Ephemeral Design: Don’t throw beauty out the window when designing energy-efficient homes

Written by Mark Pelletier and Emily Varmecky. Edited by John Burbidge.

Think of the most beautiful and uplifting home you’ve been in. What did you remember most, the builder’s material contributions—the granite counter tops, the walk-in closet, and the bathroom vanity? Or was it the feeling that you had while in the home—the feeling of peace and comfort created by a thoughtful designer who integrated the subtle and ephemeral qualities of nature with the built form?  And most importantly, why has this sort of designing all but disappeared in our home designs?

With rising energy costs and increasing concerns on the health of our planet, energy-efficient homes are more important than ever. In the green building industry, we are in a time period that is epitomized by the increased importance of designing and building homes that are more sustainable and energy-efficient. With the focus of green homes on efficiency and budget, has beauty been left out of the design process? An argument could be made that most energy-efficient homes have become technological containers rather than beautiful and uplifting living spaces.


In order to meet modern technological criteria, energy-efficient homes have become increasingly complex and now require an array of specialists, technicians, and building subcontractors to create them. Each one of these specialists is hired to implement and install technologies such as super insulation, heat recovery ventilators to provide fresh air, and LoE triple pane windows to keep heat loss and gain under control. The builder’s primary concerns when building a house are of the solid and concrete: the materials, tile patterns, and drywall textures. These are all important parts of the technology and construction of an energy-efficient home. However, the craft of creating beauty within the home is getting less emphasis and a smaller piece of the total budget.

Most homes today have flat 8-foot high drywall ceilings with boxy geometries. These homes are predictable and static, and sometimes they don’t even function properly. The rooms and spaces have been engineered to be static to keep the heat in, yet with fewer and smaller windows to keep the neighbor’s lawnmower noise out. Often there is little to no thought put into what views these windows are broadcasting into the home ,to the extent where often you are viewing the driveway or looking into the neighbors bathroom.  The only dynamics in the room are the flickering TV or an electric fan to ward off the stuffiness. The odors present are often unnatural: off-gassing carpet, some cleaning agents, maybe an artificial bathroom freshener. Hue or color changes in sunlight throughout the day can clash with poor paint schemes, becoming too bright, too saturated, or even mixing to create unappealing colors.


A beautiful home, on the other hand, feels alive, familiar, and comforting. Ephemeral and uplifting dwelling spaces that are also energy-efficient employ a delicate balance between science and art. To illustrate the ephemeral aspects of beautiful design, think about the changing, the momentary, and the transitory features of nature. Imagine sitting next to a bubbling stream watching the sunlight casting shadows of huge billowing clouds across a forest floor of small wildflowers. The air smells of warm earth and freshly flowing pinesap. The aspen trees give off a strong green hue against a deep blue spring sky. Imagine the same beautiful spot in the fall, then in the winter, and how all of the scents, colors, shades, sounds, and feelings of that place change over the seasons. Observe how this environment is about distance and space, largeness and smallness, openness and closeness, heights and depths; how it is all constantly and subtly changing.

I think we can all remember some spaces that we have been in that have integrated natural phenomena into them and how they feel dynamic and alive. From dawn to dusk the sunlight casts different qualities of light and shadows throughout the room. There are direct views of the constantly changing outdoors: a cedar waxwing that lands in a tree, the changing sunset, a blizzard of snowflakes blowing horizontally. Within the home, the movement of firelight from a stove flickering and casting an orange glow creates a sense of coziness and well-being. In the summer, a gentle breeze from the open windows flows across your forehead causing a cooling sensation and the floral scents of a lilac bush sweep past.

Designing the ephemeral qualities of the natural environment into our homes replaces the need for expensive cover-up materials, finishes, air conditioning, and artificial air fresheners. Designing the home to showcase the beauty of the natural world is not about a purchased item or a technology. This type of designing comes from recognizing how ephemeral qualities make us feel truly alive. Every home site, be it rural, suburban, or urban, has at least one beautiful natural element to share with the inhabitants within. It might be a grand vista of the mountains, a small view of your backyard garden, or even just a single tree or piece of sky. How best to showcase these elements comes down to thoughtful design.  When designing homes to be beautiful and unique, the designer must consider void (empty) space as important as solid materials and textures.


Making adjustments to heights, widths, lengths, and angles gives the home interior dynamics that can’t be arrived at through 2D plans and elevations alone. Adjustment of window locations, their heights off of the floor, and their proportions are essential considerations in order to harvest the available beauty of the outside environment. Moving shadows of shimmering foliage need surfaces on which to be cast. Part of beautiful, spatial design comes from recognizing cues that
occur outside as well as inside the home then adjusting geometries, colors, textures and even furniture to highlight, contrast, or blend in with the existing phenomena.

Natural light, shadows, and colors are completely free resources that you can enjoy within your home, but must be integrated through proper design. All of this and more is possible and not prohibitively expensive. Let’s not throw beauty out the window in a misguided quest to save money…lets bring it in to create thoughtful and energy efficient homes that inspire us.

A version of this article was published in the Summer 2014 edition of Distinctly Montana Magazine. “Ephemeral Design” begins on page 67  and our snapshot and bio is in the Contributor’s Section on page 10.


  • April 15, 2014

    This is our latest written article. Its about the ephemeral side of designing a home and less about technology/energy-efficiency. Thanks to John Burbidge from How To Paint A House Right for editing it for us!

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