Green Gables
By Jason D.B. Kauffman
Photos by Paulette Phlipot

Jolyon Sawrey's Griffin Ranch house south of Bellevue reveals itself in layers. Walking into the inner sanctum of this environmentally conscious architect's home is a willfully premeditated journey from public to private space.

Entering the single-story abode, one is immediately presented with a low-slung, 8-foot-high ceiling. A warm host, Sawrey prefers to meet his guests with the shake of a hand and a friendly smile in a space that engenders closeness.

Through the entry foyer, a perpendicular wall bends the flow of the home sharply to the left or right. Here, Sawrey and his wife, Kari, guide their guests to the right, where they immediately encounter one of the home's most unique features. Called a "wabi-sabi" column, the gnarled, hand-scraped log pillar seems out of place. But that’s the point. Juxtaposed against the rest of the modern home, the weathered column symbolizes the imperfections of man.

The column is just the beginning of Sawrey's use of the feng shui principle in his dream home. The wooden pillar is intended to treat the flow of energy like that of water, spreading a guest's energy out and introducing it to the private, inner half of the home. "Kind of like a rock in the river," Sawrey said.

From here, the ceilings open up. Once in the expanded inner embrace of the home, liberated by the calm energy of the vaulted ceilings, a guest is encouraged to relax. The journey has breezed between public, semi-public and on finally into the home’s private, inner heart. "Now you're in an even bigger space. I'm welcoming you into each one of those layers."

Sawrey is a vociferous evangelist for well-thought-out spaces. Every decision that went into designing his home has a clear reason for being. The kitchen, though connected to the living room and its tall ceilings, is intimate and cozy. "If you and I are going to gather and have a beer or cook something, now we’re back under a lower drop ceiling," he explained. "Now we convene together."

As an architect Sawrey specializes in green building. His years of experience with alternative and healthy building systems provide the basis for his two businesses, Vital Ink Architecture and Vital SPEC. His home further reflects this passion for protecting the environment and being as little of a burden on the ecosystem as possible.

Sawrey designed his house in a "rural-Idaho, turn-of-the-century, rustic farm vernacular"—proving, he feels, that it's possible to have a home work in a mutually beneficial way with the processes of the natural world. In the past, features used in his home would have been considered common sense. But today, many people have forgotten these lessons.

For centuries, homes were oriented to take advantage of the warming rays of the sun. But in the modern age, that lesson has largely been lost. Sawrey oriented the garage and concrete slab in front of his home to allow the sun to naturally burn off snow. No need to constantly fire up a gassy snow blower or struggle with a snow shovel to keep the driveway clear.

In a similar way, the house jogs in and out at right angles three times on its west side. Each jut-out shades the next from the hot western afternoon sun. "You’re controlling your views; you’re using your form as a functional object to work with privacy and to provide an additional benefit, minimizing solar heating." Long, overhanging rooflines shade windows from the hot summer sun, but allow the low-angle sun of winter to spread its warming rays into the home.

The outdoor shade porch on the west side of the house allows the winter sun to extend 23 feet into the home, warming the concrete, thermal mass floors. Beneath the acid-stained concrete is 6 inches of volcanic pumice and no crawl space. "You've seen how pumice floats on water. That’s an insulator, there's air trapped in there," Sawrey said. "Our insulation is natural."

Further combining the out-of-doors world with the indoor human space, Sawrey has added a planter in the living room. The concrete floor is cut away to expose the rich mineral soil beneath the home. "The plants are growing right into the earth."

In leaving nothing to chance, Sawrey is persistent. People are aware they shouldn't live beneath power lines. But how much is too much? Preferring not to find out, Sawrey installed a switch at the entrance to the master bedroom that shuts off all electromagnetic fields that would surround their bodies while they sleep and may have harmful effects.

All these well-laid plans convince Sawrey that his and his wife's health have benefited from living in this home. "Health is the mind, spirit and the body. It’s all of it."


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wLearn from Jolyon

The high thermal mass walls
are made from cement wood fiber block (picture below). These concrete-filled blocks come in two-foot-long, one-foot-thick sections and are highly energy efficient as well as fire and termite resistant. They also help cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The focal wall in the master bedroom is plastered with “healthy” drywall mud (pictured top left). Some drywall mud contains antifreeze, “That’s probably not something I want off-gassing in my home.” Rather than paint, the plaster is tinted with organic coffee from Ketchum’s Coffee Grinder.

The exterior walls are covered in natural stucco, free of paint or latex. This provides long-term weather resistance and needs little upkeep.

Surrounding the home is a
30-foot, fire-wise clear zone planted with drought tolerant grasses (

Sawrey used industrial, barn-style doors throughout.
“If the door is open 80 or 90 percent of the time, why have the swing door encumber the space?”

Want to track the sun’s annual path across the sky? Orient your home so that at 10 a.m. on the morning of the Spring Equinox the sun lines up with a window and streams its rays inside.




“Health is the mind, spirit and the body. It’s all of it.”
Jolyon Sawrey

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