Paul Hirzel, AIA, spends most of his workdays teaching at Washington State University and heading up its architecture graduate program. So he limits his one-person practice to projects he can't bring himself to turn down—projects like this vacation retreat in a Juliaetta, Idaho, canyon. The clients found Hirzel through their daughter, a former student of his. Their receptive attitude and rugged, 40-acre site proved too tempting to decline.

“They're amazing clients who are open to the strangeness architects have going on in their heads,” he says.

He decided to split the home into two buildings to provide different experiences. The 1,414-square-foot main residence is anchored along a steep ridge, while a 756-square-foot bunkhouse lies in a protected ravine. Wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour can whip across the land, so he gave the main house a moment-resisting wood frame. “A steel frame would have been double the cost,” he explains. He slipped floors and walls clad in standing-seam metal inside the Douglas fir frame, leaving it exposed to the elements. “To do a house on this site that isn't tough didn't make sense to me,” he says. Placing the building on concrete piers proved less expensive than digging a conventional foundation and minimized damage to the land.

Low-grade white pine, locally grown and cut, forms the interior walls and cabinetry. “It's as cheap a wood material as you can buy,” Hirzel says. Sheets of low-cost, diamond-plate galvanized steel cover the bathroom and entry floors, as well as the shower walls. Instead of expensive standard railings, he had general contractor Robert Wilson assemble off-the-shelf ones using cables, bolts, and connectors. Sealed OSB, another budget material, lies underfoot in most of the public areas. To reduce construction time and material cost, Hirzel eliminated interior doors, room partitions, and even stair risers. The open plan encourages cross-ventilation—a key component of the project's no-air-conditioning, passive cooling strategy. A wood stove with a fan-driven air recirculation system provides most of the heat.

The home's total cost came to less than $100 per square foot. But Hirzel cautions that construction in Idaho and Eastern Washington generally carries a much lower price tag than in the coastal Pacific Northwest, adding that building costs have risen dramatically since the house's completion in 2003. He also credits Wilson with keeping his own fees low. “Bob was game to do a project that would push his portfolio of project types,” he says. “That was a significant reason why the house came in as it did.” Hirzel also cites indigenous structures as his models for straightforward, cost-effective shelter. “The house is a distant derivative of some of the old mining structures in the canyon,” he says. “These utilitarian buildings are extremely efficient. They use the least amount of material to achieve the greatest amount of shelter.”

Canyon House, Juliaetta, Idaho

Paul Hirzel: Architect, Pullman, Wash.

project team:
Mike Jobes and Greg Kessler, Washington State University, Pullman

general contractor:
Robert Wilson, R. Wilson Construction, Troy, Idaho

structural engineers:
Harold Sorenson, Pullman, and Jeff Filler, PE, Advance Professional Engineering, Moscow, Idaho

project size:
1,414 square feet (main house); 756 square feet (bunkhouse)

site size:
40 acres

construction cost:
Less than $100 per square foot

Art Grice