Couldn’t Do This Without Them

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the challenges of researching construction materials, and the yeoman’s work being done by Bob Burnside, Amanda Webb, Ben VanGessel (and now Eric Harrington; thanks, Eric, for joining us!).

I sadly overlooked one of our greatest champions in this process: Jane Hughes, our interior designer (Organizational Designs). We enlisted Jane’s help after we’d been at this project for quite some time, but she dove right in and has more than caught up with the rest of the team. Her knowledge and experience have been invaluable in helping us refine and finish the design process, and she has completely grasped the need to source products close to home and to avoid those 600 red-list chemicals. I’ve said several times over the past few months, “I don’t know what we’d do without Jane.”

Of course, the deeper truth is that we don’t know what we’d do without any of the members of our Living Building Challenge team. So many wonderful folks have shared their wisdom and expertise over the past 3 ½ years . . . “Thank you” is hardly enough.

One week ago, no blog post appeared here, since Tom and I spent the weekend at a permaculture workshop at a farm near Manchester, led by Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm. Combining classroom learning with in-the-field work, Mark taught the workshop participants about water management for perennial agriculture systems. We spent lots of time with laser level and flags, marking swales which were then bulldozed and shaped.

Weekend workshop in Manchester, MI, with Mark Shepard

Weekend workshop in Manchester, MI, with Mark Shepard

Tom and I have talked for some time about connecting with someone such as Mark Shepard, to help us start on the permaculture farming part of our Beacon Springs undertaking. Over the course of last weekend, we talked with Mark about our project, and were then able to meet him at our property on Monday morning, before he began his drive home to Wisconsin. Shannan Gibb-Randall, our landscape architect (Insite Design), was able to join us, grading plan in hand. Mark asked questions and gave us initial thoughts on overall water management and swale design to coordinate the house construction area with the rest of the 15 acres. He took the drawings with him and will work first with Shannan on design drawings, and in the spring, in person, on our land, guiding us in executing his recommendations.

Meeting with Mark Shepard, late August

Meeting with Mark Shepard, late August

So yet another amazing and expert member has now been added to the team – what good fortune for us! With Mark’s help, our dream of helping feed some hungry folks will move more quickly to reality.

A Trip Around the World

Some friends of ours saw a unique moment of opportunity some years ago, when their four children were young, to take a full year and travel around the world. What an adventure! Tom and I, having each lived abroad and traveled quite a bit, were green with envy when we learned about this.

We don’t foresee such an opportunity for ourselves. But early on in our house project we came to the conclusion that aiming for Living Building certification would be tantamount to a trip around the world, filled with challenges, obstacles, new friendships and unexpected joys.

And what a trip this is! As when traveling, we’ve encountered unanticipated experiences, making us scramble and learn and stretch and change.

Language is, of course, often the first hurdle when traveling abroad. For us, we’ve learned a whole new vocabulary and a new way of thinking about energy, water, waste and growing food. Who would have dreamed we would discover Trombe walls and incorporate them into our design? Who would have thought we’d actually find ways to use harvested rainwater and to return waste to the environment in a healthful, productive way? (Yep, our local health officials have yet to give the green light; but we’re patient and we’re confident things will eventually change.) Who could have predicted we’d be planning to restore our 15 acres of land to health and productivity using principles of permaculture – not even knowing a few short years ago that such methods existed? That’s just a sample of the new vocabulary and concepts we’ve encountered and learned about.

Stone for north wall of house from Michigan quarries; roof tile from Ohio

Stone for north wall of house from Michigan quarries; roof tile from Ohio

Transportation can be a trial in a foreign country: How to find one’s way to a desired destination? The Living Building Challenge requires that building materials be sourced close to home, thus reducing the energy cost of shipping. But did you know that most light fixtures are made in China? Did you know that even seemingly trivial items such as foundation anchor bolts are shipped from China? Again, this is the tip of the iceberg – and we’re only partway into construction. Bob Burnside, our builder, and Amanda and Ben from Catalyst Partners, are staying plenty busy researching and finding locally sourced products.

And of course, there’s the biggest challenge of all with foreign travel: understanding unfamiliar customs and traditions. The Living Building Challenge includes an education component: As we learn about and implement regenerative and healthy construction methods, we’re charged to pass on our knowledge so others might follow in our footsteps. A main component of our education work begins in a month, with the first in a series of construction tours, showcasing each component of the home: site considerations; energy, water and waste systems; thermal envelope; materials vetting; indoor environment; and more. Dates for these tours are September 26–27, October 24–25, and November 21–22. Watch this web site for information on tour registration.

Finally, a trip might be a long undertaking: a year abroad; or a Living Building project. We most definitely took our time designing this home – not surprising, since we love thinking through the details. We were surprised at the work required not just for beautiful building design but also for planning into the building all the strategies for making it live in harmony with the environment.

Surprisingly again, that phase of the project now seems like a piece of cake compared to the effort now of making sure every material used in construction meets LBC requirements for nontoxic components and local sourcing. What a trip this is!

And what fun it is! Hard – very hard – at times – yes. But there’s great joy in knowing we’re causing ripples in the conventional building industry that will affect the average homebuilder; joy in new friendships with team members and with others we’ve connected to because of this project; and deep satisfaction in acting on our convictions that our well-being is bound to the well-being of the natural environment, trusting that we can and should build this home to be a living building, to regenerate its surroundings and to nurture the lives and health of those who live and visit there.

Challenging Industry

Barn cupola under construction

Barn cupola under construction

Green building is sometimes associated with back-to-the-land, off-the-grid approaches. Homes might be built with straw bales or other natural or “found” materials. Energy production might be completely off the grid. The goal might be to be completely self-sustaining in all aspects of life.

These are proven methods, and I’m filled with admiration for those with the energy and ingenuity to build a home in this way.

The Living Building Challenge has a similar goal: to live lightly on the land. It’s designed, though, to challenge and move forward the conventional commercial building industry, creating opportunity for many people to “build green,” bringing regenerative building methods into the mainstream.

Manufacturers are responding to this challenge, being transparent about product ingredients and finding ways to avoid toxic chemicals. Not all manufacturers are doing so – but enough to provide hope for the future, and the numbers are growing.

We’ve been hard at work in recent weeks nailing down roofing materials. We’re looking at shingle-style clay tiles for the house, and standing seam metal for the barn and the house tower. That combination seems to us to combine the timeless beauty of clay tiles with the Michigan farm vernacular.

But we’ve not settled on the tile, since we’ve discovered that the glaze colors we like contain arsenic and cadmium, both big bad toxic chemicals. We may be in luck, though, as the manufacturer is responding quickly with alternatives, even proposing a color mix created just for us and for LBC compliance. Already on the road to green, this manufacturer may be nudged by our project to take yet another step down that road, helping to protect us all from dangerous chemicals in everyday life and in manufacturing processes – because we’ve been able to leverage the structure of the Living Building Challenge toward the good of all.

And as for roofing material – we’re keeping our fingers crossed . . .

The Builder’s Perspective

This week we hear from our builder, general contractor, champion and friend Bob Burnside:

Bob Burnside, Fireside Home ConstructionI have always taken great satisfaction in working with a client to see a wonderful project come to completion. I always go back to the first day on site to begin the memory journey. I remember the day about 3 years ago when Tom Burbeck and I first met and walked the two-track back into the 15 acres to look at the prospective new home site for the Burbeck home. I also remember the day I first met Marti Burbeck and knowing immediately that these were great folks who could be wonderful clients but also life long friends. A real joy and my wishes are now coming true.

After a long 3-year planning journey, foundations are in place, the carpenters are about to start framing and we at Fireside Home Construction can now do what we do best: build wonderful, durable and efficient buildings to provide long-term satisfaction and enjoyment for their occupants. I am proud to be the general contractor, thrilled to be working with a world class architect, Michael Klement, owner of Architectural Resource, and most proud to be working for and with Tom and Marti Burbeck. This is a dream project with great future implications and I am so excited to be able to shepherd the construction progress.

Bob Burnside
Owner, Fireside Home Construction

What’s In a Name?

house plansSeveral of us met on Friday to schedule tours of our house during construction, giving people the opportunity to see the components: wall assemblies, insulation, mechanicals, and more. We casually and innocently tossed around labels for our potential audience, and joked about scheduling the post-construction open house for just before Tom and I “disappear into the bubble” for our LBC audit year.

I felt unsettled afterward as I pondered our labels for people like us and for the LBC process. We meant no disrespect, and the labels were not at all derogatory but only used in fun. But labeling anything creates categories, and these labels lean toward putting Tom and me in a special class: on the fringe, extreme, and doing something very few others could or would want to do.

But doesn’t everyone care about the health of the earth, really? I’ve not met anyone who truly does not care.

I have met people who are just beginning the journey that Tom and I have been on for several years. Our reading, study, and commitment to the Living Building Challenge have opened our eyes to ways we humans can disrupt ecosystems and degrade the environment – and to ways of mitigating and avoiding the damage. It seems we’re all in fact on the same quest, just at different places on the same road.

Knowledge gives us cause for action. Tom and I hope that our house project helps disseminate knowledge about the pitfalls of “normal” construction and about ways to build buildings and the environment simultaneously.

At the same time, knowledge can cause us to feel overwhelmed: What could I possibly do in the face of the enormity of our environmental problems that could make a difference? Again, Tom and I see our project as blazing the trail, lighting the path, showing others that things can be done by individuals and small groups to effect big changes in the manufacturing and construction industries and in the ways we carry on day-to-day life.

And as for the house tours during construction, tentative dates are September 25–26, October 24–25, and November 21–22, with a post-construction open house in the spring. Come see what we’re doing! Watch this space for more details.

Healthy Environment, Wholesome Food

Fresh wholesome foodsAs we completed the purchase of our property – former farmland amidst former or still working farms – we were just becoming aware of problems with current systems of food production. The more we learned, the more eager we were to become part of the solution, by bringing our land back into healthful productivity.

We learned about the lack of access in some places to wholesome, fresh food. In both urban and rural areas, there are no grocery stores readily available; fast food restaurants and convenience stores are the only sources for buying food. A number of charitable organizations are working locally to overcome this difficulty, and we see possibilities for contributing our harvest to those causes.

We also learned about the downsides of industrial food production, characterized by monocultures requiring rigorous applications of fertilizers and pesticides, and by concentrated animal feeding operations often showing little regard for soil and water quality.

Permaculture offers an alternative to these single-focus intensive farming methods. Building on an ethical foundation of care for people, care for the earth and return of surplus, permaculture strives to create regenerative ecosystems while growing food (meat as well as plants). By combining plants in mutually supportive combinations, and by including animals in the right balance, it’s possible to produce food in abundance while also revitalizing the earth.

Of course, we first need to build a house. Finally the weather seems to be cooperating. The house foundation is well on its way, and barn framing begins this week. Rainwater harvesting tanks arrived on Friday, to be buried at the west end of the house. It’s all becoming real! And after the house comes the next big adventure: Beacon Springs Farm.

Be Prepared

The Desert Rain house, built by Tom Elliot and Barbara Scott, looks to be on track to be the first residential Living Building in the world. Congratulations, Tom and Barb! Your example as well as the willingness of all your team members to share information has been invaluable.

Tom (Burbeck) and I met Tom and Barbara at the 2013 unConference, the annual gathering for the Living Future Institute. When asked for advice on completing an LBC project, their answer to us was to be prepared for it to take longer than might be reasonably expected. They advised us to stay flexible as we navigate the ups and downs of planning, materials vetting, working with local officials, and construction.

rainwater harvestingGood advice! One hurdle already jumped, though not entirely to our satisfaction, is that of water use and waste disposal. Ideally, our water source would be 100% rainwater, filtered and purified to potable level. Our local building and sanitation officials, though, find no accommodation in the building code for this, and so have denied this. We’ve also presented our case for installing a type of composting toilet that would allow us to recycle wastes on our land. Again, there’s no provision in local codes for that, and our appeals board hearing offered the appropriate regrets that their authority does not allow them to overrule the applicable building codes.

So we’ll use well water and a traditional septic system for water and waste. But we’ll install underground water tanks and collect and use rainwater for outdoor irrigation. And hopefully the local codes will be reviewed and eventually changed, helped down that path by our project. We are still hopeful we’ll drink our purified rainwater in the next five or so years, and be allowed to install a Swedish-designed toilet composting system, still provided for in our construction plans.

This process has been a great example of the need to be flexible – not the first, and likely not the last. So on we go, facing each obstacle with ingenuity and with hope for building a home that is not just less bad for the environment, but rather one that regenerates its surrounding ecosystem.

Designing for a Long Time and for the Long Haul

Enduring beauty

Enduring beauty

Three years in the design phase . . . The logical question is, what were we doing all this time?

Two things have made this process long: Living Building challenges, and our care in designing every nook and cranny as well as we possibly can.

Designing a building to function regeneratively, with net zero water, net zero waste, net zero energy, and without toxic materials, is not easy. We’ve assembled quite a team of experts to help with each aspect. They have worked hard throughout these three years – and we could not do this without their knowledge and skills.

This is the fourth house we’ve designed and built, and we’ve completed extensive remodeling on our current house. Our approach each time has been to consider carefully the setting as well as our use of every part of the living space, trying to achieve comfort and homey-ness, while making visible the actual structure of the building. We’ve seen too many homes sized to impress others rather than nurture life, and built with materials chosen to save money or sometimes, to impress.

An LBC requirement is to build for longevity. With that in mind, we’ve chosen a look and feel for this house that reflects that of hundreds-of-years-old ones which many still find beautiful: an Old World leaning-toward-Tuscan look. Our goal is not to replicate an ancient Mediterranean house, but rather to take enduring components and principles and apply them to new construction.

We’re building with the expectation that this home will be wonderfully livable for the next 100-200 years, and maybe more. That means we’ve designed with other family groups and states of life than only what we currently need. Accessibility, families with children of various ages, and even space for a live-in caretaker are all provided for.

And finally, now, over the next months, we’ll see our design come to life, and discover how well spent these last three years have been.

Loving Neighbor, Loving Nature

Tom grew up in the hills above Whittier, CA, in the home built by his father (yes, with a hammer and table saw!), overlooking Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. Tom’s days were filled with exploring those hills. Along with riding and helping care for his sisters’ horses, Tom raised tumbler pigeons and brought home and tended many wild animals. He covered many miles of rugged ground, exploring and learning as he went.

As a young teenager, he hiked and camped far back in the High Sierras with his Boy Scout troop. Good camping etiquette was firmly imprinted in these boys: Respect nature and leave no trace of your presence.

Tom’s early years, then, were marked by closeness to and love for the natural world – so much so that when he left home for college in the early 70s, it was with less regret than one might imagine, since the view to the ocean by then was lost in smog, and ever-increasing roadways had brought more cars and more congestion to the LA basin.

As for me (Marti), the newly built subdivision in which I grew up bordered quite a large area of fields and forest patches. Roaming the fields and climbing high in the trees made for many happy times; it was a rare summer day when my hands were completely clean of sticky pine sap.

Each summer I spent several weeks at a small girls’ camp in Allegany State Park. Nestled in the forest, the camp was simple and rustic. Our activities were by far mainly out-of-doors. A whiff of hemlock forest to this day sends me back to Camp Gohadogoh and my immersion in nature there.

The result of all this nature in our nurture (yes, a nod to our Beacon Springs landscape installer!) is that Tom and I have, through the years, gravitated away from city living. We bought our current house when our sons were young with an eye toward providing for them opportunities for hiking, tree-climbing, fort-building, and imagining themselves as first-explorers. Our “retirement property” in North Carolina is even more to our liking, with diversity in its plant life, and regular visits by deer, foxes, coyotes, osprey, bears and more.

The Tessmer Road property is less wild, having been farmed relatively recently, and being surrounded by active and fallow farms and a sprinkling of homes. Deer and hawks, and likely foxes and coyotes, though, are frequent callers if not residents, so there’s hope for increasing the richness of wildlife as we begin our work to increase richness in the plant life. Not only are we aiming at building a home that enhances the environment, but we also look forward to restoring to health the overused land.

One could hardly miss the recent media attention on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The document stresses the interrelatedness of all of creation, and points out that we cannot in fact love our neighbor if we are not also loving and caring for creation. Our hearts resonate with those ideas.

Forefront in our minds right now is the materials vetting process. The goal is to avoid, as much as possible, toxic chemicals in our construction materials. What an onerous process! — and how much we hope we’re creating change, not only for the occupants of this house we’re building, but also in building and manufacturing standards, pushing for safer components and greater transparency. It’s all too easy to grab the cheapest off-the-shelf item – but the cost down the road is often far higher than we think. May this building project exemplify love of neighbor coupled with love of creation.


Now that construction has begun, we’re looking back over the past five years and all that’s transpired.

moving truckWe’ve lived in our current home for 25 years, and completed major remodeling, landscaping, new construction and pool reconstruction in that time. So we’ve been asked, “Why are you moving?”

The answer starts a dozen or so years ago, when Tom and I laid plans to retire in the vicinity of Chesapeake, Virginia, where my sister, her husband and their children, and my parents lived. We bought 35 acres on the Pasquotank River, southeast of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It comprises wetlands, swampy areas, forest, and former farmland. With nearly a quarter of a mile of riverfront, it’s quiet and idyllic. We built a snug, lovely cottage for immediate vacation use, and planned to build a larger home once we were ready to retire.

Life is, of course, unpredictable, however, and five years ago or so we found ourselves rethinking our retirement plans. Parents were aging fast, and our two adult sons were married and settled right here in Ann Arbor. We began to think we should stay in Ann Arbor, and find a vacation cottage closer to home.

Our vacation-spot search began in northern Michigan, and then drew ever closer to Ann Arbor. When we found 15 acres on Tessmer Road, a designated “natural beauty road,” we stopped searching and started planning cottage construction.

And the next logical step was to choose to sell our current house and move to our vacation home. The Tessmer Road site is exactly what we crave in a vacation setting: quiet, remote and rural. Who wouldn’t want to be permanently on vacation?

Building design had barely begun when we learned about the Living Building Challenge. Tom and I hold dearly our memories of time spent in nature in our growing up years, and we have always been drawn to living in concert with nature. We’d not implemented that attraction, at least not in any big way. LBC caught our attention as a method by which to build a home that adds to, rather than detracts from, the environment, and a metric by which we can measure our effectiveness in achieving that goal.

So for next time: more on our love for creation and our response to the challenge of building the greenest of green homes . . .