Article No: 159

2006-05-03 09:03:21
An Essential Home
By: Concrete Homes


In its original form, the kayak was a simple, spare vessel used by Inuit hunters. Built of natural materials, its skin was impervious to the elements. Kayaking has since become a sport, and for many, an obsession. From his living room above the South Fork of the American River, one enthusiast has a choice view of one of the best kayak runs in Northern California. And in less than a minute, he can be on the river as well, pursuing the passion that drew him and his wife from a home in the city to 4 1/2 acres of land in the Sierra foothills.

There they built a home that is both a tribute to and a reflection of the love of the sport. They call it the Kayak House.

Like the kayaks of the Inuit, the owner wanted his house to be both durable and environmentally sustainable, two qualities promoted by the home's reliance on concrete block. But block adds to the quality of the house in other ways--among them is block's ability to resist the spread of fire. The Kayak House's shell is fireproof, says the designer, architect Luke Ogrydziak, principal at Ogrydziak/Prillinger Architects in San Francisco.

"The entire outside is impervious to fire," he says. "Block and metal--that's as good as you get for fire resistance."

Concrete masonry also was chosen for the thermal efficiency provided by its mass. The home's perimeter walls of concrete-filled concrete masonry units (CMUs) lessen the effect of climactic change and help the home meet California's strict energy criteria. "You get a lot of [government] credit for thermal mass," Ogrydziak says.

It wasn't hard to convince the owner to use concrete masonry on his dream home. His aesthetic tastes run to the abstract, the contemporary, the stripped-down. "I've always liked stone," says the owner. "It has a sense of permanence, a feeling of solidness. Concrete has the same features, but it is more malleable and adaptable."

"To do the same in cast concrete would have been astronomically expensive," says Ogrydziak. "It's harder to control."

Spartan design
In the home's entrance, a row of kayaks hangs from the wall. It's an abstract reference to the hanging art found in most homes, Ogrydziak notes. He designed the 3,700-square-foot (344-square-meter) residence in modules. It's not likely a design to be found on the river or in any residential neighborhood. "They wanted something monolithic," he says. "It's a kind of robust structure, not a typical residential structure."

The Concrete Masonry Association of California and Nevada gave the house a Design of Excellence Honor Award in 2004. The judges called the Kayak House "a unique living space" created from "a playful combination" of building materials that together made "a strong aesthetic statement of sustainability."

The living room, with a wall of metal-clad wooden windows, is angled to take advantage of the view upstream. The space is 25 feet (7.6 meters) high, set into the ground as the land slopes down to the river. The house is built 5 feet above the 100-year flood line. The walls of the living room module were built of load-bearing tan split-face CMUs, laid in a running bond.

The dining room towers above the rest of the house--it is 35 feet high--and faces the owners' private kayak launch. The interior wall is clad in Douglas fir and slate tiles cover the exterior.

Approximately 60 percent of the CMUs used on the house are standard gray block, measuring 8 inches by 8 inches by 16 inches. It covers much of the house on the side facing away from the water--the long extended garage and, below, a second-story overhang of corrugated metal wall that looks out to the garden. These CMU walls support a steel framework, metal decking and a metal roof.

The inside is just as spartan. The cast-in-place concrete floor delivers radiant heat. Overhead are exposed beams and corrugated metal. "The owners wanted the materials to be themselves," says Ogrydziak.

The perimeter walls are single wythe, which does not lessen the convenience of the home. "We were able to gang our electrical and mechanical requirements on the interior walls," he says. "The block walls were fairly clean."

The result is a durable home, built to a 100-year standard.

Creative construction
At first glance, the structure, with its unselfconscious championing of concrete masonry and corrugated metal, might be overlooked as a residence. A passerby could be forgiven for mistaking it for a community center or an educational building. The fact that the structure borrows much from the world of commercial design meant that everyone involved in the project, from the architect to the subcontractors, had to readjust their ways of thinking and working, says builder Louis DeBret, owner of DeBret Construction.

"One of the biggest challenges for me was to get the subcontractors and my employees to not say, 'We can't do that,' but to work with Luke and myself to come up with creative ways to work around the situations that most of us had never seen before," says DeBret, also an avid kayaker who lives a few miles upstream from Kayak House. "Once they and we got into that frame of mind, most of them gained excitement about the job and had a growing appreciation for the design and the quality of work we were demanding."

Construction began in February 1999. Excavation took about a month. "The pad needed engineered compaction because of the river cobble and decomposed granite," says DeBret. He adds that the tan granite color inspired the color used on the split-face block.

The foundation and concrete masonry work lasted until June. The masonry was reinforced with a combination of No. 4 and No. 5 reinforcement at 16 inches through 32 inches on center. Next came the steel fabrication and installation, followed by installation of the electrical, plumbing and radiant floor infrastructure. In January 2000 the slabs were poured, both on grade and, on the second floor, on metal deck.

"At this point, the building had a mostly dry roof structure," says DeBret. "The fill-in wood and metal framing started and went for about two months. The finished shell completion then went through about July, which included windows and doors, metal siding, slate on the tower, waterproofing the block and completion of the roofs."

During the same period, the interior was completed. The family moved in during December 2000, while detail work continued through the next spring.

Nearly five years after moving in, the owner eagerly describes the Kayak House as his dream home. It fulfills his original vision and design goals. It is built of sustainable materials. It exhibits thermal efficiency. And it is durable--aided by concrete block's fire-resistant qualities. When he looks around, he sees a home stripped down to the essentials.

"I'm a person who likes getting to the essentials," he says, "and the essentials are there to be seen."

Preprinted with permission from Concrete Masonry Designs, courtesy of the National Concrete Masonry Association. Photography courtesy of Concrete Masonry Designs.