May 2010: The little kit that could

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“Living carefully, purposely, frugally just. makes. sense. And is tons of fun.” 

Green living enthusiast Copeland Casati wrote that recently on her blog, and it’s as good a summary of what she and her family are up to as you could find. For the moment, this clan—pink-haired, tech-minded Copeland, her German-born husband Christoph and their two kids—live in Richmond, in a mid-century house that’s not particularly efficient and doesn’t offer much in the way of neighborhood connections or walkability.

 

But they have an ace up their sleeves: their 55-acre plot in Charlotte County. They’ve been spending weekends there since 2005, first in a camper and, since fall 2008, in a small, modern house designed by Charlottesville architect David Day to be highly energy efficient. The house isn’t connected to the electric grid, and it has no well. When it’s eventually finished, the Casatis plan to live there full-time, but they’ll stay off-grid.

The Casa Ti—both a play on its owners’ last name and a foreign language mashup (Spanish for “house,” Chinese for “substance”)—is a passive solar structure that needs little energy for heating or cooling. It’s also a business: Designed as a kit, the Casa Ti is sold through Copeland’s website, greenmodernkits.com. Even as the Casatis continue work on their own Casa Ti (on the list this summer: installing solar panels), the same kit is going up in New York State and Colorado. 

Copeland expects those other kits will wind up looking substantially different than her own. Whereas she’s a fan of modern design (her own kit is clad in corrugated galv-alum panels), she says, “Somebody might clad the Casa Ti in reclaimed cedar shingles. The person that’s building in Colorado, he doesn’t care about industrial modern design. We might even see some quilts [in his house].”

She takes a delighted view of these variations, which is also her attitude toward the search for salvaged mod goodies with which to furnish her own abode. And even more broadly, she’s preaching the gospel of living well with less—and thoroughly enjoying it. “How many bathrooms do you really need? How many minutes a day are they actually being used?” she asks. “Take away the amenities so that people can live better, so families are together.”

Off-grid living: Copeland telecommutes using a tractor battery.

Kits for the rest of us

A web developer by trade, Casati spotted a niche in the green building market that she judged needed filling. “As somebody who is steeped in design and technology, green building, and energy efficiency,” she says, “prefab house kits just made sense to me. I researched forever and fell in love with line after line of gorgeous green prefab designs that I couldn’t afford.” 

Her response was to charge David Day and several other architects to design house kits that were energy efficient, affordable and aesthetically pleasing. Besides Day’s 1,200-square-foot Casa Ti, the results include the R1 house (a 2,000-square-foot, modern-style dwelling), three traditional-style cottages in various sizes, and two modern-style cabins. 

Buying a “kit” in this case means structural insulated panels (SIPs) for walls and roof, complete documents for contractors, and a list of doors and windows that customers order separately. Exterior and interior finishes—cabinets, flooring, wall surfaces, and so on—don’t come with the kit, so each client can customize her house’s looks. “At the end, it looks like that person’s home,” says Casati. Kit prices range from roughly $22,500 to $39,000.

 

"Put up what you can afford"

Mod finds from thrift stores bring style to the still-unfinished kit house.

Customers can also decide whether to stay off-grid or tap into standard utilities. Near Appomattox, the Casatis are spending their weekends edging their own Casa Ti toward off-grid liveability. On a recent spring Friday, Copeland showed up with a ceramic duck that she put in her 7-year-old son’s room, savoring the chance to do a little decorating before the summer’s big push to install solar panels for electricity and hot water, radiant floor heat, and rainwater collection (the latter designed by Charlottesville’s Rainwater Management Systems).

She and her family are used to being unplugged—they have a solar cooker, a composting toilet, and a skeptical eye toward excess power and water use. “I have been known to telecommute off my tractor battery,” says Copeland. She expects that even when she has power and water in the Casa Ti, she’ll strive to minimize the demand she puts on the off-grid systems.

“They’re not trying to make this into a normally functioning house with microwaves and hair dryers,” says David Day, their Charlottesville architect. “They are fitting their lifestyle to the limitations of systems. In other words, it’s very expensive to put in solar electricity, so they’re downgrading their electric use to meet that. Rather than a whole roof of panels, put up what you can afford.”

The passive-solar attributes of Day’s design should certainly help. With a small, efficient design, “You don’t need some big honkin’ air conditioner trying to cool a 10,000-square-foot house,” Casati says. 

Small bedrooms and built-in storage make the most of the house’s 1,200 square feet.

Day stretched the house’s long axis along east and west, creating a long south-facing wall that’s 25 percent glass to collect light and heat in winter. A concrete slab foundation, doubling as the floor, will collect and store this energy; in summer, overhangs will provide shade to keep the sun out. 

The roof is split into two parts: a slanted south-facing roof where solar panels will go, and a flatter section to the north. This arrangement makes space for clerestory windows in the main open living space, which—when they and the south windows are opened on summer nights—will allow hot air to flow up and out. 

Meanwhile, SIPs construction makes the house extra tight, further slashing energy demand for heating and cooling. “Last summer it was 100 degrees in the field, and with the combination of SIPs and clerestory windows, inside it was 80 degrees,” says Casati. SIPs also mean speedy construction. The Casatis’ SIPs, manufactured in Winchester, arrived by truck in late 2008 and a local Amish crew assembled them into a weathertight structure within a week.

 

 

Wallet-friendly style

“My mission is frugality,” says Copeland, conjuring a lifestyle not of sacrifice but of gleeful treasure-hunting. “We go thrifting and have a mental checklist of what we could use in five to 10 years,” she explains. She’s found beds at Richmond’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore and Diversity Thrift, secondhand cafeteria chairs for $4 each, a livestock trough to use as a bathtub. 

A solar cooker affords the family hot meals even without electricity.

Her biggest score of all: salvaged maple flooring from a basketball court at Virginia Military Institute, which is being installed on many of the Casa Ti’s interior walls. That find popped up on govdeals.com. “I love the patina of all the stories on there,” she says.

For Day, designing a kit house, adaptable to all kinds of sites, was an unusual challenge. “I typically do very customized projects—looking at context and particular views,” he says. “We decided intentionally to not do that; [we said] ‘let’s just work on this as a basic idea of a house.’” He didn’t visit the Casatis’ site until construction was already underway. “It’s a shell you can inhabit and turn it into your own,” he says. “That’s exactly what they’re doing with this gym floor.”

They’ll also be employing lots of quirky touches, from modern lighting to a collection of secondhand cuckoo clocks for their son’s room. Walls not covered in gym floor or wallpaper (a pink and white print for the Casatis’ daughter, a faux-forest print for their son) will get a coat of ceramic paint, which will smooth the rough surface of the SIPs and provide a touch more insulation.

The Casatis have made one big change to Day’s three-bedroom, one-bathroom floor plan: moving the kitchen from the southwest corner to the center of the large open common space. “We as a family eat together at every meal and we sit down for dinner,” Copeland explains. “I really wanted to picture us sitting down for a leisurely late meal and lingering over our supper at sunset.” The dining table, then, gets the southwest corner and the site’s longest views.

The family represents a combination, very of-the-moment, of back-to-the-land ethics with technical savvy and D.I.Y. chutzpah. “The irony is we’re not some crunchy [couple]. We’re both in technology,” says Copeland. Still, she thinks playing outside is the best possible way for her kids to spend time. She gestures out the Casa Ti’s big south windows: “Our children’s big entertainment is that tire swing, and that play equipment [handed down by a neighbor],” she says. “It’s ridiculous that people would even consider throwing that away.”

 

Copeland Casati’s green house kits

 


Sinda Cabin

Price: Starts at $28,053

Square footage: 886 (1,126 with sleeping loft)

Bedrooms: 1 (loft)

The Dogtrot Mod

Price: $26,595

Square footage: 1,505

Bedrooms: 3


Casa Ti

Price: Starts around $22,537

Square footage: 1,200

Bedrooms: 3

Midway

Price: $34,500

Square footage: 1,495

Bedrooms: 2

CornerHouse

Price: Varies; starts at $85/square foot

Square footage: Varies; roughly 1,100-1,200

Bedrooms: 2-3 

R1 Residential

Price: $30,000

Square footage: 2,000

Bedrooms: 2

Bienvenue

Price: Starts at $39,280

Square footage: 2,084

Bedrooms: 3

 

 

 

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