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This Mountain Retreat Showcases Just How Energy-Efficient Timber Homes Can Be

Energy efficiency was the goal, but reclaimed materials and an eye for detail give this Montana mountain timber home a little funk.

Written by Scott Gibson
Photography by Heidi Long
There was no better way for Jason Pohlman to broaden the repertoire of his design/build company than to dive into the details of a house for his own family.
Jason is one of three partners at Mindful Designs, a Whitefish, Montana-based firm that has built a variety of energy-efficient custom homes, ranging from straw-bale and double-stud wall designs to homes constructed with structural insulated panels.
When he acquired a ridge-top parcel of undeveloped land, he found it an ideal opportunity to practice what he and his partners preach. The result is a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home on two levels that incorporates a variety of reclaimed and site-sourced materials.
“Our goal was to have it fit into the landscape, so that did drive a lot of the design as far as the roof lines and the views that you’re getting from the windows,” Jason says. “It played off the natural landscape.”

Energy-Efficient Elements

The home also plays off Jason’s focus on energy efficiency.
He started with advanced framing — more formally called optimum value engineering, or OVE. Studs and other framing set on 24-inch centers, plus the elimination of structurally unnecessary framing members, use less lumber,  leave more room for insulation and reduce heat loss through the building shell.
The walls are insulated with 2 inches of sprayed-in polyurethane foam and 6-inch-thick fiberglass batts, a technique called “flash and batt.” The closed-cell foam makes a highly efficient air barrier while providing high insulating values. Filling the rest of the cavity with fiberglass will help to keep future costs down.
Jason says the approach resulted in R-32 walls and an R-63 roof, well above standard construction performance. The slab is filled with 2 inches of rigid foam insulation to reduce heat loss through the floor. That’s helpful in an area where annual heating degree-days — a measurement noting the extent to which temperatures drop below 65 degrees Fahrenheit on average in a day — often top 8,000.
The radiant-floor slab is heated with an electric boiler. Low power rates enabled by local hydro projects made that a reasonable choice, but Jason already is planning to convert the heating system to an air-to-water heat pump when he completes a planned garage addition and ties it into a common heating system.

Reclaimed and Local Materials

The home’s wooded lot yielded fir and larch trees that were milled into siding and other lumber with the help of a portable band-saw mill.  Jason also turned to sources of reclaimed materials, including fir that came from a 1920s era boardwalk on the Great Lakes, and corrugated roofing from the 1940s that was used as exterior cladding. The Great Lakes fir went into the exposed timber-framed components, built with the help of a neighbor who happened to be a timber-framing instructor. Newly sawn lumber on both the exterior and great room ceiling was treated with Lifetime wood treatment, a compound that gives it the patina of old lumber and only needs to be applied once.

Multipurpose Living Space

A generous great room on the main floor combines the kitchen and living areas and helps the house seem roomy.
“It’s not a huge floor plan,” Jason says, “so that’s our kids’ playroom, and then after a quick cleanup, that’s where we also hang out. It’s right next to the kitchen so it’s a very open plan that is comfortable. You can do all your kitchen prep, and somebody’s sitting on the couch and enjoying the view but also being able to be a part of what’s going on.”
South-facing windows let in plenty of light and, in winter, welcome heat, and the acid-dyed concrete floor is easy to keep clean. The back of the house is banked into the ground and protected by a 12-foot- high wall made from insulating concrete forms, which combine rigid foam insulation and structural concrete. It all adds up not only to an extremely comfortable house but also an incubator for ideas the company can use elsewhere.
“High performance is definitely a focus,” he says of Mindful Designs. “Energy efficiency, good air quality and sustainability kind of drive our business model. That’s what we shoot for. So I was going to try to [incorporate] as much of that as possible in my house.” 

Home Details

Square Footage: 2,000
Builder/Designer: Mindful Designs
Timber Framer: Tom Healy
Interior Designer: Bitney’s Furniture

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