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 . . .

TEDx Talk: Jason McClennan on the Living Building Challenge

Here’s a great, and inspiring, presentation on what we’re hoping to achieve: a house that regenerates its environment and that “lives” in concert with the surrounding ecosystem. 15 minutes well spent.

At last, shovels in the dirt

L to R: Larry Cameron, owner, Ann Arbor Jackson Concrete; Bruce Lobbestael, L & B Excavating; Bob Burnside, owner, Fireside Home Construction

On site meeting a week before the big moment!

L to R: Larry Cameron, owner, Ann Arbor Jackson Concrete; Michael Czarnota, associate, Fireside Home Construction; Bruce Lobbestael, L & B Excavating; Bob Burnside, owner, Fireside Home Construction

Looking over the plans

The big moment is almost here! Bob the builder met this week with the excavator and the foundation folks to look over the plans and determine the best plan of action.

Actual digging commences next week. Is this really real?! We did eat our first orange, so I suppose our patience has indeed paid off.

More news and photos just around the corner!


first orange, about ready for harvest

Patience. Much needed.

Watching the growth of this first orange on our orange tree parallels our Living Building experience.

We’ve spent about two years working on house design. Since this is the third house we’ve built – and we’ve completed remodels on two houses, ranging from minor to huge – we’ve become quite picky about the details. Probably driving the architect a bit batty . . .

But we now have construction documents ready to go. Hooray!

And the right weather for all the high-tech stuff we need to use in order to achieve net-zero energy? Nope, not till spring.

And the real slower-downer here is vetting of materials against the red list. Wow, what a job!

Like our orange, which has been growing larger and orang-er over the past eight months or so, we’ll be working away at this task for some months yet. Thank you, Eric Doyle, for your organization and effort,  leading us on to the end.

Maybe we’ll now see how that orange tastes. Or maybe just another week or two or three . . .


Easy-to-understand descriptions of the Living Building Challenge

I’ve recently come across two excellent descriptions of the Living Building Challenge: one prepared by Skanska describing the Bertschi School in Seattle, and the other, an article in Houzz online magazine. Click on the photo below to see the entire article, or click through the photos and captions for a quick overview.

Read, learn and enjoy!