The Alley House: A Study In Process

The Alley House was the subject of my 8th design studio at the UO. This project is an attempt to craft a “home for our time” in central Eugene on a super-efficient split alley lot near downtown.

One of the best decisions a sustainably-oriented urban builder can make is to build close to the urban center(s). Dwellings built close to the urban center save massive amounts of energy over the long run in comparison to dwellings situated on a city’s periphery. This  saves transportation and labor costs during the building phase, but the greatest energy benefit comes to downtown inhabitants. Living close to the city’s center gives them the opportunity to walk and bike to work, school and other places, saving them energy every day and enriching the pedestrian atmosphere of their communities.

Having been challenged by the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative, my task was to explore new ways to make the classic single-family detached house fit into the urban fabric of Eugene in a more efficient way. I was given a 70′ x 44′ lot off of West 11th and Adams St which was sandwiched between several existing buildings and only had alley access. Given this compact lot (about 1/4 the average lot size in this neighborhood) I endeavored to provide everything the modern family should need to support themselves and to integrate comfortable into their urban surroundings.

My concept for “a home for our time” is a home where the cultivation, harvest and enjoyment of fresh food all take place in the same space. It is a home where urban agriculture and modern living blend together seamlessly.

I began my investigation with a detailed analysis of the site with special emphasis on solar dynamics with relation to organic gardening. After surveying and measuring the site and the surrounding buildings, I transferred that data into a digital Sketchup file and constructed a virtual site model.

The virtual site model is a handy tool to have but it is no substitute for a physical site model. I used the vectorized digital information from the site model to construct a physical one at 1/8″ = 1′ scale using Adobe Illustrator and a digital laser cutter. After detailed formatting, cutting and assembling (including the construction of a hearty base), the finished site model looked like this:

The site model was finished in monochrome chipboard and furnished with a variety of trees, cars, people and site accessories including telephone poles and fences.

The site model helped to inform early explorations of massing and general site layout. I went through several iterations of quick sketch models using this approach and checking these decisions on the model.


This exploration led me to a general site scheme where the house was pushed up against the East side of the lot. It had a Southern-style outdoor porch and a very literal 1 to 1 connection between the organic garden and the combined living room/dining/kitchen. This was the iteration of the house I presented at he midterm:

At this point in the design process, the house was conceived as being built of standard light-timber and furnished in a manner standard for this neighborhood.

After a detailed solar analysis and the comments of several members of the Eugene city planner’s board, I made several major schematic changes including pushing the house up to the  North side of the site rather than the East. This change allowed me to maximize the sunlight on the lot and to engineer the most productive organic garden possible given the lot orientation and surrounding structures.

As the scheme evolved, I moved away from light timber construction and adopted autoclaved aerated concrete as the primary structural system. This system has significant advantages in the cold climates of the NorthWest- providing excellent thermal insulation as well as primary structure for smaller structures. Having adopted this new structural system, I began exploring the interaction between primary and secondary structure with a physical model at 1/4″ = 1′ scale.

The next major iteration of the project moved toward AAC for primary and secondary structure. I experimented with carving space out of solid AAC walls and using AAC to hold up floors and the roof. It was also during this schematic iteration that I began getting into detail with the floor layout and key room relationships. Having explored various possibilities using the digital site model, I then moved up to 1/2″ = 1 ‘ and began to build a detailed house model that I could use to explore spacial and formal relationships.

This model was constructed with the utmost of care. I selected over 5 different modeling materials to represent the various major components in accurate scale and width. Materials were kept largely monotone to minimize spacial distractions. I used this model to investigate key spaces that I had designed into the house as well as several expositional “key views” that I designed into the scheme.

The view below shows the view looking south through the entry portico, through the sitting room and into the South-facing garden.

The following image shows the view to the East looking through an outdoor arched window, through the sitting room and its key-hole doorway and into the living room and kitchen.

The next image shows the vies Westward from the kitchen into the sitting room.

The next image shows a key view looking into to the house to the South from the alley. This view looks into a window, through the star-hallway and onto the living room and hearth.

I wanted to learn more about my new scheme, so I conducted a site mockup at full scale. The actual site was in someone’s back yard, so I used an open park on campus.

The Alley house went through eleven major schematic iterations before the final scheme was designed. The following images show a smattering of the major changes that occurred throughout the design process.

The image above shows the final incarnation of the Alley house as it was presented at final review. The floor plan for the final version of the house in relation to the site is as follows:

The left side of the floor plan (the West side) shows the sitting room/library as presented at the final review. This room is set into a 3′ thick AAC wall and has a benches recessed into the wall. It is lit by a special oculus sitting window and a stained glass window oriented to the South designed to spread colored light into the space. I investigated this room in 1/2″ = 1′ scale in painstaking detail in order to get a real feel for the space.

The following images represent a few of the exploratory perspectives I drew while designing the alley house.

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One response to “The Alley House: A Study In Process

  1. Pingback: The Alley House is Up | archblog

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