Dream Home: BC’s Okanagan Valley can be seen in the residence’s unique walls

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Just as the hills, vineyards, and skies of the Okanagan Valley curve and flow, so does the design of the Naramata Bench House.

Located on the east side of Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, the Naramata Bench is a fertile strip of flat benchlands with steep inclines above and below that run north of Penticton. The Naramata Bench House mimics the shape of the narrow swath known for its many vineyards, and the architects designed it with a multi-structure flow: a main house and workshop / garage and studio, which together cover nearly 500 square meters. There is a courtyard and garden at the curve of the house that lead back to Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park.

The property’s vineyards and lake views are undeniable highlights. The outstanding feature of the Naramata Bench House, however, are probably the rammed earth walls, which contain different colored floors and minerals from the Benchlands. Designed by the artist / owner, her vision for the outdoor mural was poured into the layered, pastel-colored walls that total 220 feet.

The center of the house is the main living area with kitchen, dining and living room. There is a guest wing on the west side and the master bedroom and bathroom on the east side, separated from the main living area by a covered outdoor space.

The house is made of Douglas fir, red cedar and colored stucco. The sustainable features of the house include passive cooling – with shading and air circulation to reduce energy consumption – and a floor heated by radiation with geothermal heat exchange.

The design and construction of the Naramata Bench House took two years and was completed in 2014.

The window walls of the house, revealing the family living area, covered porch, and master bedroom and bathroom on the right, overlook the Okanagan Valley.

Architects Kim Smith and Bo Helliwell from Helliwell and Smith, Blue Sky Architecture Inc. in Vancouver, answer a few questions about the Naramata Bench House:

What was the inspiration for the home?

As with all buildings we design, our starting point is location – light, weather, topography, landscape and views. Naramata Bank is a beautiful landscape with rough desert vegetation in muted reds, browns, and grays with soft green tones. The land slopes steeply in the west towards the lake, and the house’s painting studio is on this slope.

Naramata Bench House's living areas overlook Lake Okanagan and the area's many vineyards.

What were the challenges in designing and building the house?

The Okanagan has an extreme desert climate, so a very important consideration in designing this area is to construct buildings that can maintain a comfortable indoor climate.

We don’t usually use air conditioning and the owners didn’t want it. We carefully studied roof overhangs for natural shade and opening windows, as well as airflow for cross ventilation and passive cooling.

The master en suite bedroom is at one end of the long house.  The bathroom and bedroom are separated from the main living area by a covered terrace.

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How does such an open design work and offer privacy?

The site is at the end of a country road with a farm as a neighbor, so privacy isn’t a major issue. The large viewing windows in the house are over a sloping hill, so the topography and location provide privacy.

How did the beautiful rammed earth walls come about?

They connect the building directly with the beautiful desert landscape and the buildings with each other. The earth comes from the surrounding soils, so colors and textures merge with the surrounding slope.

The Naramata Bench House follows the shape of the bank land above Lake Okanagan.

Our artist / customer worked closely with the rammed earth farmers to understand the principles and possibilities of this construction method. She painted a watercolor of how to put the color of these walls together … built much like concrete walls, with formwork filled with layers of concrete, different colored minerals, and earth to create a layered landscape image.

A long, curved rammed earth wall along the entrance brings you to the front door and into the building. Another rammed earth wall was placed perpendicular to this wall to demarcate the entrance area.

Another, on the street, welcomes you home. Each wall marks an important place to stop, move, and connect with the desert.

Georgie Binks is a Toronto-based writer and freelance writer for the star. Reach her at binksgeorgie@gmail.com