By Georgie Binks Special to the Star
Tue., Jan. 26, 2021timer3 min. read
Just as the hills, vineyards and skies of the Okanagan Valley curve and flow, so does the design of Naramata Bench House.
Located on the east side of B.C.’s Okanagan Lake, Naramata Bench is a fertile strip of level benchland, with steep inclines above and below it, running north from Penticton. Naramata Bench House mimics the shape of the narrow swath that is renowned for its many vineyards, and architects designed it with a multi-structure flow: a main house and workshop/garage, plus a studio that together cover nearly 5,500 square feet. Tucked into the curve of the house is a courtyard and garden that back onto Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park.
The property’s vineyard and lake views are undeniable highlights. Yet the standout feature of Naramata Bench House is arguably its rammed earth walls that incorporate different coloured soils and minerals from the benchlands. Created by the artist/owner, her vision for the outdoor mural was then cast into the layered, pastel walls that total 220 feet.
The centre of the home is the main living area with kitchen, dining and living room. On the west side is a guest wing, and on the east side is the primary bedroom and ensuite that are separated from the main living area by a covered outdoor room.
Built with Douglas fir, red cedar and coloured stucco, the home’s sustainable features include passive cooling — with shading and air circulation to reduce energy consumption — and a radiant-heated floor using a geo-heat exchange.
Naramata Bench House took two years to design and build and was completed in 2014.
Architects Kim Smith and Bo Helliwell, of Helliwell and Smith, Blue Sky Architecture Inc. in Vancouver, answer a few questions about Naramata Bench House:
What was the inspiration for the home?
As with all buildings we design, our starting point is the site — the light, weather, topography, landscape and views. The Naramata Bench is a beautiful landscape, with a rugged desert vegetation in muted reds, browns and greys with soft shades of green vegetation. The land drops steeply towards the lake to the west, and the home’s painting studio is tucked into this hillside.
What were the challenges in designing and building the home?
The Okanagan has an extreme desert climate, so a very important aspect of designing in this area is making buildings that can maintain a comfortable interior climate.
We typically don’t use air conditioning and the owners didn’t want it. We did a careful study of roof overhangs for natural shade and opening windows and air circulation for cross ventilation and passive cooling.
How does such an open design and provide privacy?
The site is at the end of a country road with one farm as a neighbour, so privacy is not a big issue. The large-view windows in the home are perched over a dropping hillside, so privacy comes with the topography and the site.
How were the beautiful rammed earth walls created?
They connect the building directly to the beautiful desert landscape, and the buildings to each other. The earth is from the surrounding soils, so colours and textures blend with the surrounding hillside.
Our artist/client worked closely with the rammed earth builders to understand the principles and opportunities of this form of construction. She did a water colour painting of how to compose the colour of these walls… built in a similar way to concrete walls, with form work filled with layers of concrete, different coloured minerals and soil to create a layered landscape painting.
A long, curving rammed earth wall along the entrance brings you to the front door and into the building. Another rammed earth wall was placed perpendicular to that wall to demarcate the entrance area.
Another, by the road welcomes you to the home. Each wall marks an important place to pause, move through and connect to the desert.
Georgie Binks is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org