A Lookout Above: A Cozy, Solar-Powered Home in Oregon

Despite the complexity of the design, this homeowner finally gets her sustainable watchtower-inspired home.

| January/February 2006

As a small girl, standing 75 feet aloft on a fire lookout tower, I told my dad that someday I would live in a house of similar design. That was in 1946. More than fifty years later, that intention has become a reality. My solar-powered, 1,000-square-foot home rises three stories into Central Oregon’s high desert, with windows and a catwalk deck wrapping the entire top floor to capture sweeping views of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains and the rugged cliffs of Deschutes River Canyon.

Off and on for six years, I lived in a funky little trailer under a juniper tree, getting to know my five acres in all seasons and conditions. During a snowy Thanksgiving weekend in 1998, my son Brent Alm, an architect in Vail, Colorado, created a model of my future home using a kitchen knife and cardboard retrieved from a Dumpster. All my life I’d been fascinated with the historic lookout towers built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, so I asked him to base it on the traditional, fourteen-foot square, Forest Service L-4 fire lookout. While I wanted a small footprint, that seemed a little too small for year-round living, so we bumped up the size to twenty square feet. We also added interior stairs so that all floors could be accessed without going outside, as temperatures at this 3,000-foot elevation can plunge to zero degrees in winter.

Making progress 

Several builders rejected my project, scared off by the complexity of building a 35-foot-high structure on a 20-by-20 footprint, but a series of fortuitous events jump-started my progress. The engineering plans called for hefty posts and beams because of the house’s height and wind-prone location. I wanted to use recycled materials, and a local classified ad led me to a used-lumber broker. He suggested I talk to a local builder, Danny Richter, who works with old, reclaimed wood. When I saw Richter’s work, I knew I had found not only the wood I wanted, but the builder as well. Too busy to take on the complete project, but fascinated by the design, he agreed to frame the house and suggested that I—an inexperienced 60-year-old woman—act as general contractor to finish the project.

At his backyard mill, Richter had piles of Douglas fir posts, beams, and boards from the dismantled Oakland Naval Base, where my father had been stationed in 1942. We planed and sanded off navy-gray (undoubtedly lead-based) paint. As Richter shaved off inches of grime, beautiful wood emerged—rich with decades of nail holes and other signs of use. He sized timbers and laid out the radial of support beams, then transported them to the house site on his boom truck. Once at the site, it took some creativity to put together the system of spoked beams that supports the roof and cantilevers out to support the deck. Thankfully, Richter is very comfortable adjusting and creating as he goes.

I’m still amazed that this busy builder who had much bigger, more expensive homes to build agreed to frame my house. He probably made nothing—or perhaps lost money—on my job, and I’ll be forever indebted to him.

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