are accented with natural finishes and personal touches such as the locally salvaged eucalyptus posts that support the roof and mark the entry, along with salvaged cedar siding.

A playroom and family room opens out to the courtyard, and ties to the bedroom hall through a "stage" for the kids.

South facing view of the pool and patio.

Solar hot water panels provide domestic hot water for the house, and the pool. The master bath receives daylight from two sides through the high transom windows.

The Cuerda Seca tiles, from the owner's home town in Spain, compliment the clean and bright surfaces of the great room.

Comfortable and cool courtyard

Photography: Ed Caldwell 


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