Sunterra's History

The founder of SunTerra Homes, Inc., Jim Chauncey, relocated to Billings, Montana from Portland, Oregon with his family of five in 1974. He brought with him an education in architecture, the title of engineering specialist from Freightliner Corporation, real estate licenses in Oregon and Montana, his general contracting tools, and a desire to design and build energy-efficient, alternative-energy homes. In Billings, Jim started his design and construction business.


It was this year that Jim Chauncey Design and Construction started a company named Solar Works, Incorporated to provide products for his own construction projects. It soon expanded into a full-blown, alternative-energy heating company providing products and installation services to homeowners and builders throughout Montana and Wyoming.

As alternative energy products developed, Solar Works transitioned from using solar air collectors to water collectors. Great improvements in system efficiency were made when water collectors and water storage tanks are linked with hot-water, radiant floor heating.

The array of products developed through Chauncey’s innovations and background in engineering and architecture motivated him to build a better active solar system. Solar Works designed an economical solar collector that could be installed perfectly level on a roof and still drain all water to prevent freezing. Solar Works also built their own plastic storage tanks and control modules providing a total solar heating system.



During this era of history many designers were motivated to improve home energy efficiency. Some of these included:

Active solar heating
Passive solar heating
Super insulated double walled construction
Sub-terranian construction – Live in a cave
Envelope homes
Straw bale homes
Dome homes with panels or urethane shell
Rammed earth homes
Earth ship - used tire construction

At this point, Jim's real estate background came into play. He evaluated these questions:

What is the best investment for the home consumer?
Will their home appreciate in value?
Will adding an alternative heating system be cost effective?
Will improving the efficiency of the structure save more each year than it costs?
Will the home be more comfortable for the home owner, or less comfortable?
Will the home’s environment be healthier or cause interior pollution issues?

SunTerra looked at all the professed radical solutions in home building and realized the truthful solution was not in employing one concept but rather a balance of several alternative home building methods. Put simply, "A house is a system."

A conservative active solar system was affordable because of financial benefits received by state and federal tax credits in the mid 1980s.

A passive solar system could be and should be incorporated in home design as long as the heat generated by this system can be distributed and controlled in a way that does not overheat the space, creating discomfort.

Insulation could be increased to the point that the cost of investment would not pass the point of diminishing returns.

Air tight construction with controlled ventilation providing healthy air quality was an essential feature of the system.

Earth sheltering was appropriate if the building site allowed.

The SunTerra home became a cost effective hybrid design providing more value to the home owner.

Cut-Away View of a SunTerra Home

Cut-Away Home

It was this comprehensive evaluation of energy-efficient construction that gained SunTerra the State of Montana Governor’s Citation for Meritorious Service Award and Energy Innovation Award from the United States Department of Energy in 1986.

SunTerra continued designing and building custom homes for their clients until 1990 when the family and business moved back to Oregon.

The company has remained commited to building energy-efficient homes that surpass client expectations. SunTerra homes continues to lead the industryin green home building, achieving many local and national awards.

SunTerra proudly presents this website,, to provide plans and information to all who wish to duplicate the construction of our award-winning homes. There are over 70 home designs incorporating effective conservation that has made SunTerra Homes a winner. Jim Chauncey has written a 122-page Conservation Guide giving all of the “in the trenches” information learned over the past 30 years. Everyone deserves the best home their hard-earned money can buy; that is a SunTerra home!



First Active Solar Home 1978


  • Site-built, solar-air collector integrated into attic
  • Double-paned glass glazing
  • White reflective roof to increase performance
  • Flat black painted absorber
  • Air plenum from collector to storage
  • Rock and cement block storage under lower level of home
  • Mechanically controlled to heat storage in winter and cool in summer
  • Passive solar integrated for day-time heating
  • Urethane foam insulation



First Solar Professional Building 1979

  • Air collectors with black chrome absorber plate and low lead antireflective glass glazing
  • Phase change salt storage in plastic containers 102 BTU/1 LB at 90° F
  • Natural gas, forced-air, backup heating



First Solar Subdivision, Montana 1981


  • Air collectors with black selective coated absorber plate
  • Low-lead, antireflective glass
    Stacked brick storage in basement
  • Natural-gas, forced-air, backup heating