To stay or to go. That was the dilemma we faced. We weren’t getting any younger, and my husband Bruce could no longer maintain our mile-and-a-half, steep mountain road, ten miles of trails, barn, shed, 1865 guesthouse, 1873 main house, and garage by himself.
Bruce also needed help keeping our tractor and secondhand bulldozer running. In short, he needed a jack of all trades to live on our mountain and help him as he aged. Instead, he got a Jack and a Jill — a couple from the valley below who were eager to move here, a couple familiar with our land because they had been hunting here for years. Troy and Paula Scott agreed to our scheme. We would build a home for them above the derelict house of our now-deceased neighbor Margaret, whose property we had bought back in 1992. There, the Scotts could live rent-free as our caretakers.
Our son Dave and I, as conservationists, suggested that we build a “green” house. Thus began a year of anticipation and frustration as we embarked on a new adventure — dealing with an architect, a building inspector, contractors, suppliers, a well-driller, an electrician, a plumber and a host of other people who mostly helped but sometimes hindered our progress. The goal was to get the house built before rifle season began. At the time — February 2008 — it seemed to be a reasonable goal.
We started by visiting friends of ours — Dave and Trudy Kyler — who had built a small, passive solar home near Huntingdon back in the 1970s. All four of us spent a couple hours touring their home and hearing about their own building odyssey — their mistakes as well as their successes. Paula took notes, and Troy studied the various aspects of passive solar design. He particularly liked what the Kylers’ called a “knee-wall” of bricks built below their large windows to capture and retain heat.
We put much of the planning in the hands of the Scotts. Bruce was in pain from a benign tumor pressing on his spine and was facing a major operation, although he did his best to help and advise whenever he could. Paula searched the Internet for possible house plans they could modify and finally found what she thought was an ideal house plan from Sun Plans Incorporated called “Jersey ‘Scape.” But it was designed for the warmer South and had no basement. We needed an architect to modify the plan, not only adding a full basement but making other design changes as well.
It took longer to change our plan than we figured on. In the meantime, cold month followed cold month. Would it never warm up? Would it never stop raining?
While we waited, Troy lined up sub-contractors to dig the foundation and pour the concrete basement floor after Bruce carefully calculated the precise direction the house should face to obtain the most solar heat. Specifically, “the south wall was to face due true south,” according to the plans. “The primary goals” [of an energy efficient home] the plan continued, “are to let in sun in winter and keep it out in summer,” so the south side of the house has to function as a passive solar collector.
Furthermore, the land south of the house was supposed to be cleared of trees. But Paula didn’t want a single tree cut, especially not the three huge old spruces in Margaret’s backyard on the southwest side of the house site. After all, this was to be a house in the woods, not in a cleared development. Luckily, the rest of Margaret’s old yard was reasonably open, and the spruces were saved.
Of course, brush and small trees had to be cut, especially for the septic field above the house. Getting the septic system designed and approved took several more weeks than we anticipated. That, in fact, became the theme of the year — nothing ever happened as quickly as we hoped.
At last, in early June, the rain stopped, the earth dried out, and excavation of the basement began. Bruce had had his operation in mid-May and was slowly recovering. Every day he walked the quarter mile over to check on the progress of the house and to take photos. Sometimes I joined him, especially for the more interesting (to me) aspects such as the laying of the concrete basement floor and the delivery of the roof trusses. The man who made the turn on to the one-lane county bridge across the Little Juniata River with those trusses hanging out the back of the truck was one impressive driver.
By then we had learned how inadequate our road is for the delivery of large items such as those trusses and for the hauling of heavy excavating equipment. Troy and Paula had to repair portions of the road every time another large truck dug deep ruts into it. Buying more and more road gravel was just one of many expenses we hadn’t counted on.
Slowly, sometimes painfully, house-building proceeded through the summer months and into the fall. Already, it was obvious that the house would not be finished by November, despite the help the Scotts gave in their free time. An early snow the last day in October sent our first contractor home to New Jersey. Then, a local contractor, Tim Shaw, who had constructed the basement, took over. Once winter set in, he obtained tire chains for his pickup truck. Ice and snow were not going to keep him from finishing the house.
At the beginning of March, Troy and Paula, having worked with Tim all winter to finish the inside of the house, moved in. I joked that they lived in a camouflage house with its green metal roof and light, greenish-brown “Woodland Green” siding, neither of which makes the house strictly a true “green” house, although as Paula points out, the roof has a lifetime guarantee and can ultimately be recycled.
And Bruce adds that “Building a house is a fleet of compromises,” especially a “green” house. Neither of our contractors had had any experience building such a house. Neither had any of the other workers. We spent hours poring over the plans, and ultimately the house became what we hoped it would be.
The south-facing windows are specially designed to keep the house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and have casement openings that lock tightly against weather-stripping. They are overhung by 24-inch eaves that shade the house in summer and let maximum heat in during the winter. The windows in the back and sides of the house are smaller, casement-type windows, which are more energy-efficient than those that are double hung.
The 1500 square-foot house has three bedrooms and two baths. The living room, dining room, and kitchen have no walls between them for better air circulation except for a four-foot-high wall dividing the living room from the dining room. The floors in front of the south-facing windows are tiled and so is the dividing wall in order to retain heat during the day and give it off at night. Otherwise, the rest of the house has hardwood floors. The furniture and the floors in the living space are neutral colors to prevent fading from the sun and all the walls are painted white. On those walls are several heads of bucks, all of which the Scotts shot on our property. The floors have no rugs because they trap dust and pollutants, another “green” recommendation from Sun Plans, Inc. Ceiling fans are mounted in every room and can circulate cool air when needed. Troy and Paula have also put compact florescent bulbs in all their light fixtures.
The entire house, including the basement, is heavily insulated with blue jean insulation made by Bonded Logic, Inc. from the factory trimmings of new jeans. That “keeps the factory waste from the landfill,” Troy says. Soaked in borate, which serves as a fire retardant, pest deterrence, and mold and mildew preventative, this recycled denim provides a soft, non-prickly Green Building insulation that is better than fiberglass.
The aim of the Jersey ‘Scape design is to have a house that is 72 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and 70 degrees in winter, but the Scotts keep their home at 60 degrees in the winter, which feels perfectly comfortable because the place is so well insulated. Nevertheless, they needed another source of heat in the winter with our mountaintop climate.
After much research, we decided to pay the extra money and install a geothermal heating and cooling system, tapping into the earth to provide heating, cooling and hot water. In our case, in addition to drilling a well for water, the well-drillers also drilled four holes, 15 feet apart, and 190 feet deep, following directions from the local provider of the so-called GeoExchange system.
There are six possible earth loop designs, which transfer heat to and from the ground, depending on the terrain. Ours is the vertical loop. Simply put, a geothermal system works something like a refrigerator does, removing heat energy from the earth to heat the home and removing heat energy from inside the home to cool it. Although it is more expensive to install than a traditional natural gas or oil furnace, it usually pays for itself in energy savings within three to five years.
Because the ground absorbs 47% of the sun’s energy that reaches the earth, this amount of energy is 500 times more than all of humanity would need every year. Scientists figure that installing a geothermal system is equal, in greenhouse gas reduction, to planting an acre of trees or taking two cars off the road. In fact, a geothermal system is considered the most environmentally friendly way to heat and cool a home because it emits no carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or other greenhouse gases.
During our 38 years here, we have heated both our house and guesthouse with oil, a system that was already in place in the main house and one we installed in the guesthouse. We also put woodstoves in both houses as supplementary heating during much of the 1970s and 1980s until cutting wood and carrying it in to fill the stoves became too difficult for our aging bodies. In addition, we learned that the kind of woodstoves we had emitted even more air pollution than oil. But getting oil trucks up here in winter has become more and more difficult especially after most of the suppliers have switched to trucks too large for our access road. The Scotts will never have to worry about that. If the geothermal heating system works well for them, we hope to invest in such a system for our homes too.
We also plan to “green” our old houses in other ways. Already, Troy and Paula, with the help of their son, Andy, have installed blue jean insulation in our attic, and we purchased and Troy installed a new storm door for the veranda entrance. We may also consider solar panels and/or small windmills on our roofs. While retrofitting old houses with “green” technology is possible, it is easier and cheaper to build such energy-efficient features into a new home as we did with the Scotts’ place.
So, there you have it. Our plan for aging in place. Instead of spending our savings on travel and other luxuries, we spent it on building a house that should last as a caretaker home for several generations.
All photos are by Bruce Bonta.