SustainabilityBy Susan Andrew on 03/05/2012
There was a time in these mountains — before tract housing and highways and the electrical grid — when folks made their living from the land and built houses using materials they found locally, dwelling in relative harmony with nature.
When Ryan Lubbers set out to build his dream home, he wanted to employ these same principles, while making use of modern building and energy technologies to achieve that broad goal.
His 1,750-square-foot home, shared with partner Jane Vogelman, is designed to coexist with nature — both by using green technology and by deliberately integrating elements of its natural surroundings, as did the homes of this area’s early settlers.
The house is one of three built thus far in Hickory Nut Forest, a 200-acre eco-community in Gerton (near Chimney Rock State Park) where residents share a 10-acre organic garden and heirloom orchard, along with access to miles of trails through forest protected under a conservation easement.
It’s hard to overstate this house’s alignment with sustainable living, as practiced by Western North Carolina’s early settlers. From its post-and-beam innards to its clay stucco-and-shingle exterior, Lubbers sought to use materials harvested and processed on the site.
Consider the poplar bark he harvested for exterior siding. “That’s been done for a long time,” Lubbers acknowledges. “It’s known to last up to 75 years; under the soffit, it should last indefinitely.” Naturally rot-resistant, the bark can be peeled as soon as the tree starts to leaf out in April, he explains. “It’ll be really slick underneath the cambium layer — it just peels off like a banana.”
As the lead builder on the project, Lubbers worked closely with friend and fellow green builder Nate Ballinger, aka Bearwallow Construction. “We wanted to use everything from the site that we possibly could,” Lubbers confirms. The house uses a surprising diversity of wood species, including white and chestnut oak, maple, cherry, silverbell, walnut, birch, sourwood and locust. “It’s just amazing what you can do with the lumber” that other builders would regard as useless, Lubbers says, with obvious pride. “The trick is to use it for its best use.”
For instance, some interior trim features boards still sporting the “live edge,” the rough line where the bark meets the wood of a living tree. Raw laurel stems were used as rails in an exterior porch railing. Stair risers and treads were made from available pieces of different hardwood species. “You can use any type of wood for something,” Ballinger says.
It’s a selective process, where a builder saves choice materials for certain applications. “With the cherry, we had just enough to do the kitchen cabinets” crafted by Weston Woodworks, Lubbers reports. He wanted to avoid the formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds used in many fabricated building components such as cabinets, so “Weston did the research and got soy-based glues, and low-VOC lacquers, and then used the wood we [got] from the site.”
There’s an element of luck involved in any successful building project. Forty big hemlocks on a neighbor’s property had been killed by the woolly adelgid; those trees now provide the beautiful exposed timbers overhead in the home’s main living area — “one of the top choices for timber framing, and we just got lucky,” Lubbers says.
On the energy side, the house features both passive- and active-solar technologies. Radiant floor heating, embedded in the smooth cement floor, employs hot water provided by solar thermal panels on the roof. On cloudy days, backup is provided by a propane burner to boost the temperature of the hot water; a wood stove provides additional heat in the living room. “A week of pure clouds, and you’re not getting solar to heat the water, so the propane will kick in,” Lubbers explains.
As for electricity, “the 3.6 kilowatt photovoltaic system should make us a net-zero home, and hopefully energy positive,” Lubbers reports. “The PV panels are producing well, with 14 kilowatt-hours produced on a sunny day, with only 9 kwh hours used on an average day. So we are currently making more electrical energy then we are consuming.”
At the same time, Lubbers’ home is carefully designed to maximize passive solar gain. The trick to passive solar heating is creating thermal mass to store and slowly release heat to the building’s interior. Lubbers’ home does this via the cement floor, which traps heat from the sun coming in the big south windows —but only in winter. His overhangs are designed with the sun’s seasonal behavior in mind: “On the summer solstice, the sun is high in the sky, and doesn’t come directly into the house. In the winter, it’s low-angle sun, and it will come all the way in and light up the entire floor, soaking into that heat sink.”
Continuing the passive solar features, a Trombe wall provides another heat sink for passive solar gain on the home’s south side. Built from cement block, painted black and housed behind glass, the Trombe wall looks like a big window from the outside. Even so, “You don’t want your whole house being blazed by the sun all the time – you want some solar-free rooms that provide a refuge” from the sun’s light and heat. Lubbers provided these as bedrooms on the house’s north side.
Brian Love and Earthaven Ecovillage helped with earthen plaster on the home’s exterior. The clay component of the plaster was dug on-site. “You have to do each coat in a single day,” Lubbers points out, adding that this might have been the most difficult aspect of the project. “It has to be the right temperature outside, not too warm; we had about 20 people involved in a huge mud party, with ropes and scaffolding and trowels … and beer,” he says, grinning. “The best thing is, it’s hydrophobic — it becomes a vapor barrier, a monolithic shell around the house,” forming a nearly seamless building envelope.
Lubbers was thrilled when the project earned a platinum NC HealthyBuilt Home rating through the WNC Green Building Council, scoring 332 points. The point system ranks a home on everything from water and energy conservation measures to indoor air quality, materials and site treatments including landscaping.
Lubbers’ ideas about landscaping are heavily influenced by permaculture concepts. “A permaculture garden gives you the tools to take care of yourself, right in your own backyard,” he says, beginning with the most managed zones near the house to the least managed areas farther away.
How does the cost of building this house compare to conventional building per square foot? “We think, when it’s all said and done, it will be very close to conventional building because of using so many resources from the site,” says Lubbers. There’s the up-front cost of purchasing solar thermal panels for hot water and photovoltaic panels for electricity, he says, but there are substantial tax incentives, and prices for solar panels have come down. “There’s a clear return on the investment over time,” he continues. “On sunny days, the [electric] meter flows backward as the panels provide electricity to the grid; at night, we can draw power from the grid.”
As the project wraps up, what is Lubbers most proud of? “Thinking about it holistically, from top to bottom,” he replies, “then working with local craftsmen and using the resources we had right here on-site to build my best expression of a sustainable house.”
And while an intensive project like this could strain any friendship, he’s still got Ballinger, Vogelman and a long list of helpers at his side. “At the end of it all, I feel really good about the community that formed around the project.”
Designer/builder: Ryan Lubbers, with Bearwallow Construction
Cabinetry: Weston Woodworks
Susan Andrew is a science-and-environment writer who’s working to green-retrofit an older home in Asheville’s Kenilworth neighborhood with her husband, Mark.