swales and trees

Ecosystem Update

Now that the house is built and functioning as planned, our attention rests on the land. Here follows my recent update to the Ecosystem page on our Beacon Springs website.

Since move-in, in fall 2016, we have worked toward restoring the ecosystem, badly damaged through the years by monoculture farming.

Most of the area disturbed during house construction has now been shaped into berms and swales, with 60 fruit trees, 90 berry bushes and 25 hazelnut trees. All is covered with a combination of red or white clover, hairy vetch and perennial rye, with a thick layer of wood chips. We’re now seeing progress toward health in our clay soil: better water retention and erosion control; pollinator plants and roots in the soil are bringing life into the ground.

Three new ponds – a medium-sized one at the east end of the house; a small one at the southwest base of the terrace slope; and a sizable one a hundred yards to the southwest of the house – provide us with all-night summer serenades from spring peepers and bullfrogs. The largest one played host in the spring to a pair of wood ducks; we had a few visits from Merganser ducks, and many from a great blue heron. Swallows and other birds swoop endlessly across that pond, feasting on insects. Dragonflies fill the air over all three ponds.

We’ve cut buckthorn trees and thistles – too many to count. We’ve cleared trees and brush from several sections of hedgerow in order to see through to our meadows beyond – but have changed our approach after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and The Overstory by Richard Powers. Instead of clearing out all the underbrush, we’re mainly removing the buckthorns, leaving most of the dead and fallen trees in place. Having learned about the rich and long life in a stand of trees, the view to rather than through the trees brings to the fore the energy and majesty of the trees themselves.

About half of our first 15 acres, and all of our newly-purchased adjoining 15 acres, remain mostly untouched. We’ve mowed walking paths throughout, and planted scores of evergreen trees in strategic places to control views. In the same spirit as the two books mentioned above, we’ve been inspired by the work at Knepp Estates in the UK. From their website:

Until recently most of the land was devoted to traditional arable and dairy farming but in 2001 we shifted our focus entirely and embarked on a series of regeneration and restoration projects aimed at nature conservation – or ‘rewilding,’ as it has come to be known. We are still farming, just in a less intensive way – producing organic, pasture-fed meat from free-roaming herds of animals within the Wildland project.”

We’re considering how we might follow Knepp’s example to restore not just the over-farmed soil, but the entire forest-hedgerow-ponds-meadows ecosystem. Knepp has seen the return of insects and birds not seen in that part of England for years and years and years. Whether or not we venture into grazing animals, we hope, as is happening at Knepp Estates, to create excellent habitat for native insects, birds, animals and plants.

Our Living Building project took years to plan and accomplish; this project of restoring the land and creating a truly healthy ecosystem will last a lifetime and more!

A letter from the owners ten years from project inception

Moving this text off the home page, but keeping it here as a reminder, at least to us, Tom and Marti, of what this amazing project is all about: our continuing ideas and goals for what can be done with this house and land.

Sustainable dwelling

Burh Becc is a regenerative building, operating as cleanly, beautifully and efficiently as nature’s architecture. Energy and water use are net zero. Waste, both in construction and in everyday living is handled almost entirely on site, via recycling and re-use. Toxic chemicals in the construction materials have been studiously avoided.

Farm amid oak savannah

The farm at Beacon Springs produces food for the local community, particularly those with limited access to fresh produce, as well as for our own table. Following principles of permaculture, we’re building an ecosystem in which landform, plants, trees and animals work together for abundant and sustainable production of food.

Gathering place

The embrace of Beacon Springs – the living building, with its flourishing courtyard and barnyard animals, combined with the surrounding acres of permaculture gardens and oak savannah – is a balm to the lone poet and a catalyst for lively exchange in larger groups. It is a center of education for the community: architecture students learning about sustainable design; residential building craftspeople and trades professionals learning sustainable construction methods; children learning about barnyard animals and bee-keeping; and permaculture enthusiasts participating in onsite workshops. We regularly welcome family, friends, co-workers and others to our table for good food and dynamic exchange of life.

A special note for our team of designers, engineers, builders and growers, and the extended team members: We hope that each of you, in joining the community responsible for the creation of Beacon Springs, has also received an extra measure of life springing from your contribution to the project. You are always welcome to come for a visit, enjoying with us the fruits of your labors.

—Tom and Marti Burbeck, Ann Arbor, Michigan March 2023

Sustainability for Health

Life takes us in many and unexpected directions – and yet we may never stray very far from our roots. That became clear to me in our interview with writer Drew Moser from the U-M School of Kinesiology’s publication Movement Magazine. You can read his excellent article here.

Of course I’ve always cared about health and fitness and the environment. My love of competitive swimming led me to major in physical education at the University of Michigan, and my learning there deepened my understanding of the connections between environment, nutrition and health. With that grounding, so many years later, the suggestion from our architect to tackle the Living Building Challenge seemed like an obvious next step in life.

It’s logical also that we’ve tackled restoring the life on our thirty acres, mostly worn out after years of monoculture farming. That project, like the house construction, is proving to be a years-long endeavor. We knew that would be the case, so should we be surprised that we’ve already been at it for four years? The project this summer was to build berms and swales down the slope to the southeast of the house and plant those with berry bushes. In that process, we also dug a substantial pond to the southwest of the house, and so reshaped a very large section of land across that entire expanse. How gratifying it is to see the cover crop now fully established, holding and building the soil. The frogs are prolific in the new pond, attracting at least one heron who tries hard to stand his ground when the dogs charge out to say good morning. The hard work and rewards continue!

MAEAP Certification Achieved

Beacon Springs Farm recently completed certification in two of four areas of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP): Farmstead and Cropping. The Farmstead category looks at activities performed on the entire farm with a focus on protecting surface and groundwater. The Cropping category focuses on field-based activities such as water use, soil conservation, and nutrient management.

We’re already at work on the Forest, Wetlands & Habitat certification, creating an action plan for managing and enhancing the land not under cultivation.

Started in 1998, MAEAP is a voluntary program that recognizes farmers who are top stewards of their land. MAEAP helps farmers adopt cost-effective practices that reduce erosion and runoff into ponds, streams, and rivers. MAEAP recognition can be earned in one or more of four areas: Farmstead; Cropping; Livestock; and Forest, Wetlands & Habitat.

A Good House is Never Done

Some years ago, Tom and I read the book A Good House Is Never Done by John Wheatman. Following Wheatman’s advice, we find ourselves continually looking for ways to fit our home to our living patterns (rather than the other way around) and to fill our home with beauty. Because so much thought and care were put into this home (three very active years in the design phase!), we’ve been more than happy with every aspect of this house – though there are of course always small improvements and fixes in every house. Our bigger improvements have mainly been outdoors: pavers instead of gravel on the terrace off the main living area, with an arbor rimming that terrace, already nearly covered with grape vines; clear paths through the courtyard in front, nudging the native plantings into a bit more civility; enlarging the pond at the east end.

And then there’s the shaping of the land for planting and for water management. We have nine berms planted with 60 fruit trees of various types plus hazelnut bushes and some maple trees, each with a swale uphill from it, holding water for slow and sustained irrigation. This year might be our first fruit harvest! At the east end of the house we now have eight berms and swales ready for some dozens of berry bushes on order.

We’re looking forward to again sharing our story, as architect Michael Klement is putting together the first-ever virtual tour of the house. We’ve planned with him to continue tours each year in connection with Earth Day – but of course this year is different. Please join us in this multimedia virtual tour, Saturday, April 25, 11 am–12:30 pm. Register here. After registering and shortly before the tour you’ll receive an email with the link to the online event.

The News Is Out

The team heard the exciting news in mid-December: We’ve achieved our goal, and Burh Becc at Beacon Springs is a certified Living Building which

  • connects occupants to light, air, food, nature and community;
  • is self-sufficient and remains within the resource limits of its site; and
  • creates a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with it.

The Living Building Challenge provides a regenerative design framework to create spaces that, like a flower, give more than they take.

Each of us breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. After six years of design, materials vetting, construction and audit period, we’re elated to say, “We did it!”

A press release earlier this week announced the news to the world, inviting others to learn from and be inspired by our experience, and hopefully to incorporate green building and green living practices in their projects and actions.

The next step, already underway, is to restore the land to productivity. Tom spent the summer on the tractor, forming berms and swales on one large stretch of hillside, and planting 16 fruit trees on the berms. In the spring, we’ll continue the earthworks, and we’ll plant not only more trees, but also many more perennials of various types and sizes. The swales control water flow, providing free irrigation to the plants, and the plants themselves will be chosen to work well with each other and to build the soil. The Living Building part of this project was huge – and now seems to fade in the face of the 13 acres of clay at our doorstep.

Recently I came across a fact sheet, I believe put together by architect Michael Klement for one of the mid-construction tours. I’ll share a few of the items on list since even we can forget some of these impressive details (impressive thanks to the team of designers and builders; we’ve simultaneously created the impetus for them, and also simply come along for the ride of a lifetime):

  • R (insulation) values (higher score is better):
    • slab and basement walls, R-30
    • above-grade walls, R-48
    • roof/ceiling, R-68
  • air leakage: 0.45 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals (ACH 50; measured by a blower door test) (lower score is better)
    • Passive House standard: 0.6 ACH 50
    • typical American home: 15 ACH 50
  • ResNet HERS Index of energy efficiency (lower score is better): –10
    • usual range for a net-zero energy ready home: <30
    • typical American home: 100

All that insulation and careful sealing of cracks – along with the passive heating and cooling elements built into the home – ilfi3 has resulted in our net-positive energy use – that is, we produced nearly 30% more electricity during our audit year than we used, sending that surplus back into the grid.

Again, all very impressive. And again, not remotely possible without the dedication and knowledge and enthusiasm demonstrated over these past six years by our impressive team of experts.

Surprise, Surprise!

Anyone who has built a house can tell you that after move-in there are surprises waiting around many corners.

Here at Beacon Springs, the surprises – or perhaps confirmation of hopes is more accurate – have been delightful:

  • Watching the wildlife return: a flock of turkeys; deer, including four ”regulars” this summer with majestic antlers; a pair of red-tail hawks in our tallest trees; coyotes with their eerie and breathtaking calls in the night, summoning each other home after the hunt; millions of eggs then tadpoles then frogs and toads with their evening songs; a heron stopping for a few weeks on his treks north and south; crows parading their bravado and their intelligence as they gather and roost and forage on our land; barn swallows and robins and cardinals and so many others, settling and raising their young here . . .
  • Enjoying the quiet of a home heated by the sun and by silent in-floor radiant heat. (And yes, if it’s a sunny winter day, with temperatures even in the single digits, we do crack the windows open in the afternoon to bring in cool, fresh air!)
  • Basking in the always-present cooling breezes through the house in the summer: The tower works! The Venturi effect and the stack effect created by the tower pull air through the south-facing windows, even on still days, more or less eliminating the need ever for our air conditioning system.
  • Confirming that our years of careful thought and design have paid off, as we experience all the spaces in the house exactly as expected. It helps that Tom excels at envisioning three-dimensional space, and that he and architect Michael so thoroughly enjoyed their design discussions and listened so well to each other.
  • Seeing our energy and water systems perform as planned. Our rainwater harvesting system provides a substantial supply for irrigating new plantings. Our solar panels generated around 20,000 kWh of electricity in our audit year (October 2016–October 2017), while we used around 16,000 kWh, thus sending 4,000 or so back to the grid. Net zero energy: yes!
  • Concluding the LEED audit process, and achieving LEED Platinum certification.

We’re delighted to be here, living in harmony with and enhancing the surrounding ecosystem. Our hope is that future owners also, over the course of several centuries, will find it equally idyllic, health-inducing, inspiring and peaceful.

Parading the Beauty in the Bones

It’s an honor that our home is included this year in the Parade of Homes. Years ago, Tom and I visited several Parade homes, and came away with lots of great ideas for our own home building and remodeling projects. And we were impressed by the beauty of the homes – they were, in my mind, in the category of “designer-magazine” homes.

I’ve never thought of myself as a “designer-magazine” home decorator. I do know some principles of home design – but my goals in fitting out our homes through the years have been to (1) make our day-to-day lives simple, convenient and comfortable; and (2) to fill our homes with the things we love and find meaningful. Early in our married life I visited a friend who’d just completed a kitchen and living room remodeling project. She proudly showed off the pottery bowl on the coffee table, pointing out how talented her interior designer was to have purchased that for her. It was indeed a beautiful bowl – but I had trouble understanding how something acquired in that fashion could have the same significance, evoke the same memories, or represent a consequential event or stage in life, as an object found by us, perhaps on a trip, or created by someone we know, or otherwise connected to us in a relevant and personal way. I didn’t fault my friend for her style; it just didn’t resonate with me.

Painting by Lucas van Robays, AFS-Belgium host family brother-in-law (shameless publicity:

All the same, the team members who helped us design this amazing home, and then those who actually built it, have created an entirely enchanting building. It’s often during sleepless nights when I realize this, sitting in the dimly-lit living room and marveling at the stunning ceiling, the imposing hearth, the plain-and-simple and oh-so-practical-and-attractive ceramic tile floor, the connection between indoors and out . . . and more.

And then I also ponder with gratitude the far deeper value built into this home. As a (hopefully) certified Living Building, we’ve taken great care to build, not destroy, the ecosystem of the home site. We’ve examined, at considerable expense in time and research, the effect of every one of our construction materials on humans and on the environment, and on those who create and later dispose of those materials. The home’s operating systems are designed to enhance the environment – to allow the home to “live” fully in harmony with its surrounding ecosystem. And at the end of its life – several centuries from now, as we’ve designed it – it will return its components to the environment, building the soil, just as a flower at the end of its life provides nutrients for its successors.

My hope for visitors next weekend during the Parade of Homes is that they see and understand and be inspired by the environmentally regenerative aspects of this home. Not everyone can go to the extreme lengths we’ve been able to – but everyone can incorporate some nature-friendly materials and technology in their building projects. No single one of us will save the world with our building projects – but every one of us can protect and nurture the specific piece of the environment entrusted to us – and together our efforts add up to significant advancement toward living in harmony with the amazing creation of which we’re all a part.

Burh Becc Earth Day Celebration: A Building Revolution

From the EventBrite site:

“Architectural Resource, in conjunction with the homeowners Tom and Marti Burbeck, is excited to present Burh Becc at Beacon Springs. This is a new home construction project in Ann Arbor, Michigan registered with the International Living Future Institute, seeking full Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification. To date, only one other private residence in the entire world has been able to achieve this level of certification. Burh Becc at Beacon Springs is currently mid-stride on its one-year audit period towards full LBC certification. This tour of the completed home will showcase the how the home is intended to meet the world’s highest standards of sustainable, restorative, green building.”

Come see how we’re doing, living in this regenerative home, halfway through our Living Building Challenge audit year.

Register here.

turkey outside farm office doorOh, and the wildlife is returning to the land, now that the trucks and noise have departed. Turkeys, pheasants, ducks, deer of course, coyotes howling their eerie howls at night. So cool. Our earth healing itself, when given the least bit of opportunity.