Returning Home

beacon_springsFour years ago, at the start of this Living Building journey, the analogy of a trip around the world seemed apt. Tom and I were heading into unknown territory with a team of trusted and resourceful companions, but with no map, no known route, and not even a signpost along the way.

The metaphor has merit. Time and again we’ve faced situations without a template. Most recently, our building crew was stumped by the Trombe wall selective surface application.* Once the thin film is attached, a huge plate glass window is installed in front of the wall. If the selective surface peels away from the wall, repair is daunting (to say the least), since removal of those windows requires serious heavy-lifting machinery. Application of that film, therefore, must be done right – and of course no one on the building crew has done this before. Consulting with our Trombe wall expert (architect) Wayne Appleyard, we discovered a newer material than the one we’d specced several years ago which is far easier and more foolproof to install. Another jaunt through uncharted waters.

Trombe wall selective surface application

Trombe wall selective surface application

My experience of this trip around the world, though, is that we now seem to have come full circle, returning to and becoming ever more firmly rooted to this place, this piece of land, this community of people.

To start with, of course, a Living Building is anchored to a particular piece of land, drawing all its needs from it, and returning nourishment to it. As our move-in date approaches, we’re anticipating the challenge of calibrating our energy and other systems so that we’re net zero or even net positive after a year, fulfilling the requirement that we return as much to the land as we draw from it.

Our dream for our 15 acres, even before we encountered the Living Building Challenge, has been to grow food using principles of permaculture, for ourselves and for others whose access to fresh, wholesome food is limited. Soil restoration, swales, ponds, nut trees, fruit trees, perennial vines and other edibles, annual food crops, all beckon, calling us to thrust our hands deeply into this overused, misused, neglected land.

And as for people: We’ve formed deep and lasting friendships with many members of our project team. Our lives have been enriched by so many who have so generously helped us. We’ve met, and look forward to meeting and befriending, like-minded folks, who are concerned for the earth which sustains us all, and concerned about neighbors in need. Our connections with people because of this project provide us with endless inspiration and encouragement to press forward toward our goal.

Our amazing people connections include our new(-ish) friends and buyers of our Honey Creek house, Bill and Christy. A mutual friend connected us when he saw hickory planks in Bill and Christy’s garage several years ago and suggested that we might might find a use for them in our new house. We said yes. Not long after, a storm forced Bill and Christy to take down the second hickory tree in their yard. Those two trees worth of hickory boards are now the flooring in the long hall of our new house.

Hickory floor in long hall

Hickory floor in long hall

In the meantime, Bill and Christy, who were contemplating their own move to a new home, decided to (patiently!) wait for us. We agreed on a price at our – now Bill and Christy’s – kitchen table, and completed the sale with a bit of legal help and guidance from lawyer friends and real estate agent friend (yes, we paid them fairly!)

And now our cherry dining room set, on which the last round of remodeling/redecorating/cherry cabinetry in that (Honey Creek) dining room was based, is now, as part of the house sale, Bill and Christy’s, replacing their unrealized dream of a hickory dining table – a dream frustrated by a series of disappearing furniture builders.

But wait, there’s more: We knew several months ago that our new house would not be ready before our agreed-upon move-out date, so Tom and I began the search for temporary quarters. Christy remembered a friend who was deciding what to do with her then-unoccupied house. Christy connected us, and Tom and I are now happily ensconced in Laura’s delightful bungalow – which is even perfect for our two dogs, with fenced backyard, and two cats, with basement cat door. Beyond perfect! And oh by the way, it turns out that Laura and our daughter-in-law Vinal were already friends via work connections.

So here we are, back in our own backyard – well, three of them now, over the past month or so – with friends old and new, filled with anticipation and eagerness to plant our roots firmly in this place, on this Tessmer Road land, looking to care for the land and to care for our neighbors – a tall task, which we expect to complete only with continued help and encouragement from this community of which we’ve become a part during the past four years, and which we know will continue to grow.

* “Since ancient times people have used thick walls of adobe or stone to trap the sun’s heat during the day and release it slowly and evenly at night. Today’s passive solar buildings often improve on this ancient technique by incorporating a thermal storage and delivery system called a Trombe wall. Named after French inventor Felix Trombe in the late 1950s, the Trombe wall continues to serve as an effective feature of passive solar design. Trombe Wall Construction A typical Trombe wall consists of an 8- to 16-inch thick masonry wall coated with a dark, heat-absorbing material and faced with a single or double layer of glass. The glass is placed from about 3/4″ to 6″ away from the masonry wall to create a small airspace. Heat from sunlight passing through the glass is absorbed by the dark surface, stored in the wall, and conducted slowly inward through the masonry. Applying a selective surface to a Trombe wall improves its performance by reducing the amount of infrared energy radiated back through the glass. The selective surface consists of a sheet of metal foil glued to the outside surface of the wall. It absorbs almost all the radiation in the visible portion of the solar spectrum and emits very little in the infrared range. High absorbance turns the light into heat at the wall’s surface, and low emittance prevents the heat from radiating back towards the glass. For a 16-inch thick Trombe wall, heat will take about 8 to 10 hours to reach the interior of the building. This means that rooms remain comfortable through the day and receive slow, even heating for many hours after the sun sets, greatly reducing the need for conventional heating and cooling. Rooms heated by a Trombe wall often feel more comfortable than those heated by forced-air furnaces because of the radiantly warm surface of the wall, even at lower air temperatures.” Source:

Coming into Focus . . .

Tower entry

Tower entry

. . . the end of construction, that is. Our home is nearing completion – or at least near enough that we’re planning our move. Amazing – after four years of planning, designing and building.

A Visible Green Home® Tour is  planned for June 18, 8 am–6 pm. Register here.

The tour will focus on the home’s interior including finish materials, surfaces, lighting and “the Red List” of 600 toxic chemicals to be avoided in a Living Building Challenge project. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics suggest we spend upwards of 90% of our time indoors – but, as you will learn, we routinely create a toxic indoor environment through standard construction practices. Tour participants will learn from experts how the indoor environment of Burh Becc will support rather than compromise the health and the well being of its occupants.

Tours begin every hour on the hour; pre-registration is required, since space is limited. The last tour begins at 5 pm.

Some new photos in our gallery show the recent progress: drywall, tile floors, exterior stucco. Still a month or two of work ahead. But the end is in sight. Awesome!

Reasonable or Not?

View from the southwest, March 4

View from the southwest, March 4

Our architect Michael Klement recently sent us this quote from George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man always adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Michael contends that Tom and I are creating change by being unreasonable in our design and expectations. One could argue on both sides of this dichotomy.

We do seem to be unreasonable in our demands on the conventional building industry.

  • In our search for non-toxic building materials, we’re asking manufacturers to reveal ingredients and production methods, the particulars of which they might prefer to keep quiet. We’re calling out and rejecting manufacturers who create toxic products.
  • The procedures for building a tight house and one that will last for centuries require far more time and attention to detail than “normal.” Whenever we ask members of the construction crews, “What’s different here?” the answer invariably is, “Everything.” (One happy result: Blower door test last week, evaluating the tightness of the house, yielded amazing numbers.)
  • Tom and I are perhaps more demanding than many in our building preferences. We think a lot about the small details, likely causing endless tongue-biting on the part of builder and crews as we ask for specific placement of electrical outlets, thermostats, heating vents and more. This is, indeed, partly us – but it’s strongly driven as well by the Living Building Challenge imperative that buildings be beautiful. Beginning with an image in our minds of a house rooted in elements of timeless beauty (sheltering roof; visible structure; progression of spaces from public to private, to name just a few), we’ve taken our time in the design process, knowing that beauty in living spaces can translate into serenity in living.
  • We’ve pushed the local building and health departments with the Living Building Challenge requirement that a building integrate fully with its environment. With no regulations on the books at the time of our request and appeal regarding composting toilets and rainwater harvesting, the powers-that-be felt constrained to deny our requests to incorporate those systems. But many of them agree that these are good ideas and good for the environment.

On the other hand, it seems entirely reasonable to take stock of the current climate, food production systems and ecological conditions, and to work within and with those to make the best of what we have.

  • It makes a lot of sense to build a home that’s ready for any difficulties potentially caused by continued climate change or disruption in the fossil fuel industry (to name just two possibilities). Either of these events would ripple through nearly every aspect of life: food production and delivery, transportation, availability of water, and more.
  • It’s perfectly reasonable – in fact it only makes sense – to restore our worn out farmland to health and to establish abundant food production. Doing so, and especially by using methods of permaculture and by distributing locally, lower external inputs are needed for growing, storage and transportation. No matter what else, growing food makes sense!

Tom responded eloquently to Shaw’s quote:

As I continue [in life], I’m impressed at how most of God’s creation works, simply put, on chance. While many people today are convinced that the harder they pray for stuff, the more perfectly they ask, the more morally upright they are, the more God will cooperate and give them what they want.

But when you take a hard look at reality, you mainly see the complex interaction of an impossibly large number of influences on any outcome – so complex that most of what happens seems to come by chance. Charles Williams, a good friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, called it “holy luck.” One person gets cancer, his brother doesn’t. Of course, we can have influence over our luck, but we can’t be totally in control of it. By not smoking cigarettes, I’m less likely to die of lung cancer. There’s no guarantee lung cancer won’t kill me.

Here in God’s green earth, we find ourselves continually dealing with both the good breaks and the bad breaks. Rather than living with the illusion of controlling all this by earnest prayers or obsessive attempts to stack the deck in our favor, we might do better to relinquish our illusions of complete control – and to reconceive our life as a dance. We’re on a large dance floor with many and frequently-changing dance partners. The key in the dance is to receive with joy and happiness each good partner (i.e., good luck), and exercise grace and forgiveness when we find ourselves paired with bad dance partners (i.e., bad luck).

I see Shaw’s “reasonable man” as the one who can dance with the bad partners with grace and forgiveness, and move on to the next dance partner to see what luck awaits him.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Getting the brickwork exactly right

Getting the brickwork exactly right

We’re in the thick of the hard part.

The pace of decision-making has ramped up ferociously. Finish material choices now need to be set in stone . . . or wood, metal or glass.

We’ve spent hours and hours and hours studying the plans and then walking the halls (and rooms and stairway and closets and . . .) to get our electrical outlets and switches and light fixtures just where they ought to be.

Tom has worked more than a few hours this past week with the bricklayer, figuring out how to achieve the aged, weathered, “rubble-y” look we want.

We’ve paid close attention this week to placement of plumbing and cooling pipes and fixtures.

In each of these cases, we’ve found things to adjust and change.

Many people would not spend such great amounts of time and attention, assuming that the tradesmen and the pros and know precisely what to do in every situation. Our experience through the years, though, has shown that we’re all human, prone to error and to our own best guesses as to what’s right or wrong, good or bad. In addition, Tom and I find ourselves looking closely at every detail, knowing from experience that it can be the details that make the difference between “nice” and enduringly delightful. We’ve learned tremendous amounts from workmen on our building projects – and we assume they also learn from us. Or at least they’re gracious, kind and accommodating when we ask for a change or for something specific and out of the ordinary.

It would be oh-so-easy for worker-customer relationships be strained over building mistakes or over the endless requests from picky clients. It takes big hearts, full of trust in the other’s good integrity and good intentions, to keep smoothing out rough edges in relationships. Tom and I feel more than fortunate to be surrounded by a team of people who all have the biggest of hearts, and who value, as we do, the friendships forged in this undertaking. That alone makes this Living Building project worth it.

And from Tom’s “big brother” Bob the builder:

To all members of the Local 951 Mason’s Union: Keep an eye out for this intruder. This so-called wanna-be mason dude has been working all over with no Union Card. Paid no union dues, etc.

No steel-toed shoes, clearly inappropriate work clothes . . . shameful.

 If you see him put some mortar in his oatmeal.

 In brotherhood, Big Bro Bob

Thank You, Team, for Hard Work and Dedication

Tom recently sent an email to Bob, our builder, and his crew, thanking them for their careful work on our new home. It’s well worth publishing this short message, since every single person who’s had a hand in this project has gone above and beyond to make this a successful endeavor.

steph and hannahWhy just last week, in fact, our interior design team at Organizational Design showed their mettle, with Jane Hughes’ wonderful assistant Stephanie spending a day on our drawings with 3-week-old Hannah in tow. Awesome!

Hi Bob,

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I want to say it clearly in an email all its own . . . Marti and I really appreciate the way you, Roy, Brent and the whole framing crew have stepped up 100% to the challenge of building an industry-leading home. You guys are actually crafting a “Living Building,” with all its associated complications and technical demands . . .

  • complications caused by the many strict rules of the Living Building Challenge (like working only with materials and misc. supplies that are approved and tightly controlled at the site), and
  • technical demands for getting the level of performance from the building necessary to meet the many lofty goals of the Living Building Challenge, like net-zero energy, net-zero water, net-zero waste, etc.

Marti and I are very impressed with the quality of your work, the speed and efficiency of the teamwork, and the harmony that pervades the job site. Please pass along our hearty thanks to the team. Good job everyone!

Tom and Marti

Achieving Net Zero Energy

Since my last blog post, the house has taken on recognizable form, and is in fact nearly closed in. The exterior walls are framed and the roof SIPs are on. In another week or two, the roof will be sealed, and the walls will be enclosed with windows installed, giving the building crew a warm, dry environment in which to work. The home is designed for minimal input to keep it warm; long before we’re living there, the crew will benefit.

The Living Building Challenge requires that we achieve net zero energy: Over the course of a year, we need to produce on site all the energy needed for comfortable living. Our house design tackles this directive in several ways.

First, the thermal envelope is radically airtight and thickly insulated. Walls, down to the footings, and roof are heavily insulated. Every single joint is caulked and taped against air leakage, and thermal bridging between interior and exterior has been studiously avoided.

Second, the building design incorporates passive heating and cooling elements. The long south-facing wall of windows plus concrete floors will absorb heat from the sun. That long south wall of glass is interrupted in three places with Trombe walls, thick concrete floor-to-ceiling slabs, designed with a special surface film to absorb the heat of the sun through the day, and release that heat to the interior late in the day and overnight. We thereby avoid overheating during the day, and prolong the usefulness of that passively-gained heat.

The 10′ x 10′ x 31′ tall entry tower provides passive ventilation, especially in spring and fall. Our expert wind dynamics consultant Devki Desai modeled for us the optimum positioning, footprint and height of the tower, and positioning and size of the windows. The stack effect and Venturi effect will draw air through the house, up through the tower and out the tower windows.

A ground source heat pump uses the earth as a heat source in winter and heat sink in summer to deliver active heating and cooling, via an hydronic radiant floor heating system and forced air cooling.

Last but not least, 60 photovoltaic panels on the south-facing roof of the barn will generate 16 kilowatts of electricity. The solar array will be tied to the public utility grid. On gray days and at night, we’ll likely draw electricity from the grid, while on sunny days, our solar panels will produce more electricity than we need, sending the excess to the grid. Over the course of a year, we’ll be well set to produce more electricity than we use, or at a minimum, break even on the electric bill.

HERS rating

HERS rating

In fact, the current measure of energy efficiency of our house, based on the construction drawings, yields a HERS score of –11, boding well for our aim for net zero energy.

Be sure to check our photo gallery, as we’ve posted some new new photos.

Can We Please Be Done . . .

. . . with materials vetting, that is?

The process of researching each and every component of our home is onerous and long. And I say this from the sidelines, while Amanda and her team at Catalyst Partners, plus Jane Hughes and Bob Burnside, do the heavy lifting.

Wall detail: Every component here needed vetting!

Wall detail: Every component here needed vetting!

The Living Building Challenge handbook describes the Materials petal of the certification requirements as follows:

The intent of the Materials Petal is to induce a successful materials economy that is non-toxic, transparent and socially equitable. Throughout their lifecycle, materials are responsible for many adverse environmental issues including illness, squandered embodied energy, pollution, and resource depletion. The Imperatives in this section aim to remove the worst known offending materials and practices. When impacts can be reduced but not eliminated, there is an obligation not only to offset the damaging consequences associated with the construction process, but also to strive for corrections in the industry. At the present time it is impossible to gauge the true environmental impact and toxicity of the built environment due to a lack of product-level information.

The materials petal includes five imperatives:

  • Red List: The following chemicals cannot be present: asbestos; cadmium; chlorinated polyethylene and chlorosulfonated polyethylene; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs); chloroprene (neoprene); formaldehyde (added); halogenated flame retardants; hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs); lead (added); mercury; petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides; phthalates; polyvinyl; chloride (PVC); wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic or pentachlorophenol.
  • Embodied Carbon Footprint: Account for embodied carbon footprint in construction through a one-time carbon offset.
  • Responsible Industry: Wood must be certified to Forest Stewardship Council standards, or salvaged or harvested onsite for clearing of the building area or for restoring or maintaining onsite ecological function. The project must advocate for creation and adoption of third-party standards for sustainable resource extraction and fair labor practices.
  • Appropriate Sourcing: Incorporate place-based solutions and contribute to the expansion of a regional economy rooted in sustainable practices, products and services. Source locations for materials and services are restricted according to type and especially to weight.
  • Conservation and Re-Use: Strive to reduce or eliminate waste during design, construction, operation and end of life phases, in order to conserve natural resources.

So now back to the specifics of our process: I’m copied on most of the emails among our team members regarding materials vetting, and the communication seems endless. Wood, concrete, metal, adhesives, fasteners, finishes . . . The process provides repeated opportunities for overlooking items, for misunderstandings and for other bumps in the road. What a testament to the integrity and good will of our team members, as they work through hard moments and continue as happy partners in this joint venture.

How much easier it would be to buy whatever off the shelf at the local lumberyard, hardware store or DIY center. And how much that reveals why the building and manufacturing industries feel little impetus to change. No wonder this is the Living Building Challenge.

The great news is that we’re closing in on the end of the nearly 800 items to be checked, seeing some light at the end of the long tunnel. We’re grateful to the following manufacturers and suppliers for working with us to achieve the safe materials goal. This is not an exhaustive list – just what we have so far. Our apologies to anyone we’ve overlooked; we’ll publish the complete list before we’re all done.

Alro Steel, Amana Corporation, Benjamin Moore Paints, Big George’s Home Appliance Mart, Bosch Appliances, Clopay Building Products, Cresline Plastic Pipe Company, Crossville Tile, DAP, Dow, Dupont, Emerson Industrial, General Finishes, General Hardwoods Company, Gentex, Hacker Industries, Hi-Lite Mfg, Hubbardton Forge Lighting, Industrial Chimney Co / Rumford Fireplaces, Ludowici Roof Tile, Lukjan Metal Products, Marvin Windows and Doors, Motawi Tile, Roseburg Forest Products, Santa Clara Copper, Sioux Chief Manufacturing, SolarWorld, Standard Lumber, The Stone Mill, Toto, Tried and True Finishes, United States Gypsum, Uponor Corporation.

Thanks to the Team

Visible Green Home Tour 1

Visible Green Home Tour 1

Thank you to our team – especially Michael, Bob, Shannan and Wayne – for putting on a great show last weekend! The first weekend of construction tours left Tom and me feeling impressed, encouraged and inspired.

We were impressed, not for the first time of course, by the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of those helping us with this project. Even without much in the way of built structure to look at, our tour guides found plenty to talk about. They gave the rationale and tenets of the Living Building Challenge, explaining how our home will be like a flower, using only the resources immediately at hand and regenerating its surroundings throughout it life. The tour continued with explanations of site planning, water harvesting, plumbing, insulation, Trombe walls and more, while still leaving plenty for future tours. It’s exciting to see the fruits of our three years of planning!

House lower level insulation below floor

House lower level insulation below floor

House lower level radiant floor installation

House lower level radiant floor installation

We were deeply encouraged by the number of people interested in and resonant with our LBC endeavor. We enjoyed wonderful and fascinating conversations with many – and Tom and I were only there for the first few hours on Saturday and the final hour or so on Sunday. Thank you to all who came to see what we’re up to; we hope to see you next time as well; and if you missed this round, we invite you to the next (Visible Green Home Tour, October 24–25).

Finally, we were ourselves re-inspired by the vision of the Living Building Challenge. To help spark change in the conventional building industry, to design and build a home intended to be beautiful and regenerate the environment for a hundred years and more, to bring our land into bountiful productivity – what a goal we’ve set for ourselves – and what a wonderful team has been formed around helping us achieve our goal. We are honored that we’re able to undertake this project, and we do indeed hope we inspire many to follow in our footsteps.

Drywall in barn workshop

Drywall in barn workshop

Cresting the First Hill

This weekend is the first round of construction tours of Burh Becc at Beacon Springs, a unique opportunity to see deep green building from the ground up.

Barn progress

Barn progress

Tours start on the hour, through the day on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll learn some history and descriptions of green building certifications, including LEED and the Living Building Challenge. You’ll hear about Tom’s and my hope for restoring the land using principles of permaculture. And you’ll understand why it is that Tom and I, with crucial assistance from so many, are going to such lengths to build this home in the manner we are.

Crucial assistance from so many . . . When we broke ground in the spring, we gathered the team and video taped our individual answers to questions about the project: why we’re doing it, what we’re learning, and so on. I’ve intended to edit the sound on these, since it was a very windy day and we only had the camera mic. That’s not happened, so here they are, just as they happened:

Amanda | Bob | Shannan | Jane | Susan | Michael | Tom | Marti

I love roller coasters. Cedar Point has just announced its latest and greatest, to be ready for next summer: higher and steeper and faster than any yet built. I can’t wait! But there’s still that moment as one crests the first hill: the rush of excitement, anticipation, fear. I feel a bit of that now as we put our project “out there” for everyone to see. Thank you for your interest and encouragement on this ride of a lifetime.

Sign up here for a tour; I’ve just now seen the agenda and am sure you won’t regret it!

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.” ― Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert

Appearing in the Playbill

Seth Godin[1] writes regular blog posts, which I regularly find to be insightful and inspiring. This week he wrote:

Will this be on the test?

The test, of course, offers nothing but downside. No extra credit, just points marked off. The test is the moment where you must conform to standards, to say what is expected of you.

Perhaps a better question is, “Will this be in the Playbill?”

The Playbill is the little program they hand out before the Broadway musical. The Playbill is all about extra credit, about putting on a show, surprising, elevating, doing something more than people hoped for.

A different part of our brain is activated when we think about what’s possible as opposed to what’s required.

The Living Building Challenge is in the Playbill. It’s set apart from other green building standards by its requirement for proven performance rather than anticipated outcomes. Its seven “petals” – site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty – embrace 20 imperatives to be followed in creating a Living Building. A building can achieve “petal recognition” for satisfying the corresponding requirements, without addressing all seven petals.

The first petal is "site," and it stipulates that buildings may only be built on previously developed land, including farmland. Here's proof that our land was previously used for farming: velvelweed. It grows in corn and soy fields, reseeds itself enthusiastically – and buried seeds can lie dormant for up to 60 years, germinating once the ground is disturbed, bringing in light and water. This patch has taken off on a pile of dirt moved for construction.

The first petal is “site,” and it stipulates that buildings may only be built on previously developed land, including farmland. Here’s proof that our land was previously used for farming: velvelweed. It grows in corn and soy fields, reseeds itself enthusiastically – and buried seeds can lie dormant for up to 60 years, germinating once the ground is disturbed, bringing in light and water. This patch has taken off on a pile of dirt moved for construction.

Tom and I, from the beginning, knew we would not be satisfied if we aimed for anything short of full Living Building status. We do indeed want to be in the Playbill, and not simply pass the test. As Jason McClennan, ILFI founder, said in a recent TED Talk, “We aim to not just do less harm to the environment, but rather to regenerate the environment in our construction.” (paraphrased)

So what are the seven petals and associated imperatives all about? I’ll embark on a series of posts discussing each, and our plans for achieving success in each area, beginning next week and continuing over the following weeks.

And don’t forget you can see our progress in person by registering for and coming to the first Visible Green Home tour, September 26–27.


[1] Seth Godin is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. (taken from Seth’s website)