Preconceptions and commonly held notions of house design and construction have met their match in Dale Bates, who believes it is time to discard the status quo and start thinking anew about what constitutes a home. Architects often experiment when building their own homes, and for Bates and his wife, Peggy, this is where the talk meets the walk, personally and professionally.
Delphinium is a remarkable building comprising many uncommon but eminently practical features—an amalgam of design that supports human health in the broadest possible manner. It also is a concrete and wood manifestation of the couple’s life philosophy. They selected the name not in relation to the plant, but as a derivation of Delphi, the Greek temple renowned for its oracle.
Nestled in an alley several blocks off Main Street, the house embodies the principles that Bates has long espoused, and for which his firm, Living Architecture, has become internationally recognized. In collaboration with Peggy, who operates her feng shui practice from their home, Bates takes the idea of sustainable living a step further than most people do. He expands it to include an attitude toward how one’s life is structured and organized, and an approach to reducing or eliminating materials that could have an adverse effect on health.
Off the alley in the middle of a downtown block, Delphinium is located in a surprisingly quiet, serene spot. While there is little that is traditional about the house, it is far from a modernist box. Unusual angles and curves swoop up toward the roofline, and many of the windows are modified by diagonals in the upper corners. The combination of these elements imbues the structure with visual solidity and grace.
Guided by the architect’s belief in “intent defining space,” the general layout of the house was designed to maximize daylight, control the interior climate, and take advantage of solar heating. A palpable serenity envelops visitors at the front door, which is approached through a courtyard that marks the transition from outside world to sanctuary. Just inside is an unusual column constructed of unglazed terracotta tile. Vitalized water is periodically run down the column, generating negative ions and humidifying the air before draining onto the ground, establishing a direct connection of the house with the earth.
Left: Curved lines, luminescent pigments, healthy plants and birdsong add serenity to the space. As the exterior courtyard landscaping matures, the dining room will be ensconced in nature. Right: Eliminating the right angle where wall meets ceiling in the hallway allows air and light to circulate more easily.
Shedding one’s shoes inside the entryway allows full appreciation of the smooth, warm feel of the radiantly heated concrete and the softer cork floor in the kitchen area. Purple and green architectural glass in the vertical panels of the door cast a soothing, glowing light into the first-floor interior, where there is an airy, open feel.
On an October morning, the entire space is filled with softly suffused light. Sounds, colors, and views unfold gently and slowly. Birds chirp in the old trees that ring the lot, and one warbles peacefully from the dining room. A small fountain babbles soothingly in the kitchen. An open stairway to the second floor is filled with a wondrous light.
The logic of the layout is striking in its simplicity and functionality. The dining area is immediately to the right, abutted by the kitchen; both receive southeast and southern light. Skylights over the kitchen sink and countertop allow herbs to grow in an integrated planter box. The living room is set back to the north, with a comfortable arrangement of cushioned seating. The colors of all woods and finishes were carefully selected: the kitchen cabinets are a warm, natural wood, the walls and ceilings a peaceful golden color. Dropped ceilings and curved lines sculpted into the walls and ceilings imbue the spaces with an organic, graceful, and comforting air.
The ascent to the second floor is a movement through luminous color, from ground into sky. Peggy and Dale commissioned John Stolfo for the stairwell’s Lazure painting, a technique used to create richly modulated tonalities on architectural surfaces by applying color in relation to the way light naturally fills the space. An unlikely rock garden—made up of found offerings from friends—is situated on the exterior ledge of the landing, visible through a window in the stairwell. >>>
The open nature and extreme efficiency of the kitchen belies its actual compact size.
On the southeast-facing second floor, light seems to emanate through the graduated surfaces of the walls and ceiling. It is here that the unusual curve formed at the junction of ceiling and walls becomes most apparent. Dale explains that the usual right-angle construction traps air and light, and therefore color, in a “dead space.” Grinning, he says, “This soft curve eliminates any stagnation.”
In regard to the feng shui principles applied in the design of their home, Peggy says, “If you perceive everything in your environment to be alive and interconnected; if you create an environment where you are surrounded by things you love, give yourself the tools you need to support your intentions, and take action when opportunities arise, you are practicing feng shui.
“We created a home that fully supports our lifestyle. Each room’s intention is reflected in its design: its size, location, placement of furniture, colors, lighting, and materials all enhance its purpose.
“The creation of Delphinium was a conscious process, from groundbreaking onwards. We started by designating a nature sanctuary for the ‘Elementals’: we announced what we would be doing on the site, shifted the energy from the trees that were to be removed, and held a ground-blessing ceremony once the land was cleared and the excavation complete.”
Peggy and Dale are both tall and slender. They glide easily through their home, exchanging infectious smiles when they speak to each other. Unwilling just to give lip service to catch phrases such as “sustainability” and “green living,” they embody these concepts in ways that fully inform their lives. They are diligent about their daily choices—both are vegetarians, practice yoga, and select their clothing, fabrics, and materials for their house with an equal amount of care.
When Dale is quizzed about the intricacies of Delphinium, the answers spill out of him in a torrent of detailed information. His larger philosophy embraces concepts derived and learned from years of study. These include a use of harmonic proportions and mathematical relationships found in the natural universe; basic principles from the art and science of building that were developed in China and India thousands of years ago, such as feng shui and Sthapatya Ved; and the European school of Bau-Biologie, which focuses on the holistic interactions between human life, health, and the built environment. The physical manifestation of his attitude is inherent in the selection of materials, physical design of the space, and the connection of it all to nature. From the inside of this house, you see old trees and sunlight through the windows, not the boxy neighboring buildings in the alley. The tree trunks through the living room windows provide a wonderful sculptural element, as does the rock garden glimpsed from the stairway.
The logic that drove the design of the house did not emanate from preconceived rules of order. It was conceived through Dale’s innate intuition, balanced with years of experience.
“I’ve worked with harmonic and sacred proportions since my student days,” he says. “On Delphinium, I challenged myself to approach proportion in another way. My intuition and instinct kept driving towards forms I was unfamiliar with, and when none of my architectural drawings looked right, I modeled the house in clay. The unusual forms arose and developed throughout the days and the seasons, derived from how we wanted to feel when we lived in the house—and how the house wanted to feel in downtown Ketchum. The form expresses almost a bodily awareness of being based on the earth and reaching toward the sky with an offering, while accepting the sky’s endless gifts of light and stars.”
Left: Behind the quiet stucco exterior lies Durasol building blocks, chosen for their healthful and sustainable qualities. Right: Conveniently located behind the kitchen sink is a built-in well, designed for growing herbs and vegetables year-round.
Dale was named one of the Top Ten Green Architects in the country in 2005 by Natural Home and Garden magazine. “I have come to realize that our immune systems are under constant siege,” he says. “Government safety testing for toxins only considers short-term, maximum exposure. The problem with this is that in our homes and in our workplaces, and especially in our schools, we’re exposed over a long period of time to low levels of toxins. Formaldehyde, toluene, and benzines are in the air 24 hours a day—and we’re inside our buildings 80 percent of the time. The Environmental Protection Agency has listed indoor pollution as the number-one health concern for the next decade.
“Petrochemical products continue to outgas over their entire life. Outgassing is like evaporation, only with solid materials. A continual stream of toxic chemicals is released into the air we breathe.” Rather than particleboard, melamine plastic, and latex paints, Dale advocates the use of natural materials, plant-based paints without petrochemicals, and wood finishes made from plant oils and waxes.
The basic slab for Delphinium was laid directly on the ground, in order to eliminate the mold, dampness, and insect infestation that typically occur in a crawlspace. The slab, in combination with the thick walls, creates a thermal mass that conserves heat in winter and avoids the summer overheating that happens with a hollow-wall house. The walls are a mixture of 10- and 12-inch “European breathing walls,” which are constructed with Durisol, a product made with recycled woodchip blocks, stacked and filled with concrete. They are covered with a stucco coat on the building exterior, and plastered on the inside.
The concrete first floor is integrally colored with an oil-based stain of earth pigments. Brazilian cherry was used on the stairs, stairwell, and second floor hallways; and Portuguese cork is in the bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen. The kitchen countertops are of Verde butterfly granite; the master bathroom vanity is of marble; and the guest bathroom vanity is travertine. Bioshield Zero VOC solvent-free wall paints were used on all non-plaster walls (pigments were integrally mixed with the plaster to match the wall paint), and the wood finishes were made from 27 different kinds of plant oils and waxes that contain no biocides or preservatives.
A state-of-the-art Swiss boiler, with a sophisticated computer control system, separately monitors the outdoor and room temperature, the temperature of water returning from the radiantly heated floor, and the temperature of the solar collectors and solar storage. With no radiant heat in its floor, the pantry room off the north side of the kitchen stays naturally cool.
“The human body is designed to be heated radiantly,” Dale explains, “and yet 99 percent of our buildings are heated with forced air. This is all wrong. On every continent, hot, dry air has been associated with disease. We decided to put radiant heat in our floors and lay the floors directly on the ground to keep in touch with the earth. Inside, I decided to rely on plants in conjunction with the natural building materials to maintain a healthy environment. If your plants are healthy, you know it’s a healthy environment. They are a great indicator. They also work to remove toxins from the air and to create and stabilize humidity.” >>>
The shower and dressing area of the master suite is adjacent but slightly removed from the area designed for soaking, meditation, yoga or napping.
The two highest parts of the building’s roof—over the master bedroom suite and hot tub, and over the office and guest bedroom—hold 120 evacuated-tube solar collectors on the roof, angled to maximize sun exposure. They are used to heat the domestic hot water for bathing and cleaning (and the second-floor hot tub!), as well as for the heated slab. Water as an element has been carefully considered by Dale and Peggy, from the column inside the front door to how the resource is used daily. All the water for the house is run through an Austrian Water Revitalizing device, which restructures the water molecules into long chains similar to the way they are structured in nature. This makes the water more available for absorption by the body, reducing the drying effect on the skin. The filtering also takes out the chlorine.
The second floor is a haven for domestic comfort. A spacious, sunlit room off the master bedroom—designed for yoga, meditation, bathing, and napping—features a deep soaking tub for two and a platform with a cotton futon. Another special feature makes the master bedroom a true oasis. As Dale observes, “Electric fields are suspected of interfering with brain hormone production, and that can interfere with sleep, moods, and the immune system . . . Ever wonder why you sleep so well in a rustic summer cabin or out in nature?” Dale avoided this potential hazard by including a master disconnect switch that turns off all power to the bedrooms, including the light fixtures in the room below, and by eliminating any wiring in the walls behind the bed’s headboard.
Stress and anxiety may be common aspects of daily life, but almost everyone seeks in some way to alleviate them. We are drawn to comfort, and strive to create our home as an oasis. Perhaps the deep level of comfort we are seeking eludes us because the buildings in which we work—and retreat—have evolved into unhealthy environments. It is time, as Dale and Peggy Bates suggest, to challenge the status quo.
Mark Johnstone has worked with architects and artists since 1988. He lives in Hailey.