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!

Water and waste: hoping to implement some excellent ideas and proven methods

Several recent articles have caught my attention – one about groundwater in Michigan and the other on water use in modern Western bathrooms.

There are currently two wells on our Beacon Springs property; both have high levels of arsenic. To use that water, we’ll install a system to lower the amount of arsenic in our water to a safe level. We’ll run the water through a water softener as well, to remove other minerals (adding salt to our drinking water in the process).

If we could avail ourselves of harvested rainwater, we’d of course have a purification system – which, according to our rainwater expert, would provide us purer water than what we’d get out of the ground, even after treatment. And we simply want to flush toilets with this water.

And as for composting toilets, the article recounting the history of modern bathrooms, says so much:

Nobody seriously paused to think about the different functions and their needs; they just took the position that if water comes in and water goes out, it is all pretty much the same and should be in the same room. Nobody thought about how the water from a shower or bathtub (greywater) is different from the water from a toilet (blackwater); it all just went down the same drain which connected to the same sewer pipe that gathered the rainwater from the streets, and carried it away to be dumped in the river or lake.

. . . We take millions of gallons of fresh water and contaminate it with toxic chemicals, human waste, antibiotics and birth control hormones in quantities large enough to change the gender of fish.

We mix up all our bodily functions in a machine designed by engineers on the basis of the plumbing system, not human needs. The result is a toxic output of contaminated water, questionable air quality and incredible waste. We just can’t afford to do it this way any more.

Reduce, reuse, recycle . . . that’s been the mantra for some time now. But it’s hard to go against standard practice, to change ingrained habits. What’s needed is people who will take the time to think through how water and waste are currently handled, and look at viable and proven options that are already available to accomplish what we all say we want.

For ourselves, we’d like to restore our 15 acres of used up, depleted, currently useless former farmland to productive health, and to include ourselves and our home in that ecology. And if our example can benefit the wider community – we’d be delighted.

Growing Oranges

orange_treeTwo years ago, when we were first working on house design, we thought it would be great to have enough light in the new house to grow our own oranges. Not too long before, we’d each begun eating a fresh orange with breakfast, in place of fruit juice.

So we bought an orange tree, put it in a pot, and placed it by a set of west-facing French doors. In the summertime, the tree lives outside those doors, on the patio. It appears to be thriving, growing new shoots often, and blooming several times a year. Little oranges (or “greens” as we call them) form at each blossom. Those grow for a while, then drop off. Clearly the tree is still too young to really produce fruit.

The “green” in the photo is the longest-lasting and by far the largest we’ve had – about an inch and a half in diameter now. We have yet to see if it hangs around long enough to turn orange. In the meantime, we picture our tree in its light-filled spot in our yet-to-be-built living room.

And in the same way, taking our time with the design process has allowed us to imagine ourselves in the new house, carefully “looking at” and thinking through each window, door, wall area, room . . . All good, and we’ve come up with countless tweaks which will enhance the livability of our new home. And yet, we’ve done enough building to know that once we’re living there, we’ll discover so much more. We look forward to the surprise one day of a real orange and of our new home’s personality and beauty.

Living Future Unconference 2014

Michael is sending us photos from the Unconference in Portland. Wish we could be there – but we know Michael and Eric will take copious notes and bring home stacks of literature and tons of ideas.

Amanda Sturgeon speaks at the start of the 2014 Living Future Unconference.

Amanda Sturgeon speaks at the start of the 2014 Living Future Unconference.

Maya Lin, keynote speaker, first evening at 2014 Living Future Unconference.

Maya Lin, keynote speaker, first evening at 2014 Living Future Unconference.

Happy reunion: Eric, Tom, Barbara and Michael.

Happy reunion: Eric, Tom, Barbara and Michael.

Checking out Dubbletten and Aquatron.

Checking out Dubbletten and Aquatron.

Now and Then

Forty years ago, I was an AFS exchange student. I spent a year in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, living with the most wonderful host family imaginable, and essentially repeating my senior year of high school.

When I learned where I was headed, I began to form an idea in my head about what my year abroad would be like – to live in a tiny village in a predominately Catholic country, speak Dutch, eat new foods . . . Try as I might, I knew I couldn’t imagine it fully. I suspected, however, that at the end of the year, I’d return home with a different perspective on many areas of life.

drivewayOur house-building journey feels similar. All along the way, we’ve envisioned the architecture and design, the components of a living building and life in that home. But we’ll never know until we get there what it’s really like to keep our water and energy use and waste at net zero, to restore our land to health and productivity, to live with a heightened awareness of our connection to the earth. In the end, we’re sure we’ll live in a comfortable, well-designed home where we’ll welcome friends and family to share in the beauty of our surroundings and the produce from our land. We expect to have learned what it takes to live in a way that builds rather than destroys the environment. And we look forward to that.

In the meantime, we’re making our way through our red list vetting process. We’re working with the county health department to convince them that really, it would be safe and sane to flush toilets with harvested rainwater. And we’re nearing completion of construction documents . . . with a few new design thoughts yet to be implemented. Our team members remain hard-working, helpful, cheerful; without them this project would be impossible.

Not a campaign

Over Thanksgiving dinner, as Tom and I were describing some of our vision for growing food at Beacon Springs, our younger son made a helpful observation and asked a follow-up question: first, Mom and Dad, here at this table, you’re preaching to the choir – and second, what can we, Eric and wife, and older brother and wife, DO?

Tom’s recent reminders come immediately to mind: that Beacon Springs and Living Building Challenge are not a campaign for us. We’re not out to change the world by building and publicizing the greenest house around or by coming up with a way to grow food that renews the earth, pays our bills, and feeds hungry needy people in Washtenaw County. As the project unfolds, we find ourselves thinking more and more about THIS piece of land, THIS group of people who are touched by our project. The challenge is not to the world, but it’s to us, Tom and me, to revitalize the 15 acres we now own – to live in a way that makes this corner of the world as healthy and productive and full of life as we can possibly make it.

We hope our example is one that inspires others to follow a similar path. That IS where saving the world can happen. But we’re not on a campaign.

A note on the LBC red list and on teamwork

Most of the 20 imperatives of the Living Building Challenge are, well, exactly that: a challenge. You have the net-zeroes – energy, water and waste – and these are made possible largely because of the strong team of specialists we have assembled.

For our project, with such a focus on passive solar design and the passive ventilation tower, the energy imperative seems quite manageable.

Water, with our rainwater harvesting strategy, is relatively easy, except that our local health and safety regulations are not designed to accommodate rainwater as potable water. A well was already dug on our land at purchase, so we have a Plan B for potable water if we can’t get approval for rainwater as a source for potable water.

Toilets and net zero waste: That’s another one that gives the county authorities the willies, but there are precedents in our county, and it appears that this one won’t be too difficult. Once again, we have a pre-dug septic field on the parcel, so we have a Plan B. Nevertheless, I cringe at the thought of putting in a large septic tank and field for such a small task; it also would be like throwing away valuable water and fertilizer so desperately needed by our worn out farm land.

But it’s the Red List that’s the onerous challenge. Thank God we have Eric Doyle and Catalyst Partners as our LBC project manager and Red List cops. It’s through his dogged pursuit of all those manufacturers, with assistance from interns attending nearby colleges, that we have any hope of vetting everything. Even our challenges with FSC compliance, with our solution to have the cabinet shop onsite since we cannot find FSC kitchen cabinets, pale in comparison to the task of vetting all materials against the LBC Red List.

Our LBC team is the only way we have a prayer of meeting the challenge. Without our team of impressively qualified professionals, I’d put this project in the “Hopeless” category. The core team – Michael, Brian, Eric, Bob and Shannan – are a delight and our lifeline. For me, it’s the friendships I’ve made among these professionals, and the enjoyment I experience in working with them, that brings new life in daily living long before our Living Building becomes tangible. Thank you for that, team!

We’re live!

Our first public presentation of our Living Building Challenge project is Thursday, September 26, as part of the AIA (Huron Valley)+2030 Professional Series.

Vince Martinez, Director of Research at Architecture 2030, Eric Doyle, Living Building Challenge consultant for Burh Becc at Beacon Springs, and Jan Culbertson of A3C Collaborative Architecture, look at setting and achieving energy goals with integrated design.

AIA + 2030 Session I:
The 2030 Challenge: Setting + Achieving Energy Goals with Integrated Design
September 26, 5–9:15 pm, at Henry Ford Community College
Rosenau Board Room; Andrew A. Mazzara Administrative Services and Conference Center

Learn more . . .