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.

(Hopefully Not) A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunitty

by Amanda Webb-Nichols, Living Building Project Manager

The materials have all been vetted, construction is complete, and we’re on our way to tracking the home’s performance. The path to this point was far from “normal” and some may have doubted that it would even happen. It’s reality now for Tom and Marti as they have been living at Beacon Springs for one month, and our wonderful team gathered recently to celebrate the incredible milestone. When Marti suggested that I might write a post for the project website, my mind immediately went to telling my story as part of a wonderful team that helped bring their dream to a reality.

The materials vetting process was a long road and stressful at times, but that task is such a small piece of their incredible puzzle. As we gathered to celebrate, it occurred to me that although Tom and Marti have only occupied their home for a minute fragment of time that the home is intended to live, it already holds so many incredible stories. From the first day that Bob joined them to look at the property, to busting out concrete forms while installing the massive Trombe walls, to the reclaimed Douglas fir siding that was lovingly restored to grace their ceiling, to a felled sycamore tree from a neighbor’s property that holds the place they wash their hands, to the cobbled-together bluestone that sat out of situ for over a decade that is now settled into its new home. The stories that the walls, floors, ceilings, and site hold are many and perhaps one day they’ll all be written down to ensure they continue to live alongside the home that holds them.

The Living Building Challenge is more appropriately titled than I ever imagined. It epitomizes the Hunter S. Thompson quote that, “anything worth doing is worth doing right.” We’ve shared our team stories and the individual boundaries that we all had to push to ensure that we made this home happen for Tom and Marti. For most, if not all, it has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this project succeed and truly come to life. It’s daunting to think about going back to the beginning and doing it all over again;d my fear is that we won’t. In fact, I hope there are many more Beacon Springs to come. I hope that LBC projects become a “many in a lifetime opportunity.” These are the stories that I want to hear of more. These are the projects that are the change I want to see in the building industry. Tom and Marti are planting the change that I want to see in the world, and I am inspired to keep watering that change to see it grow.

October 2016

October 2016

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.