June 2009: The incredible shrinking footprint

June 2009: The incredible shrinking footprint

Fred Oesch and Debbie Davis in the 1,200-square-foot, octagonal house he designed for her in North Garden. Davis and her sister laid the Buckingham slate floor; her Murphy bed folds out of the wall behind the easy chair.

It’s an overcast day, and inside a small clearing on Debbie Davis’ 26-acre property, the sunlight is dim. Muted by clouds, it lights everything evenly: the octagonal house, the geodesic greenhouse, and the shed with 15 solar panels arranged on the roof. In the house, Davis checks a digital readout connected to her solar inverter. “Even today I’ve made a little bit of electricity,” she says.


To tie, or not to tie?

Building with bales

Davis’ North Garden house is completely off the grid—in other words, it’s not connected to public utility lines. She makes all her own power with the solar array and, as a backup, a propane generator. “My goal is to not have it come on,” she says. By being thoughtful about how and when she uses electricity (for example, not doing laundry on a cloudy day), she’s able to reach that goal on all but a handful of days throughout the year. “When the sun is shining and I’m home, I’ll have everything plugged in,” she says.

For architect Fred Oesch, the Davis house represents the first off-the-grid project in his portfolio (he’s owned Oesch Environmental Design for 10 years and has been involved in alternative building since the ’70s). But energy efficiency and alternative heating and cooling are common threads throughout his work. And it’s typical of his clients that, like Davis, they’re finely tuned in to how their houses’ systems function.

Hot and cool

Take for example a Nellysford couple, Mark and Lisa (they asked that we not use their last names), who live in a U-shaped passive-solar home that Oesch designed in 2000 to take advantage of free heating and daylighting provided by the sun. In the winter, light enters the large windows on the south wall and, because of the sun’s low angle and the house’s narrow 16-foot width, heats the entire concrete floor.

Davis’ geodesic greenhouse, built from a kit, allows her to grow food and herbs year-round; outside, she tends more growing beds and eliminates lawn space altogether.

Mark and Lisa have learned that they hardly ever need to fire up their radiant heat system, relying instead on the sun-warmed floor and a small woodstove to keep them comfy. Toasty feet and lots of daylight have a big psychological impact, Mark says. “You can handle it being a little bit cooler….A warm floor, with the air temperature at 65, can be really really pleasant—much better than a cold floor and 70 degrees.”

Efficient winter heating is wonderful, but as Oesch and other experts will tell you, central Virginia has more days when homes need to be cooled per year than warmed. Insulation is important, along with overhangs to shade south-facing windows, but in almost all his designs, Oesch also incorporates what he calls a thermal chimney—an open space extending from first floor to roof, drawing warm air up and out in the summer. In Mark and Lisa’s case, a second-floor mezzanine and skylights create the thermal chimney. In all seasons, their energy costs are minimal—averaging $40-45 per month. “Our accountant couldn’t believe it,” says Lisa. “She thought we’d made a mistake in our utility bill.”

In Davis’ house, built by Bruce Guss, the main living space is essentially one room, about as tall (25 feet) as it is wide; when she opens the skylights in the reciprocal beam roof, the entire space becomes the “chimney” and the house quickly cools. “I don’t have A/C,” she says. “It works really well.”

Pulling the threads together

As with many of Oesch’s projects, both houses featured here have long lists of sustainable materials and aspects. Both use local lumber, a timber-frame structure with partial straw-bale infill, and on-demand hot water heaters. Mark and Lisa’s place includes SIP panels and an earth-sheltered back wall that helps modulate temperature; Davis’ features a Buckingham slate floor and a vegetated roof covered in sedum plants from a local nursery. “I take a very holistic approach to try to arrive at an optimum solution,” Oesch says. “Most of the time rather than going with one exclusive system or material throughout the whole building, it makes sense to use every material or system to its best advantage in any given location within the building.”

The octagonal house, which features a vegetated roof, is compact by design. “I wouldn’t want a big house,” says Davis, whose goals ran more toward autonomy and efficiency.

These houses are, in a sense, like machines well-tuned to their environments, but they are integrated by an earthy, imaginative feel. When you learn that straw bale on a north wall has great insulation properties, you appreciate its organic, sculptural look that much more. When you know that window trim came from on-site trees that had to be cut anyway for construction, it takes on a deeper appeal. And living with an awareness of the sun—whether a house’s solar design is passive or active—has its own satisfaction.

For Oesch and his clients, the holistic approach extends outside to encompass house sites, too. Davis, a permaculturist and herbalist, conceives of the entire clearing in which her house sits as a garden site. “I do not want to own a lawnmower,” she says. “Everything will be wood chip paths or garden beds.” She’s well on her way, with perennial beds, young fruit trees, three beehives and a series of small depressions that catch and hold rainwater.
Inside her greenhouse is a moist, colorful world where familiar vegetables (chard, basil) grow alongside more exotic foods and flowers (quinoa, brugmansia). “I consider this part of my home,” she says. A self-described “plant person,” she relishes the chance to create a homestead where she can grow much of her own food and explore the interrelationships between plants, weather, animals and insects.

Mark and Lisa’s property has a different feel—quite steep, thickly wooded, and dotted with ornamental plantings. They value their trees for looks as well as shading; they and Oesch shifted the house site from its original location both to spare an unusually large locust tree and to align it with an outcropping of granite boulders that make a focal point. Those kinds of decisions are part of Oesch’s goal of “seamlessly integrating building and site.”

Small footprints

Ultimately, as with any discussion of green architecture, the story of these two houses extends to the wider world and how it’s impacted by individual choices. Oesch and his clients share a passion for living lightly.

Locally milled poplar forms the main support posts in Davis’ house, built by Bruce Guss. “Having a very small house, you have to be more organized,” she says.

Lisa says, “I’ve worked in the environmental field my whole life and so these are really my values—to try to do the right thing by the environment in every aspect of living.” She and Mark, along with Oesch, weighed dozens of tradeoffs: energy for transporting materials versus their energy-efficiency once installed; perfect solar orientation versus optimum aesthetics. They even considered that, as Mark says, “Ultimately the house will be dismantled. I don’t know when; I hope it lasts a long time. But when it is, how recyclable is it going to be?”

In Davis’ case “the right thing” meant a conscious choice not to tap into the energy grid. “Since I didn’t have powerlines [supplying the property], I decided I didn’t want them,” she says. Rather than thinking of her solar system as a smart investment just for herself—she probably won’t recoup the $35,000 cost in her lifetime—she considers it a buy-in to a technology that will help others in the future. “Vote with your dollars,” she says simply.
Even the size of Davis’ house (1,200 square feet) represents a green choice. It’s enough space for her, with little or no excess. “I wanted everything really compact,” she says. When she first approached Oesch, she made a sketch of a rectangular, one-room house with a Murphy bed. (“Why do you need a room for a bed?” she asks.) Oesch went from there and, she says, “made [the house] really beautiful. People walk in and go ‘Aaahhhh…’”

Indeed, though Davis eschews the dedicated bedroom and other luxuries, her home is eminently comfortable. And, she says, “It’s not solar survival camp.” She has a laptop, a dryer and a dishwasher, and she feels empowered rather than deprived by her compact home. “I wouldn’t want a big house; I’d rather weed the garden than clean the house.”

For his part, Oesch is an ardent proponent of the idea that green architecture is cost-effective and adaptable to many different tastes. “It’s my contention that you can incorporate all of these basic principles into virtually any style. I don’t have an ego stamp I put on my projects.”

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