rendering above by artist, Lorraine Plaxico 

Artist Home in the Tree Tops

We were asked to design this passive solar home for a creative couple; these artists wished to have minimum impact to the diverse local environment. The house was to incorporate an artist’s studio and an amphibian environment within a highly energy efficient envelope. The placement of windows and movement of light within the space were very important to our clients, as well as the the ability to utilize outdoor spaces for socializing, cooking and sleeping. Careful analysis of a steep site, their personal living patterns and detailed sun studies, with examination of window performance and placements, allowed us to accomplish these goals.

To the greatest extent possible, materials for this project were locally sourced, and the owners were very involved in the material selection and acquisition process. Our clients located a quantity of panels of commercial, cementitious siding material that they wished to use for their home. We integrated this with sho-shugi-ban (charred cypress) at the entry and for some of the exterior accents. Much of the cypress was charred by one of the owners, who enjoyed wielding the torch.

The combination of adjacent North and South clerestory windows was an interesting design challenge and we were very pleased with the result. The combination of direct, ambient and reflected light in the interior creates a very comfortable and dynamic environment.

One of the owners is a Smithsonian Fellow, renowned for his work in herpetology, and a delight to work with. The considerations involved in creating an amphibian environment for his work with the home was a once in a lifetime experience; we went through a number of fun variations of what we came to call the amphibatrium, and consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with both him and his engaging wife.

The footprint of the house was kept to a minimum. The lower level studio is connected to the main living area by an elevator. Both levels of the home make use of expanded outdoor areas for living, work and entertaining. Basic, unconditioned storage requirements were met by incorporating two shipping containers that are concealed under a sleeping porch on one end of the home. Locally sourced and reclaimed materials are utilized throughout.

The project site is steep, requiring detailed site analysis for building placement and to minimize damage to the property. Careful studies of window placement, and types, were performed to address both passive solar benefits and optimal day lighting strategies.

Cisterns provide a water source for a living moss wall on the North side of the home that is integral to the structure. The house received a Green Built North Carolina Gold Certification.


  • Designer: Alembic Studio, LLC
  • General Contractor: Equinox Woodworks
  • Engineering: Medlock & Associates
  • Mechanical Systems: Bullman Heating