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Blending energy efficiency with attractive design: “Boxy But Beautiful”

Pat Kiernan | Posted in General Questions on

Is there a good source of images or ideas for Passive, Net-Zero or Pretty-Good Houses that have managed to strike a balance between sound energy efficiency and an attractive exterior design?

Some GBA articles have wrestled with this:

Banish These Details From Your Plans

Martin’s Ten Rules of Roof Design

How Many Green Building Principles Are There?

Origami-Inspired Homes

Bronwyn Barry talks about “Boxy But Beautiful.”

I’m trying to accommodate some neighbors who feel that my envelope is too simple. I’m trying to avoid the “multiple articulated masses” that has become an acquired taste. I would like to make my box more beautiful without significantly compromising efficiency.

I’m grateful for any images or ideas. I’m in climate zone 6 — western Colorado.

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  1. Davor Radman | | #1

    Awesome question. I hope someone will offer some resources to browse through.
    I've been wrestling with this myself during (ongoing) design phase of my house.
    We more or less settled on a flat roof Borg cube :)

    Some details that I have picked up can at least break the box a little:
    - slightly inset front door
    - coloured windows
    - color strips between windows

    Though few people would call our house beautiful, we like it.
    Coloured windows and a better architect (the design is my own) our out of our budget, but we have put comfort and efficiency before looks, and we are satisfied. The only concession we made was going with flat roof, though I would have been happy with a hipped roof as well (but wife prefers flat).

    I am not ashamed to attach a current 3D render, just for reference how far in simplicity some people, like us, are willing to go.

    Currently, I am exploring what kind of porch roof would go well. Something to offer shade AND protection from rain and snow.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    When I need my appendix removed, I hire a surgeon.

    When I need a professional to provide design services, I hire an architect.

    Or, in both cases, it's possible to do it yourself.

  3. Stephen Sheehy | | #3

    Get the various Houses issues of Fine Homebuilding Magazine. FHB also does an annual Energy Smart Homes issue that has some nice houses. (Full disclosure, my house is one in Winter 2016).
    Check out the websites of architects specializing in energy efficient homes.
    What do you mean about accommodating neighbors? Do you need to comply with a Homeowner's association?

  4. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    Transitions in cladding type, changing up window aspect ratios, adding covered porches & patios, playing with roof symmetry/asymmetry & angles etc can add a lot of visual appeal to an otherwise "shoe-box with a gable" without compromising efficiency. Get creative, make lots of drawings/renderings, and get advice before committing.

  5. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #5

    Arch Daily is a good site if you are looking for inspiration. But I would not go overboard trying to accommodate neighbors. It's your house and money after all.

  6. Brad Depies | | #6

    Here is our house that is currently under construction. We tried to blend a simple design with something that looked good to us and the HOA. We went with 4 colors for the house, 2 tone siding, trim board, white for windows/gutters/soffit/fascia. The garage is on the north side of the house. We are excited to see it built.

  7. Pat Kiernan | | #7

    Davor at #1, I appreciate your tips. I liked your "Though few people would call our house beautiful, we like it." I Imagine it reflects your priorities, budget and tastes, which is what home design should be about. I'd enjoy a look at your 3D render.

    Martin at #2, classic smug comment from someone who knows all too well the joy of DIY. I'm in conversation with three architects. I'm hoping that simple architecture is discovering an expanded vocabulary.

    Stephen at #3, I'll check FHB, thanks. In Carbondale, CO the neighbors are allowed to appeal a permit and they have forced a redesign after my permit was approved by the building and planning officials! There is no design review board or homeowner's association, just small town politics.

    Dana at #4, very helpful suggestions. One architect I worked with proposed an angled asymmetric shed roof that added interest.

    Steve at #5, Arch Daily looks interesting. hadn't visited that before. Prospect New Town has some interesting ways to dress up simple. It's awkward that the neighbors can have so much influence without clear and specific direction from the town.

    Brad at #6, Looks like you added some nice variety with materials and colors, and varied the masses with the northern garage. Any colored images available?

    Thanks to all!

  8. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #8


    In my regular line work, l often encounter clients who want simple. I advise them that simple is hard, and we should budget accordingly. I think the same rule applies to residential design, which is why there are so many ugly monstrosities lining the streets of America.

  9. Pat Kiernan | | #9


    So to do simple well is harder and more expensive?

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    You're right -- my comment probably came off as smug, but that wasn't my intention. My point was that architects are trained to help clients like you. If I had a design problem, I would consult a good architect -- because an architect is smarter about design than I am.

    Sometimes owner-builders cut corners in the wrong area. Spending a few thousand dollars for design help can result in a better design, and in some cases can even save money.

    You just told us that you are in conversations with three architects. That's good. (I didn't know that when I posted my comment.) I hope you can find an architect you're comfortable with.

  11. Stephen Sheehy | | #11

    Pat: Are there specific criteria in your community that govern house design, such that neighbors can complain? Who decides such issues?

  12. Pat Kiernan | | #12


    There are somewhat specific, though loosely defined, criteria in our development code. There are also more broad "character" clauses. The specific phrasing is supposed to take precedence, but the bodies that interpret the code don't always honor that. The appeal of my permit was supposed to go o the Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial body. Since the town failed to staff the required Board of Adjustment, they sent it to Planning and Zoning (improperly I believe). I don't feel I received a fair hearing by architects who wanted to see multiple articulated masses -- not a specific code requirement.

  13. Pat Kiernan | | #13

    Martin at #10,

    Thanks for clarifying your intention. I wish I'd gotten an architect involved sooner.

    As an engineer, I'd rather be reading the latest on GBA than wrestling with aesthetic design -- which also speaks to your point.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    I can identify with your approach. When it comes to choosing paint colors, for example, I always defer to anyone in my family who has an opinion (because I certainly don't -- my gut says, "it's just paint").

    Then, when I'm driving around, I sometimes see a wonderful paint color that changes everything. I'll say, "Wow! That house looks good!" (And I'm thinking, "Who knew that paint color matters?")

  15. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #15


    This is just my opinion, but I do think it costs more to do simple well. To me simple means a modern or mostly modern transitional style. Creating modern lines requires precision. You can't cover up sloppy work as easily. Hiring skilled professionals capable of doing precise work is typically more expensive--if you can even find those individuals in your area.

  16. Brad Depies | | #16

    Pat, no colored drawings are available. I wish the builder would have offered that to us because we are left to driving around various neighborhoods trying to find our color scheme and see how it looks. We have only found a few with two tone siding and even fewer with the horizontal band boards. The only house we have seen with 4" & 6" lap siding is the house next door which was the same builder. The owners, however, decided to do one solid color which reduced the visibility of the siding size difference.

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