A Flurry of Fun - Ashland is Base Camp - Winter '24 Issue

Monday, January 29, 2018

Ecodesign Tasting Room at Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden

To Build a First

Ecodesign Tasting Room at Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden

Story by Paula Bandy

Photography provided by Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden


Since the 2008 opening of Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden, almost 80 of their Rhone-style wines have received a 90+ score. They have a quarter acre of 1000 lavender plants, and they annually sell 7000 pounds of asparagus to three local markets. Also grown on the estate are cherries, heirloom fruit trees, artichokes, and hazelnuts. They have four dogs, and Bo graces the cover of the Winery Dogs of Oregon book. Their recently completed elegant, modern Euro-style tasting room is the first in the world to receive the rigorous Living Building Challenge (LBC) status. It's currently overproducing energy at 190 percent. The tasting room also received a national award from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Among the many accolades Cowhorn has received, a particularly shiny one came from Wine Advocate who called them “Southern Oregon's Viticultural Star.” Cowhorn may sound a bit charmed, but it has not come without personal vision and a lot of hard, focused work by founders/owners Bill and Barbara Steele. They reached for a star and they made it shine.

Speaking about the original concept for the tasting room Bill Steele says, "We wanted something that was consistent with the brand, the way we live. This biodynamic farm is really just an extension of the way Barb and I have lived for 30 years. So, she started doing research on what a living building is and found Living Building Challenge. LBC is in my words the biodynamic equivalent of construction."

If this is not the usual quote you'd expect from an ex-Wall Streeter, that is only the beginning. Bill often drives around the vineyard and estate on a quad, his shoulder length hair glinting like a comet's tail behind him. But Bill is a numbers guy, so when they were presented with the option of choosing up to seven challenges that make up the petals (place, water, energy, health + happiness, materials, equity, beauty) of LBC certification Bill says, "It's in my personality to, well, say, really, we can do seven, let's do seven. Why not, why not try? We didn't know we could do it because no one had ever done it before in a tasting room. And it was only the 63rd building worldwide and 22nd in US. We were in uncharted territory. In our infinite wisdom we went after all seven, which we have achieved. The materials thing—who knew it would take 18 months of constantly trying to source everything."

From start to finish it was a three-year process. The LBC certification program and sustainable design framework is currently the most rigorous and dynamic construction available worldwide. Core components to a living building are—the building gives more than it takes, certification requires actual performance demonstrated over 12 consecutive months, creative site-specific design solutions, and visualizes the ideal for a built environment. Every material used must be sourced and certified—including recipes for paint and adhesives—down to the last screw. There was one person dedicated just to sourcing materials.

The Steele's worked with Green Hammer, a Portland based design build firm specializing in high performance ecodesign, with a branch office in Talent. Using around 65 local subcontractors, which is part of the challenge, as in using as much locally sourced material as possible, they used all FSC Oregon white oak, cedar and juniper. Two-and-a-half tons of insulation were used, and all lighting is LED. The building is 99.94 percent airtight and as Bill says, "Could be heated with a hair dryer." He continues, "Only five percent of everything we used made it to a landfill. 95 percent was either used or recycled, which is amazing in construction and the age of packaging and plastics. There is a lot of technicality to it, yet all energy free."

The back painted glass behind the wine bar reflects the vineyard like a watercolor painting. A dying Black Walnut was sourced from the Woodburn area to create the 14' main table that anchors the tasting room with the warmth of its rich wood. Around it are transparent acrylic chairs. The paint on the walls is meticulous and glows with a soft moonlike luster. Beauty is one of the petals but the aesthetics are sleek, with no fussiness. Bill emphasizes the style is Barb's vision and she and Green Hammer supervised the entire construction.

At one point Bill came in and saw a person pouring what looked like white paint all over the white oak floor. It turned out fine but as he says, "There were some heart-stopping moments." A similar moment happened when he walked by and saw preparations to install the windows. The large sliding glass windows open to the vineyard. Each one weighs 1200 lbs. "It took eight guys and two machines, and about two hours later I could hear clapping."

The outside walls by the main door are recycled cork and Corten steel, a metal that will patina, so the building will age over the years, not unlike fine wines.

"I think people should come out and see. I think it's something the region should be proud of. We should celebrate our victories. It's not just Cowhorn and Green Hammer. It is 65 subs and a region that came together to build a first in the world, and that is important in a region that struggles for an identity. We don't view it as a Cowhorn achievement. We view it as an us. We're very proud it happened in southern Oregon.”


Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden

1665 Eastside Rd., Jacksonville




Green Hammer

806 S. Pacific Hwy Suite A, Talent




For more specifics on this LBC building go to www.living-future.org

You'll find detailed articles about each component on Cowhorn under Certified Case Studies.



The Steele's residence is up the hill from the tasting room and although built to LBC standards, it is not certified. However, it does meet the Passive House standard, which is European and the highest energy efficiency standard in the world. Bill reiterates it's again Barb's vision "with lots of black and white motif. The aesthetics are similar to the tasting room, but with a different form and function." Down the long main hallway are stunning black walnut cabinets built by William Olson in Ashland. "He went to great pains," says Bill, "as the grain of the wood is matched from door to door so it flows."

The house stays 68 degrees 24 hours a day and once the tasting room is certified Bill can aggregate the meters, which will take the house off the grid also. It's a streamlined design with a breezeway that attaches to a gym and pool. There's a small cottage for private guests. Large windows open and pivot in with views toward both the vineyards and the mountains. Cabinets allow for everything to be hidden away because "Bill and Barb were just so tired of knickknacks." The space as Bill says, is "wide open and dog friendly. They each have their own bed to sleep on."

"The house is like the wines; the wines are softer, rounder, nuanced wines. There are no elbows to them and that's the way the house is. It's clean, softer, it's rounder, there are no elbows. There are no sharp edges."

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