This will be the record of Phase II of our construction project.  Phase I has its own chronicle that can be accessed by clicking on the link to the “Studio” in the blog roll to the right.  Although it’s officially phase II, work on the house really began long before the studio construction started.

[I should explain that the way wordpress works, in order to keep the flow of design and construction in one place, all posts will bear an arbitrary posting date and will appear on the first page.  When you reach the bottom of the first screen, click on “older posts.”  In reality, they will be logged as newer, but they will continue construction in chronological order.  The end of the project will be at the end of the page.]

A lot of planning and time has gone into this building.  While Susan and I designed the space, since we submitted it to our General Contractor, The Neil Kelly Company in Portland, Oregon, we’ve had a lot of help with the engineering.   We appreciate their support and their willingness to change the way they approach their work.  They are a “design/build” company that agreed to work with our design.  I believe they took on the project because they have a commitment to building green but would like to become known more widely as also building efficient whole house systems.  That’s what Susan and I tried to produce – we think we succeeded, but only time will tell.  What NK brought to the table was access to up-to-date materials, knowledgeable people, and a remarkable willingness to experiment along with us.  If you’ve kept track of the Studio’s progress, you’ll find a novel approach to radiant floor heat which we installed there as a test before committing to using it in the house to  temper the concrete floors.  When they couldn’t  find a subcontractor willing to install it, they agreed to let us work on it ourselves.  It may sound strange that the owner has to negotiate to be allowed on the job, but there are many reasons, on both sides, why that’s not a good idea.  We think we’ve been model “subs.”  We’ve never been late, we’ve never gone over budget, and our work has passed inspections and the test of being practical.  Both of us take pride in the fact that we’ll continue working on the much more complex residence.

So, welcome to our new home.  From this point on, we’ll step back a couple of years and work our way forward, day by day.  If you have questions about what we’ve done or why we did it, post a comment and we’ll try to respond.  One of the reasons we’re “going public” is that we believe in the technology as well as the method of integrating complimentary systems in a single building.  We hope we can, by example, persuade others to follow us and, with Neil Kelly’s help, change the attitude of the building industry, from Architects to County Building Departments, toward both energy efficient design and construction to use of “Universal Access” principles.  We know that can happen: my folks built a passive solar home in Carson City, Nevada back in the 1970’s.  It was a real problem for the County even though there was solid engineering behind the design.  When it was finished, the County Commissioners toured the building and promptly adopted a resolution in the planning department to encourage and be receptive to similar projects in the future.


Topographic model of Jewell road site.

Topographic model of Jewell road site.

Working on a crude 3D construction of a topographical survey of our site, we placed rough models of the new house on the site to see whether our concept of an upside down, earth sheltered house would fit.  Three primary goals were in play:

1) an energy efficient, largely passively heated building supplemented with a grid connected solar electric system that would make the house at least energy neutral;

2) a building that came as close as practical to being “Universally Accessible” to the elderly and disabled.  As we put it, it’s a house we can grow old and die in.  As you’ll see, we began with on-grade entries on three floors (the greenhouse has two interior entries and a ramp entry to the outside since, while the pool deck is on grade, its floor is four feet below grade;

and 3) that we would try to limit the building’s footprint to roughly the same as the original farm house that was around 1200 feet per floor.  We put the bedrooms on the first or bottom floor and the public rooms above them.  Because the solar collectors (photo-voltaic, hot water, and pool heat) require a south sloping surface above the greenhouse glazing, we have a large “attic” space ideal for all the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing equipment that would normally be found on the ground floor, a laundry and storage.  The site afforded an on grade entry to it after we back filled to cover the north wall.  As you’ll learn, budget constraints required that we raise the house almost four feet in order to avoid very expensive retaining walls.  That “attic” entry is now reached by a switch back ramp that begins at the upper driveway level.

In this model, grey plasticene smoothes the elevation rise achieved by cutting foam core to match the surveyed contours.  The reddish plasticene represents backfill which is made up of required drainage and surfacing stone and the spoils taken from the excavation required to put the house at the proper elevation.

Once we’d confirmed with the model that our house would work on the site, it was time to take all our notes, back-of-the-envelope sketches and produce a set of drawings that satisfied us in all its detail.  Fortunately, Google had just made a wonderful utility available for us to try.  It’s called “Sketch Up.”

This plan view of the public rooms is nearly in the final configuration.

This plan view of the public rooms is an early configuration.


This elevation is nothing more than a change in vantage point.  This view and the one above it are both from the same “Sketch-Up” file.   In the beginning, we had to build our own models of the stove and refrigerator and even the Endless Pool.  Now, many manufacturers provide their own accurate product drawings.

Once learned, Sketch-up can provide plan views that are, in fact, perspective renderings.  When it first came out, it was limiting.  But we found ways to build a four level model, to add surfaces, even test the insolation and shading during every month of the year.  We could “walk around” inside the building to see how  spaces fit together and, to a degree, what it would look like inside.

This is what the greenhouse will look like from the cedar hot tub.

This is what the greenhouse will look like from the cedar hot tub.

We worked on the design drawings for almost a year before we consulted an architect.  We’d gone through at least six major revisions by that time.  Our work was driven first by the necessities of solar design.  The house faces just a little east of south.  We’ll get good year round exposure to the sun and if the neighbor to the west allows his Christmas trees to become timber, we won’t have to worry about shading from that direction.  We were constrained by the topography of the site.

An early version of the "Bedroom" floor.

An early version of the "Bedroom" floor and attached greenhouse.

We wanted a manageable home.  Our rooms are relatively small.  We know people who live in large houses who aren’t particularly happy in them or who seldom use some of the larger rooms.  We have the advantage of an attached greenhouse that will give the illusion of much larger rooms that face it and are well lit by generous windows on the South wall.  An injury that Richard suffered almost 20 years ago, is beginning to show signs of restricting his mobility.  While a three  story house doesn’t comport with the anticipated mobility problems, the grade level entries and an elevator are intended to  overcome them.  An open floor plan and wide doors, roll in shower, etc. all lend themselves to keeping aging residents on the farm.

The architect who had done fine work for school friends, looked at our work, made some suggestions many of which we rejected only because changing one element of our design caused a cascade of changes in integrated systems, decided that his enjoyment came mostly from the design stage which, in our project, was largely completed.  He referred us to a builder he knew and has confidence in and who, it turned out, was in the process of reorganizing their business to emphasize just what we were trying to accomplish.  We brought a good understanding and many of the details of the integrated building systems to the table.  They already build “green” houses, striving to use sustainable techniques and earth friendly materials.  We think it is a good match.  We were able to persuade this “Design/Build” company to use our design, to do the structural engineering, and to go to school with us on the details of fine tuning a building that puts many energy saving elements together in one package.   Whether it’s truly unique remains to be seen.  But so far, everyone who has worked on it is intrigued.


It had a nice view of the pasture and woods, it kept us reasonably warm, but it wasn't well loved.  Besides, it face East, not South, had lots of stairs, and would have been a money pit.

It had a nice view of the pasture and woods, it kept us reasonably warm, but it wasn't well loved. Besides, it faced East, not South, had lots of stairs, and would have been a money pit.

I suppose I should take at least a little time to explain why we felt justified in pulling down the house in which we’ve lived since we purchased the property almost 10 years ago.  Believe me, it has been on my mind.

The old house was built by the farmer who lived here in the 60’s.  He bought the plans and did it himself.   He and his wife lived in the two room building that we replaced when we built the Studio (there’s a picture of it at the head of the Studio Blog).  It was, I think, his grandest accomplishment.  That’s one twinge I can’t shake: tearing down someone else’s work.

But it was hard for us to know where his work stopped and his successor’s began.  The woman from whom we purchased the place paid little attention to the rules, either of good construction or safe practices.  Although we had the place inspected, it turned out that the inspector had a better relationship with one of the real estate agents than with had.  He didn’t report to us some shortcomings he should have done.

The house was clumsy and oriented in an odd way, primarily for the view.  Over several years, we found and corrected wiring mistakes, repaired the roof and added insulation under it, but never really finished the daylight basement.  It turned out Susan didn’t much like the house and I must have had reservations about it or harbored the stronger desire to build anew.  Our instincts were right, it turned out.  Where we’d been told the septic tank was, was where it had originally been.  After dropping her tractor through its cover, the second owner had a new one installed of which the County had no record.  It was too close to the domestic well and apparently tied into the original drain field, also very close to the house, and was nowhere near big enough for the new building.  By the time we’d have repaired the old house, finished its basement, replaced the poorly built second floor deck, we’d have spent a third of the cost of the new house and Susan still would not have liked it much and I wouldn’t have fulfilled my long held dream of putting together a comfortable, efficient, energy producing home.

Beyond that, my father couldn’t visit anymore since he couldn’t navigate the very steep stairways and steps.  I took this seriously because an old injury of mine is already making it harder for me to navigate.  To the list we added what I’ve long held should be minimum code throughout the US: what’s now called “Universally Accessible” design.  Simply put, all residential buildings should be easily accessed by the disabled, impaired, or elderly.  Doorways should be wide enough for wheelchairs, entrances should not be obstacle courses, and navigation within the building should be easy.  If this were the norm, accessories that now cost much more than “standard” fixtures would be cheaper and, as we age, we would not be forced out of the homes we love.  There will be more on this subject later.

At one point, we considered leaving the old house intact and building on the adjacent wooded parcel that is a separate lot.  I was told by the Assessor that it was grandfathered because of the date it was subdivided.  Even if that were true, we agree with the motives behind our current large lot limitations in this farming and timberland part of the County.  So, rather than undertake a negotiation with BLM for a short access  easement from the county road, putting in a long road between that house site and our barns, piping water well over a thousand feet to the new building, and building 4 stories instead of three (talk about upside down houses – that design would have had us parking on the roof!), we opted to keep only one residence on our holdings.

So, Charlie Trainer’s house, as much as he loved it, was doomed along with all the missteps that his successor made.


The steps we took before we started serious work on the new house were:

1) We had a survey done that included a topographic detail of the NW corner of the property that comprises its residential compound.   That survey became the basis for subsequent engineering drawings done by our Contractor and our own design work (see the article above and photos of the early site model;

It's hard to believe that this modest pipe is the top of a hole 545 feet deep.

It's hard to believe that this modest pipe is the top of a hole 545 feet and many $thousands deep.

2) Drilling a second well that produced more than the miserly 4 gpm that the original does.  While 4 gallons is plenty for domestic use, we need to provide for stock, our gardens and orchard, and would like to be able to do some additional irrigation when conditions get very, very dry.  We needed an additional 25 gpm to cover contingencies since we don’t intend to add more storage.  (One of the first things we did when we took occupancy was to install 7500 gallons of emergency storage.  The tanks are above ground and connected to a standard fire department fitting.  The voluteers have been invited to use it anytime they need the water.  They’re pleased to have the resource and our insurance company is no less pleased.)  The original well will be the primary source of domestic water for the workshop and house.  We will make provision for using the new well, which has excellent water, to be used as backup.

I have great admiration for people willing to do work that will never be seen.  Only the very top of the "manhole" will be visible.

I have great admiration for people willing to do work that will never be seen. Only the very top of the "manhole" will be visible.

Four laterals lead off from this header.  By code, they're nearly level and 250' long.  Made a mess of the pasture and had to be reset after an early freeze heaved some of the pipe out of place.

Four laterals lead off from this header. By code, they're nearly level and 250' long. Made a mess of the pasture and had to be reset after an early freeze heaved some of the pipe out of place.

3) We installed a new septic tank below the site of the new house.  It is installed according to code and has a drain field in the pasture that’s plenty big for the house even when all its bedrooms are fully occupied.  By putting the drain field in the pasture, we get to use the water twice.  Not all of the effluent drains down into the soil.  Some of it percolates into the soil and migrates to the surface from which it evaporates.  That moisture will be available to the pasture grasses throughout the dry parts of the year.  Installation of the new septic system was completed even before the Studio was so that there would be a working bathroom on the place.  The connection point for the house is ready, well marked, and waiting.

There's so much stuff stored in the Studio that we can't work in it until the house is finished.

There's so much stuff stored in the Studio that we can't work in it until the house is finished.

4) We completed construction of the Studio.  (It turns out that was a poor choice of nomenclature.  To us, it is an art studio, a clean shop where Susan can spin and dye and knit, where I can weave and do other crafts that require a clean space – those things that aren’t compatible with the dust of woodwork, metal work, and other things that go on the the farm shop that’s located in the barn.  The County is convinced that “Studios” are apartments that will be available for rental.  The companion Blog to this one, chronicles some of the arbitrary and to my mind short-sighted limitations our planning department imposed on us.   There’s a link in the right hand column.  Although we’d purchased (and filled) a 40 foot container in which to store the contents of the old house, subsequently put some of the stuff in an old loafing shed, the bee house, the barn, the shop, a tent, and a couple of plastic storage sheds, we still needed the new Studio and its large storage loft, to keep some of our things that need the most security.

During the time it took to do all these things as well as construction of the Studio, we worked on the design of the house and finally turned our work over to our contractor.