Full Living Certified

URBAN FRONTIER HOUSE

VITAL STATS

Certification StatusLiving
Version of LBC2.1
LocationBillings, Montana
Gross Building Area4,527 SF
Start of OccupancyOctober 2016
Owner OccupiedYes
Number of Occupants2
Photo by Clark Marten Photography

PROJECT TEAM

OwnerRandy & Janna Hafer
ArchitectHigh Plains Architects
General ContractorNewell Construction
MEP EngineerMKK Consulting Engineers
Greywater ConsulatantOrenco Systems Inc.
DC Lighting ConsultantSmart Home Systems
Geotechnical EngineerRimrock Engineering
Civil EngineerSanderson Stewart
Landscape ArchitectPeaks to Plains Design
Structural EngineerStructural Engineering Design
Interior DesignHigh Plains Architects
Landscape DesignGood Earth Works
Wind Power EngineerTaisei Techno
DC Power Engineer/DesignAcuity Power Group

PLACE PETAL

01. LIMITS TO GROWTH

In the summer of 2008, the Owners were driving through an older, established neighborhood in Billings, Montana looking for an infill lot upon which to build their house. They were hoping to find an undeveloped or greyfield site close to downtown – where they work, buy groceries, volunteer, and attend social and sporting events. One day they noticed a fluorescent pink sign posted on a small corner parking lot. This corner lot was being sold at auction by the State of Montana. The State had purchased this property in the 1960’s and had owned and used it for 40 years as a parking lot for a nearby State office building. The Owners purchased the lot in October 2008. They had found the location for their “Urban Frontier House.”

The primary goal of the Urban Frontier House was to demonstrate that it is possible to build a self-contained, self-sustaining single-family residence on a small urban lot. The site is comprised of two 25′ X 140′ lots located in Billings “First Addition Subdivision” (1890’s). At one time, the site must have contained a small residence because a remnant of a foundation was found during excavation; however, the entire site was a parking lot when purchased by the Owners.

Except for a few Siberian Elm and Green Ash trees along the north property, there was no vegetation on the site when purchased. The new site plan envisioned first, removing (and recycling) all the asphalt covering the site and second, restoring all of the site outside the building footprint to a pervious condition. Beyond the new pervious patio and driveway, the remainder of the lot would be planted in a combination of fruit trees and bushes, native site-adapted, perennial grasses and flowers, and vegetables, all drip irrigated.

02. URBAN AGRICULTURE IMPERATIVE

There are three exterior planting zones plus the indoor garden room for growing edible and non-edible vegetation. The northeast zone contains two apple trees – one McIntosh and one Honeycrisp. Also planted in this zone are two Carmin Jewel cherry bushes. The site also includes both a peach and a pear tree. The southeast zone is representative of native landscaping commonly found in the high plains of Montana. The area is filled with numerous clumps of drought-tolerant, xeriscape plants. The wind turbine is located in this zone on the southeast corner surrounded by locally sourced river rocks. The south zone extends along the entire south side of the house. It contains five raised beds, four ground-level rows, and a large open space bordering the entire length of the house and garage. The raised beds contain various vegetables such as tomatoes, green beans, peas, carrots, peppers, lettuce, and spinach. All the edibles are harvested for the homeowners’ use. The indoor garden room connects the house and garage and has four raised metal beds.

04. HUMAN POWERED LIVING IMPERATIVE

The owners of The Urban Frontier House intentionally searched for an economically and demographically diverse neighborhood and selected this site surrounded by multiple occupancy types. The Urban Frontier House is located near a mix of parks, museums, churches, the public library, hospitals and clinics, the dentist, the baseball stadium, and a local elementary school. The site borders the downtown Billings area, providing easy access to various restaurants, retail outlets, and a grocery store.

For the owners, a major selling point of the site was the close proximity to their place of employment. With The Urban Frontier House being located less than one mile to the owners’ work location and other downtown amenities, Randy and Janna have the option to walk or bike to the majority of their destinations.

Photo by Clark Marten Photography

WATER PETAL

05. NET ZERO WATER IMPERATIVE

The Urban Frontier House is located in a residential neighborhood near downtown Billings, Montana. Billings receives an average annual rainfall of 13.75 inches and an average annual snowfall of 57 inches. When calculating the residents’ water needs, the team took into account not only the average annual rainfall and snowfall but also the length of potential dry spells. The roof size was also taken into consideration. Water calculations were based upon full-time occupancy of two adults with occasional guests.

Before the team could implement any water harvesting systems, approval from the state was required. The state of Montana has a requirement that any residence within proximity of a municipal water supply must hook up to the service. The team approached the City Public Works Director to ask for release from the requirement. The Public Works Director then approached the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on the team’s behalf. The state approved the request, requiring the team to write a letter stating that if the system proved a failure they would hook up to city services.

All water used in The Urban Frontier House arrives from the sky in the form of rain or snow. Water running off of the metal roof is directed by gutters into rain barrels. From there, the water is channeled underground to the 9,000 gallons of storage tanks located in the basement. The water is stored in 6 different storage tanks until needed. Water is then filtered, treated, and pumped to sinks and showers throughout the house. Three lavatories, one kitchen sink, two showers, one bathtub/shower, and an ice maker in the refrigerator all use filtered and treated rainwater.

The drain water from the sinks and showers flows back to a gray water treatment unit which cleans and filters the water. The water is then stored in the gray water storage tank and further filtered and treated for reuse. The treated gray water is reused for laundry, dishwashing, irrigation, and toilet flushing. Waste from the toilet is deposited in the composter where it is broken down biologically into rich organic compost.

06. ECOLOGICAL WATER FLOW IMPERATIVE

The water needs calculations were based on the full-time occupancy of two adults with occasional guests. The owners have seven children between them and when one shows up it is not unreasonable to assume some of the others will show up as well. For example, in January, all seven adult children plus one spouse, and three cousins stayed in the house for three days with Janna and Randy. The water supply was more than adequate; however, staggering showers are recommended in order to allow the water heater to recover.

In addition to the two showers and one bathtub/shower, there are three lavatories, one kitchen sink, and an icemaker in the refrigerator that all use filtered and treated rainwater. The greywater from those sources are filtered through the Orenco biological primary filtration system, then stored in a 1500-gallon tank, then filtered and disinfected for use in the washing machine, the dishwasher, three composting toilets, and irrigation outside and in the indoor garden room. Irrigation is the final use of the collected water. All water that falls on the site remains on the site.

Photo by Clark Marten Photography

ENERGY PETAL

07. NET ZERO ENERGY IMPERATIVE

The renewable energy systems for the Urban Frontier House consist of two types – a 6.03 kW net-metered photovoltaic array and a 1 kW wind turbine.  The panels are located on the flat roof of the garage/garden room and are oriented approximately 10° east of south at a fixed 45-degree angle.  The street grid in the neighborhood is oriented approximately 35° east of south so by using the flat roof area they were able to substantially improve the orientation of the panels to maximize energy production.  The turbine is located on the street intersection corner of our small lot to maximize its access to our prevailing SW and NW winds.

In addition to the high-performance building envelope designed to minimize space conditioning energy requirements, the owners set out to design and install a dc microgrid within the house to maximize the efficiency of the site generated electricity.  In the end, they were so far ahead of the market and they were only able to achieve a partial dc microgrid.  All of the lighting, ceiling fans, and pumps in the house are 12V – 48V dc.  Appliances and outlets remain 120 V ac because they were not able to find full-sized dc kitchen and laundry appliances.  However, they did design and install the ac side of the electrical system so that someday perhaps they will be able to convert it to all dc.  In the process, they learned that the dc LED light fixtures, dc fan motors, dc pumps, etc. are considerably less complex than their ac counterparts, use fewer resources, and should (at scale) be less expensive and result in less waste.

The project generates more than 100% of its annual electrical energy need from the PV panels, which is good because, unfortunately, it generates very little energy from the turbine.  It turns out they are in one of the least windy spots in the city.  The lesson learned with the turbine is that is an urban environment, wind data for the exact proposed location of the turbine is necessary.  Data from three blocks away is not good enough.

Photo by Clark Marten Photography

HEALTH & HAPPINESS PETAL

08. CIVILIZED ENVIRONMENT IMPERATIVE

Every occupiable interior space of The Urban Frontier House (excluding storage areas, the MEP room located in the basement, and one guest bathroom which has passive light) provides access to operable windows and skylights that enable residents to regulate fresh airflow and control temperature (in the warmer months) as necessary. Skylights and windows, each with retractable blinds, are located to ensure abundant daylighting and natural ventilation. The blinds provide light control as well as reduce heat loss or gain depending on the season.

09. HEALTHY AIR IMPERATIVE

The Urban Frontier House is a single-family residence; therefore, the main front entry (though not required) has a separate vestibule entry space and the main back entry has a separate garden room through which occupants enter the house. The secondary entrances to the house are adjacent to the patio or deck and are supplied with walk-off mats. All interior mats are cleaned weekly.

The kitchen, laundry room, and all three bathrooms are separately ventilated and exhausted. In addition, other rooms exhaust through the garden room where the air is cleaned naturally by the indoor plants. Neither of the owners smokes, and family and guests are not permitted to smoke as well.

The Urban Frontier House was designed to comply with ASHRAE 62 and the equipment has been installed to monitor the levels of carbon dioxide, temperature, and humidity. The owners worked with the Rocky Mountain College Computer Science Department to develop sensors to track this information.

10. BIOPHILIA IMPERATIVE

The Urban Frontier House team aimed to produce an experience that would promote positive interactions between people and nature. By extending elements of nature throughout the design, the team aspired to create a happier, healthier living environment.

A garden room, which connects the living area with the garage, creates an interior green space that delights the senses. The space allows residents to grow plants all year long and establishes a natural setting within a manmade structure. During the summer, sunflowers line the south façade of the house and provide residents with views of the plants and flowers (and bees!) while acting as a privacy screen. Exterior gardens grant residents a further connection to the soil and the opportunity to cultivate their own produce during the summer months. 

Chosen for the range of textures and subtle tones as well as durability, natural materials like metal and wood were extensively utilized. A variety of rusted and galvanized exterior metal cladding in a variety of patterns and textures contrasts with recycled wood siding at the porch to stimulate interest in the exterior façade. Salvaged lumber on the interior generates a warm feeling that improves mood and contributes to overall mental well-being. Wooden features within the home produce an aroma that softens the experience of the environment and enhances the sense of being in a natural setting.  Wooden elements like posts, beams, cladding, and stair treads, reclaimed from pre-existing structures, establish a connection to the region’s past history.  Beetle-kill pine cabinets and doors in the home were made from trees sourced from nearby central Montana forests, creating a direct relation to the surrounding environment. Indigenous landscaping on-site provides the project with a native ecosystem within the urban setting.

The interior of the home features a great deal of reclaimed lumber from multiple sources.  Imperfections and tonal variations within the reclaimed materials “tell the story” of change and age. Weathered wood and metal cladding were chosen for the exterior facades in order to celebrate the patina of time.  The team intended to create a dynamic space that would generate interest. Exposed structure and systems reveal layers of complexity that mimic nature’s intricacy. Various materials, patterns, and systems establish a diverse environment that engages the human mind.

Windows on the southern façade allow generous amounts of natural light to flood the house while providing views of the gardens and active street scene beyond. Multiple skylights bring daylight into the center of the building.  The ample amounts of natural light received by the space positively impact residents’ psychological state and circadian rhythm.

The fluctuating scale of various ceiling heights allows different spaces to evoke diverse emotions. Areas with lofty ceiling heights create an open and welcoming sensation, while spaces with lower ceiling heights establish a cozy, intimate feeling. The different ceiling heights help to designate which spaces are more public and which are more private within the home.

Winding stairs lead to a crow’s nest, providing residents with a bird’s-eye view of the city, the neighborhood, and the natural landscape.  Nestled amongst tree canopies, a deck off of the crow’s nest provides an intimate setting with nature and creates a “big kid’s” tree fort. With the “Big Sky” view, residents can stargaze as well as storm watch.

Photo by Clark Marten Photography

MATERIALS PETAL

11. RED LIST IMPERATIVE

Avoiding Red List items presented challenges when sourcing materials for the Urban Frontier House. One area that provided a challenge was paint. It was assumed that the paint could be purchased locally but on further examination of contents, that decision was abandoned. There was a minuscule amount of alkylphenol in the paint. The Owners were not aware of this chemical nor its potentially damaging significance so it provided a learning moment for all involved. The paint was ultimately purchased from Ecos Paints which is Declare certified.

Sourcing FSC certified wood products for the house proved to be enormously challenging. In spite of the fact that Montana has a forest products industry, there are no FSC certified sources located in the state. High Plains Architects could only find one FSC source for some products located within the allowable sourcing distance. Consequently, we had to scale-jump to put together a very complicated order from multiple sources from the Pacific coast and from the upper Midwest. In an attempt to avoid any waste or extra material (because it was very expensive), that initial order turned out to be short. High Plains Architects then decided to try to find locally generated reclaimed wood materials. That effort opened the door to a delightful world of serendipity. From that point on, we learned to be very flexible with our choices for interior finishes. “You get what you get and don’t throw a fit!” The house was finished with what we could find – which in many cases only vaguely resembled what we had planned. The Owners opted for reclaimed wood products for the inherent character of reclaimed wood and they were not required to be FSC.

The Owners also opted to use beetle-killed pine that was harvested from private land in central Montana for their cabinets and most interior doors and, therefore, did not contain formaldehyde. It is not uncommon to find formaldehyde in wood products. (Avoiding formaldehyde presented a challenge when sourcing wood materials for the Urban Frontier House.) The OSB used in the Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) for the house was FSC certified and did not contain formaldehyde in the manufacturing process.

This imperative was particularly difficult when it came to vetting small components as well as multi-component items. In addition, some manufacturers refused to cooperate either because of non-transparency or time required to produce information. After facing many non-responses and a lack of cooperation from manufacturers, the team did their best to document and move on.

12. EMBODIED CARBON FOOTPRINT IMPERATIVE

The team’s approach to reducing embodied carbon focused on four main areas: minimized use of high embodied carbon materials, reclaimed materials, recycled content materials, and durable materials located as close to the construction site as possible.

Our first approach to reducing embodied carbon was to try to avoid or minimize materials with high embodied carbon. All sand, gravel, and soil were sourced within 8 miles of the site. All concrete was planned to be 100% fly ash (no Portland cement) with the fly ash source being a coal-fired power plant located within 3 miles of the site. We ended up with about 40% of the concrete being 100% fly ash and the balance 25% fly ash. The reduction in fly ash occurred after several loads had to be dumped (and recycled) because the concrete started to set in the trucks. We have only two recycled steel beams in the house while the exterior of the house is almost entirely clad in sheet steel (cold rolled and corrugated). That decision was made for both durability and longevity (They are easily removable and recyclable). Finally, the team worked hard to reduce electrical loads so that a small 6kW PV array would generate enough electricity to make the house net positive.

Another main focus of reducing embodied carbon was the reuse of reclaimed materials. The Owners were always on the lookout for potential “treasures” that could be repurposed in their home. They, also, have a reputation for collecting building materials from historic renovations that others label as “old” or “junk” and, therefore, not valuable. It was not unheard of for them to receive calls from friends or acquaintances with reports of possible found “treasure.” In addition, the Owners visited the Habitat for Humanity Restore frequently to search for cast-off materials.

Suppliers in the Billings area have been known to call the Owners’ architecture firm when products with recycled content arrive on the market. Several of those products were ultimately chosen for the Urban Frontier House such as the entry walk-off mat made from recycled plastic bottles.

Billings, Montana is not necessarily a large distribution hub nor manufacturing center; however, Montana is home to several innovative durable products that were specified for the project, one of which is the Phoenix composting toilet created by Advanced Composting Systems located in Whitefish, Montana. Another product found in the state is Structural Insulated Panels manufactured in Belgrade, Montana. In addition, the flooring, barn siding, and reclaimed re-sawn salvaged lumber were sourced in-state.

14. APPROPRIATE SOURCING IMPERATIVE

Billings, Montana, with a population of about 116,000, is the largest city in a 500-mile radius. While Billings is a major center for goods and services for the surrounding region it is not a major manufacturing center. What that means in a practical sense is that Billings is a long way from other major cities. Therefore, its location presented significant challenges when attempting to achieve the Materials Appropriate Sourcing Imperative.

One particular area of difficulty was in obtaining FSC wood products. The closest potential in-state provider is Butte, Montana which is 224 miles away; however, the smallest quantity that the Owners could purchase was one train car-load which was not feasible. They ultimately put together a very complicated order from multiple sources from the Pacific coast and from two locales in the upper Midwest. The FSC OSB used for their structural insulated panels (SIPs) was purchased from Canada. Fortunately, the SIPs manufacturer could purchase a large enough order to accommodate the Owners’ needs as well as their own. The Owners ultimately used large quantities of reclaimed wood from many different sources as well as beetle-killed pine that was harvested from private land in central Montana for their cabinets and most interior doors.

15. CONSERVATION + REUSE IMPERATIVE

The team set a goal of no waste from the project. They came very close with only a few bags of various materials (mostly lightweight) that were not able to be recycled, repurposed, composted, or given away and, thus, went to the landfill. Since moving in, we have focused on not having any “waste/garbage” leave the house. Through recycling and composting, we generate only about 1 cf/month (=7.5 gallons) of solid waste/month. As the owners learn what makes up the small amount of “waste/garbage” they generate, they are working on ways to reduce it further. They keep track of how infrequently we take out the “trash” and make it a competition to do better. Any guests that stop by are made aware of the recycling bin, the countertop compost container, and “how many days to go before we can empty the trash can in the kitchen.”

Photo by Clark Marten Photography

EQUITY PETAL

16. HUMAN SCALE & HUMANE PLACES IMPERATIVE

The Urban Frontier House was designed to harmonize with the scale of the surrounding neighborhood. The team observed that most surrounding residencies were structured with the living space located towards the front of the site, storage space located towards the back of the site, and exterior green space placed in the middle. The Urban Frontier House design team mirrored the layout of neighboring properties by positioning the living space on the front portion of the site, the garage and driveway on the back of the site, and the enclosed interior garden space in the middle, connecting the two. By keeping a similar scale to the neighborhood, a sense of community was created. The site encourages pedestrian interaction by providing a bench, located on the east edge of the property, for passers-by to rest upon. The residents’ driveway and garage are located toward the back of the site in order to welcome pedestrian access to the house’s front entrance. A covered front porch, located on the east side of the house, acts as a gathering space for the residents to interact with the public. Community street parking is available on both the east and south side of the site which promotes interaction and connection with the surrounding neighbors. The site’s landscape and gardens create a pleasant environment from both the exterior and interior of the house. The home is also lined with windows on the south-facing façade to make visitors approaching the house from that direction feel welcome.

On the interior of the house, the heights of the windows located in the living and dining area allow for people of all heights to enjoy the views of the surrounding community. Ceiling heights throughout the house vary depending on the intimacy of the space. Areas where multiple people would gather, such as the living room and kitchen, have lofted ceilings. More private spaces like bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallways have lower ceiling heights to create a more intimate experience.

17. DEMOCRACY + SOCIAL JUSTICE IMPERATIVE

The Urban Frontier House team has hosted several open house events and tours to better educate the public. Tours have been given to groups ranging from a local high school environmental club, to a sustainable building design studio offered from the state college’s School of Architecture, to business professionals from around the state, and other numerous friends, neighbors, and family members. Informative signage was also placed on-site during and after the construction period to inform and educate bystanders of the project’s sustainable design goals and strategies.

Although not required by ADA guidelines, The Urban Frontier House is accessible for those with physical disabilities. Void of any exterior steps, the site is equipped with sloped pathways to accommodate those with physical limitations entering the house. The main floor of the house provides an open floor plan for ease of mobility and both main floor baths provide roll-in showers.

18. RIGHTS TO NATURE IMPERATIVE

The site for the Urban Frontier House is a corner lot in the North Park neighborhood of Billings, Montana. The area is recorded as the “First Addition” to the City of Billings Original Townsite according to the official plat on file in the Yellowstone County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. The State of Montana had purchased this corner property from “James R. Stiert, a single man” on December 15, 1967 to use as a parking lot for a state office building located a block away. The new Owners purchased the property at auction on July 16, 2008. After 40 years as a parking lot, the site has been transformed back to a contributing member of the residential neighborhood with a home, landscaping, and a family

Photo by Clark Marten Photography

BEAUTY PETAL

19. BEAUTY & SPIRIT IMPERATIVE

One of the main design goals of The Urban Frontier House, previously a vacant parking lot, was to return the site to a contributing and beautiful member of the neighborhood. Through form, materials, and landscaping the team was able to achieve this goal.

On the exterior of the home, indigenous plants were reintroduced to the site as well as fruit trees and gardens. The indigenous landscaping connects residents and neighbors to the low maintenance native ecosystem of the region. Requiring harvesting, the gardens and fruit trees foster a relationship between residents and nature, while providing a visually pleasing arrangement of colors and textures. On the exterior façade of the house, cooler materials like metal are visually balanced with warmer materials like reclaimed lumber at the front porch.

The interior of the home is flooded with natural daylight that enhances the beauty of the space.  High ceilings in the common spaces provide a more open feeling for family gatherings.  Lower ceilings in the private spaces provide a more intimate setting.  While the home provides a sense of shelter, green vegetable gardens and tall sunflowers are visible through the windows on the south.  A large Siberian Elm can be seen standing watch over the patio on the north.  The hall straight ahead leads to the interior Garden Room with many sizes and varieties of green plants.  These plants not only are beautiful but they help clean the air as well.  The perimeter of the Garden Room provides painted reminders of the five mountain ranges surrounding our location on the high plains of Montana.  The “Crow’s Nest” at the top of the spiral stair provides 360° views of the neighborhood, downtown, the Rims, and distant mountains plus it provides an excellent viewing platform to watch storms roll in.

The Urban Frontier House is now integrated into the neighborhood and is an excellent example of an architecture that responds to the opportunities of climate, available materials, cultural traditions, and functional necessity imposed by its place.

20. INSPIRATION & EDUCATION IMPERATIVE

The Urban Frontier House was originally conceived not only as a single-family home but also as a model home for engagement with the public. This home is a tool to educate visitors about systems and the thinking behind creating “comprehensive sustainability”.

Several tours have been conducted at the home during the multiple phases of construction and post-construction. Tours have been given to diverse groups ranging from a local high school environmental club to a sustainable building design studio offered from the state college’s School of Architecture to business professionals from around the state, and other numerous friends, neighbors, and family members. The owners are always willing to give tours to better educate the public on sustainable living.

The owners placed informative signage on-site during and after construction as another means of education. The sign demonstrates the project’s sustainable strategies and design goals. A website and video maintained by the owners also share information about the design, construction, and operations of The Urban Frontier House at highplainsarchitects.com. Additionally, an Owner’s Manual developed by the owners and design team was created to ensure that future residents of The Urban Frontier House could effectively operate and maintain the home.

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