SunTerra Homes' 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, a 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.


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

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

The mirage of products with Chauncey’s background in engineering and architecture motivated him to build a better active solar system than he could purchase. Solar Works designed a solar collector that could be installed perfectly level on a roof and still drain all water to protect from freezing. They also built their own plastic storage tanks and control modules providing a total solar heating system.



During this part of history many things were tried in the construction industry to improve home energy efficiency including:

  • 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 put his real estate hat on to evaluate:

What is best for the home consumer?
Will their home maintain good resale value?
Will adding an alternative heating system be cost effective?
Will improving the efficiency of the structure save more each year than it costs to own the home each year?
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 solutions in home building to save the planet and realized the truth was a balance in the alternative home building methods.

A conservative active solar system could be installed because of 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 could be distributed and controlled to not overheat the space, thus creating comfort issues.

Insulation could be increased to the point that the cost of investment does not hit the point of diminishing return.

Airtight construction with controlled ventilation was also part of the package.

Earth sheltering was appropriate if the building site allowed.

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


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 continued with the same focus--to build a home that surpasses their customers’ expectations. SunTerra Homes continues to always improve, evolve, and achieve many local and national awards.

SunTerra has recently ventured into a new 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. Along with the plans Jim Chauncey has written a 122-page Conservation Guide giving all 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 

First Active Solar Subdivision 


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

Solar Homes - Designs for Sale by SunTerra Homes