|Turnout was just about optimal for the EarthDay Preview of the nearly completed strawbale home out in Brown county. This home had so many desirable features to explore, the owner's enthusiasm had infused our announcements and drawn the group (RSVPs required) in spite of an early morning downpour that left nature overly refreshed.
With the house approaching completion after an odyssey of a dozen years of self-contracting while she was pursuing a tenuous path through organic farming to supply the exclusive restaurants in the city, her new world for herself and her two children was almost palpable.
This site was the second she'd tried, switching everything almost overnight when the first site was running into regulatory and other hassles just as her plans had looked complete. Her expert timberframer made a valiant effort to complete the structural framework before succumbing to cancer, one of the most dreaded diseases correlated with affluenza's diet. The design seemed to morph in his hands as he incorporated all the re-usable treasures she was unearthing in the area into the skeleton he was erecting from the timber of several old weathered barns. She was fortunate that he was also an engineer and could stamp the skeletal changes needed. The new site would not only offer the farmland needed for her venture, it would be nestled into the nature preserve, her cousin and partner wanted.
In addition to the visitors, we had arranged for each of the contractors and crews that worked on the house, as well as the major vendors who' d supplied many of the treasures, to be on site for visitors to meet and discuss their projects. Even the widow and son, who'd carried on his father's timberframing company had indicated their intent to come. The house was to the point where its ultimate form could be perceived.
When we arrived early, several very eager visitors had already joined the set up crews. We parked in the drive that circled one of the barns and hiked down the hill to the house. The inside was nice and warm after the cool, drizzly outdoors, so we got our first taste of the radiant floor in action. The infrasructure areas on the lower level held all the magical technology so that's where we headed.
Center: The open gathering area, just off the balcony, seen from the kitchen-to-be,
Right: The cozy little library with ample shelving, built from simple doors.
For half the year the radiant floors (and their water heating) would be supplied by solar collectors, but this was barely April and rainy. Randy Sizemore of Entropy Limited,, our AEA installer of magic, was already explaining the features of the wood boiler now warming our toes.
The boiler was a very efficient burning appliance, reaching very high heats to avoid wasting fuel, so it left no creasote in the chimney and had very little ash to remove from the bottom pan either. Efficiency also meant less wood to haul, less attention to stoking and no firetending.
The extreme heat however necessitated some fascinating strategies. The water jacket around the boiler's firebox, dumped heated water into the water storage tanks (only one was currently in the bank, others stood to the right), waiting for the thermostats in the various rooms to call for more heat. Approximately 2000 gallons of heat storage, well insulated and using discarded commercial tanks or, if Randy can't get enough co-operation from vendor/installers when they're too busy to creatively dispose of the tanks they're replacing, a simple insulated ferrocement tank, the latest in construction technology.
The area to the left of the boiler was currently designated for scrap wood for burning, maybe broken crates from the farming operation. Randy said this system was designed to need feeding maybe once a week.
There were strategically placed gages with safety valves and the wall opposite the boiler was the control area for the myriad runs of pex and copper coils to all the floors in the house, even under the composters.
When Randy wasn't explaining the BTUs/cord, the temperature of exhaust air and the gallons in storage, his expertise was also needed for the home's off-the-grid electrical system which was centered on the wall backing the greywater greenhouse.
For a whole house system with all its infrastructure, the system required a substantial bank of batteries to span our winter sunless-days when we can go 10-11 days without enough light to make the electrons trickle. Storage is the key to solar, whether heating or electric, in the Cincinnati area. Unlike the original solar concepts of the early days when the movement was young and centered in Colorado, NewMexico and California where the sun always rises the next day.
Randy was in perpetual motion to keep up with the stream of enthusiastic visitors. The flow was well timed so that there was ample opportunity to get all our questions answered. Randy had kept a panel inside for visitors to see. The design for the array that was taking shape would use the panels as part of the balcony's perimeter, making them easy to clean occasionally as well as for visitors enjoying their jewel-like crystaline essences.
There's even plans for a wind turbine to supplement the solar electric on days when there's more wind than sun, just as the wood boilder backs up the solar heating.
Against the greenhouse wall is the photovoltaic system with its inverter, MPPT, lots of gages and the battery bank in its bright red bins.
|For the greenhouse, Jon Burkendine, did some computer modelling which apparently produces the sort of graphic images you see here on your right, for the benefit of those more graphic oriented than the mathematical models we usually do with spreadsheets. To see the reality as it was on the day of the tour, glass still waiting in the shipping crates standing on the berm, simply look behind the graphic.
The greenhouse is a gamble, a jewel and a lightening rod. Amazingly they did earthtubes in the greywater greenhouse. In our climate, the earthtubes usually get concrete-filled after a season or two of mold accumulating, but Randy and Jon were doing something really exciting in this case. Don't know if they'll get this to work.
The house is not PAHS (passive annual heat storing) but the owner is gambling with her inheritance on this one. When that runs out soon, if it hasn't already, she's back to being simply an organic farmer. The water supply is also off-the-grid, namely a well, which of course ran into some strangely novel complications which she was still unravelling at tour-time. In any event the second well came in fine. Meanwhile, she objected to the chlorine requirements in the county's designated and approved septic system so she changed direction and chose composting toilets (the phoenix models used at national parks like Grand Canyon and capable of major usage levels) and the greywater greenhouse which is the main battleground.
She and Jon went to Clivus for the specs to get easy county approval but the real monsters were the EPA, negating the Clivus benefit totally and leaving their added name-expense. The EPA wouldn't give her any credit for the composting toilets (let alone for being conserving) so she and Jon had to size the greywater tanks for 360gallons per day!!! 360 gallons per day with her and her two kids is insane, of course, strictly harassment of someone escaping the usual rules. Many of us and most of Europe use about 50gallons per person per day, and half of that is flushing water, which she's eliminated with the composting toilets, leaving 25gallons per day per person, or almost 300 gallons a day less than the absurd EPA rules. Now she'll have to pump water from the precious well at worst guzzlers' rates in order to keep the greenhouse functioning per specs, meanwhile using composting toilets to reduce water use, running potable water down the drain to make up for greywater she didn't and wouldn't generate. Randy and Jon are looking for monitoring equipment so they can demonstrate at the one year mark, that the requirement is nonsense. Hopefully the EPA will be put out of the picture. Though what her move after that is, is unclear.
Anyway, back to the earthtubes. You can see them in the real image beneath the model. The greenhouse is basement level (the land slopes away to the south) and is to be open to the sides, glass only over the top. The tanks run down the center like raised beds, whose sand and gravel lower levels will filter the water, removing and composting whatever the roots hadn't managed to remove on first pass. Below the glazing area in the low south wall are the earthtubes, stacked 2 high and about 2' apart. The tubes are 3" PVC tubes running straight out about 20 ft under the berm in front of the greenhouse and emerging periscope style in a row about 1' apart, looking for all the world like some otherworld comb. Airflow pattern rises and exits in a row of 6" portholes (spaced about 4' apart) through the floor of the sundeck above the back of the greenhouse. The berm is insulated but I don't think this would be considered a pahs greenhouse even though it will have accumulated and be storing the summer's warmth to temper the incoming air like a curious slow motion heat exchanger. It was so novel, we're just waiting to see how this all functions. It appears the greenhouse and the basement work areas behind it will have a constant supply of fresh tempered, though cooler, air with no accumulated dampness, judging by that morning's example.
We'll keep you posted as this story develops.
Computer modeling, with reality behind it.
|The composter called the Phoenix and seen in this photo, handles two dry thrones, one on each floor above. This size model can easily handle double that including micro-flush toilets.
Since this change in the plans came late in the project, the owner chose to keep the floor plan she had and install a second composter on the other side of the infrastructure area. There is a limit to the side-distance from throne to composter to keep in mind, when you're designing this feature in from the start.
For bureaucratic reasons, they were to install an 'overflow' for the leachate though the likelihood of having any is basically nil. The load is so overdesigned, they don't anticipate having to empty the composter for a couple years. In the meantime the only maintenance is to crank the handles a half turn every once in a while. Everything else is designed in, including the fan and electric for air circulation and operation.
|There were a few clever and appealing bas relief designs sculpted into the natural plasters in various locations in the house, including in the throne room.
Personally, I'm not convinced I'd want a dry throne on the second floor. Although gravity conveniently takes all deposits decidedly downward, a water toilet constantly sweeps away errant material, as when your youngest has stomach flu and barely makes it to the throne room in time. That's life.
And even then, there's periodic brushing needed in the wet system. How do you handle that with a two-story drop for an upstairs dry throne? Your preferences are your own, I suppose. Maybe.
A friend of ours had a cat that liked to walk the narrow ledge around the bathtub, I wonder where the health department was on this one. Just seems like a total hazard. Definitely don't want one even on the first floor. Leave the lid up once and lose your cat. Oy! Meanwhile the bureaucrats are fixated on the appliance end where the system is radically overdesigned. If you had a hazard like this in your yard, there would be requirements for lids with serious bolts to ensure no one was injured. For this we pay taxes?
It's difficult to imagine getting tired of this game, when you can move your mindset from one exciting period to another, just by entering a different room. In one space you're in a setting hinting of Victorian ambitions. Later, you've been transported to somewhere French. Walk down the hall and you're heading for Western adventure.
Setting aside earlier comments about design as already said, and proceeding on the usual choices... The children's bedrooms were each customized to their individual interests and political statements. The younger child loved dragons and dungeons, choosing a loft type sleeping area and climbing structures. His triangular window was the perfect wing for his personal dragon. (Below)
There was still a great deal to do before it would be time to move in, including a solar, through-the-wall, convection oven, yet the home had the wonderful character that goes with self-contracting. Something no architecture firm or big builder will ever match however imposing their designs and marketing.
Alternate Energy Association Club