by Paul Shippee
Meet Ed, a retired sociologist who taught innovative classes at colleges and prisons. Now he is building a “healthy house,” his off-grid, passive solar home in Crestone. “This is my first owner-built home, and my last,” he told me when I asked about his building experience.
Ed is an unusually conscientious, budget-wise and careful owner-builder who seeks a harmonious and practical edge where social awareness meets environmental concerns. When I first visited Ed’s house last winter I was impressed with the myriad ways he was implementing the socially responsible ethic—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—and how he was integrating those earth-friendly principles with our local building culture. As I observed the many low-cost and low-embedded-energy building materials and techniques Ed was using, I was moved to take a closer look.
What is low-embedded-energy? It’s a fossil fuel energy accounting perspective that considers all the mining, manufacturing and transportation energy spent in order to get building materials (including concrete, wood, metals, plastics, insulation, etc.) to the site. I observed that Ed was bringing his sociology background and his awareness of the larger social-environmental picture into every detail of his house-building process. I thought to myself, here is a truly serious eco-builder.
Planning Ed’s house
Moving to Crestone a few years ago, Ed purchased a building lot at 1188 Hilltop Way and began with a simple one-story rectangular house plan with the long side facing south for best solar exposure. The roof would have an appropriate slope to accommodate both solar thermal collector panels (for space heating and domestic hot water) as well as solar electric (PV or photovoltaic) panels. The long south-facing house wall would be constructed to integrate a large array of passive solar windows into the extra-thick, double-stud wood-frame walls. In this way, living with the sun’s energy for heat and electricity would be combined with energy conservation in the form of lots of nontoxic, inexpensive insulation in the ceiling and house walls. Once having passed the POA building permit review, before the walls were built, Ed began shopping for recycled windows and doors. In other words, the basic open and flexible house design was to be built almost entirely around upcycled components and local building materials. Upcycling is a specific term for giving used materials a new life, thus saving them from the landfill.
Most of Ed’s upcycled building materials and components were sourced from the Resource-2000 yard in Boulder County and the no-longer-serviceable White Eagle Hotel in Crestone. Valley sawmill operators and Amish suppliers provided local wood products such as attractive spruce tongue & groove ceiling boards, rough-cut wall studs, roof trusses, and also coated steel roofing panels. Although travel to Boulder is energy intensive, Ed combined such trips with visits to help care for his son who was recovering from a serious bicycle accident there.
The Resource-2000 recycle yard is supported by a Boulder law requiring that buildings must be deconstructed piece-by-piece rather than demolished and sent to the landfill. Building components purchased there in good condition can be had for as little as one tenth of their new retail price.
Living with the sun
In addition to combining energy from the sun for both heat and electricity with extra insulation in the walls and ceiling, Ed is also prepared to opt for a low-demand lifestyle that he calls “living with the sun.” With a modest size home (988 sq. ft. interior) and mid-sized solar components, he understands that the sun doesn’t always shine. Timing showers and laundry for when solar energy is abundant is part of Ed’s overall energy conservation strategy, along with an outdoor clothesline and a robust wood stove for occasional cloudy winter days.
Recycling & upcycling
The list of upcycled items in Ed’s house is long. It includes all windows; all kitchen and bath sinks; bathroom tiles, tubs, toilets and shower enclosures; all interior and exterior doors; four solar thermal (hot water) collector panels; a solar thermal storage tank; recycled exterior and interior paint; large stainless steel industrial kitchen counter with sink; all plumbing fixtures (except new code-required shower mixing valves); a cast iron wood-burning kitchen cook stove, and a gas range cook top (the only propane gas usage); and cellulose insulation made from recycled paper. I must add that Ed is not a junk man! Choosing building items for upcycling that is consistent with a good-looking home aesthetic requires the discerning eye of an antique dealer. Cost savings from using upcycled building components can range from 75% to 95%.
Conserving fossil fuel energy and costs from the mining, manufacturing and transportation of new building materials purchased from far-away corporate retailers riding a global economy is the kingpin of Ed’s keen socio-environmental perspective. We live in a rich, surplus society with much built-in waste. Building Ed’s house shows how it is possible to opt almost completely out of such a system while on the same hand answering the call for doing positive social good. This creative nonparticipation calls on modern communities to envision and create benign social structures that support sustainability, cooperation and mutual aid. Abandon enemy images!
By using locally milled rough-cut lumber for wall studs Ed was able to build a double-stud, thick wall cavity with room for 12” of blown-in cellulose insulation yielding a thermal insulation value of up to R40 (similar to strawbale). In addition, the cellulose is manufactured at a facility in Penrose, about 100 miles from Crestone. The same cellulose is blown into the attic to yield R60. There is zero foam insulation board, no spray foam insulation, and no VOC (toxic volatile organic compounds) used anywhere in the house.
In a bid to build a nearly concrete-free home (cement used in concrete is an energy-intensive and polluting building material), Ed built an earthen solar radiant floor paved with bricks except in the bath, kitchen and utility rooms, small water areas where a conventional 4” concrete floor is used. Another concrete saving technique is the earth-bag foundation constructed of recycled rice bags filled with scoria (a local volcanic porous rock like pumice with good insulating properties). A thick layer of scoria was also placed under the earthen solar radiant floor to help keep the solar heat in the house.
Ed’s house has three solar systems, two for heating and one for off-grid solar electric supply. The large passive solar south-facing windows are for “direct gain” daytime winter space heating. In addition, four large solar thermal panels mounted on the roof collect solar heat by circulating fluid (antifreeze-water solution) pumped directly through pipes embedded in the earthen radiant floor. This solar heat is distributed naturally by radiating upward from the large floor area during nighttime winter space heating. A domestic hot water tank is also solar-heated directly via a heat exchanger coil of copper pipe placed inside a 40-gallon tank. An electronic thermostat directs the pumped liquid away from the floor into the small tank when needed. Thirdly, sharing the roof with the solar thermal panels is a small one- kilowatt array of photovoltaic (solar electric) panels that supply four deep-charge solar batteries and an inverter for standard 110-volt household electric use. You can see, with these three modest solar systems, Ed’s house is energy independent and completely free from dependence on fossil fuels for heat and electricity (except for a small blue propane flame for cooking). Only water and sewage are connected to local infrastructure, along with cell towers that provide for mobile telephone.
An important principle of social and environmental sustainability that we can value (besides diversity) is a local culture whose members learn to function cooperatively outside the urban and suburban mentality we grew up with. As I observed Ed’s application of recycling, upcycling, and reducing practices with regard to energy and materials, I also began to hear about another local building skill that grew perhaps out of Ed’s sociology career.
“You have to learn how to appreciate and connect with the local culture,” he says. “Things are done differently in rural areas than in big cities.” For example, some of Ed’s helpers might want to take time off for hunting when elk are available. Some have other jobs they are working and show up part time or later than expected. Other helpers would stop by and lend a hand when heavy windows needed expert framing skills, or cold winter required a hot shower and a warm place to stay. Ed comments that when he learned to stay open, friendly and flexible, help would show up just at the right time to save the day, a kind of magical quality when community is flowing with ease, mutual aid and reciprocal support.
When I asked Ed how much his house will cost to finish up all the remaining details, he was quick to point out that upcycling and using recycled materials is labor-intensive. Because he is recently retired, Ed has full time and energy to put into gathering materials and building his house. The sweat equity and mutual aid contributions are large. Beyond that, he says this house will cost him under $50,000. When you divide this number by 988 sq. ft. (interior space 38’ x 26’) you get a building cost of around $51/sf. Since the walls are a foot thick, using the exterior building footprint, you get $45/sf. By comparison, the cost of conventional house construction in our area ranges from $100-$200 and more per sq. ft.
It seems that Ed’s program of careful upcycling of materials, lots of managerial and sweat equity, and smart deployment of solar systems is demonstrating success in “living with the sun.” Contact Ed for an invitation to a future open-house event! To learn more about a wide variety of solar energy applications and natural building techniques you may visit http://crestonesolarschool.com for information and a schedule of upcoming local solar education workshops. Some scholarships are available.