Many Hands Make Green Work

The home of Cassandra Robertson and James Reismiller is a story of love and light powered by cutting-edge technology. Both were interested in and working towards energy conservation before they met. James had always been inspired by the earth ships he visited in New Mexico, and when he and Cassandra decided to live in Corvallis, they took steps to build their dream home.

The couple bought land near Oak Creek in 2008 when the financial crisis began. It was a telling moment—the housing market was a mess and people were scared about investing.

They asked themselves, “Are we going to choose fear, or are we going to choose our dream?”

That dream is now a 2,000-square-foot, solar-powered home snugged into a lovely hillside just outside of Corvallis.

It might seem odd to think of Corvallis drawing a couple interested in solar power. But James, electrician and owner of Abundant Solar, is quick to point to the facts: Corvallis has the nation’s average amount of sunshine, so solar works well here. He also notes that Corvallis is blessed with enough passive solar that their home can stay warm and produce energy unless it is “raining sideways and totally dark.”

The home utilizes both ancient and modern technologies for power. Though solar may be the star of the home, the hearth is the heart.

In the middle of the open floor plan sits a large, brick woodstove. This masonry stove cycles water through built-in pipes and collects heat in its thermal mass. This means the couple can light one small fire and the stove will store heat and slowly release it over the next 18 to 24 hours, even after the fire is out. Above the wood stove opening, an oven allows the couple to bake bread from the stored heat, and a cozy bench makes for a perfect reading nook.

A loop in the stove’s back means domestic water is pre-heated for radiant heat or the hot water tank. The stove faces a bank of large windows that draw in heat and light. To maximize the passive solar, the house faces south, away from the western view.

“We sacrificed having all of our openings going to the view because the efficiency and the energy are so much more important,” James noted.

The home’s earthen floor captures the heat and is composed of sand, straw, and clay that lend it a beautiful reddish hue.

Another ancient technique is the use of straw bale construction on the east, west, and north sides. The straw bale construction breathes, allowing air to flow through the home.

Inside the walls, recycled denim scraps stop thermal bridging and an inch of polystyrene foam went in before the drywall. This extra insulation keeps the house from leeching heat in the winter or gaining it all summer.

Behind the masonry stove is the brain and the guts of the house.

A closet opens to reveal coils, wires, and pipes. The heat and water system are connected to a web-based interface that controls where heat is pulled from—the masonry stove, the solar on the roof—and pumps it into any room the couple wants. They can even send any extra heat out to their hot tub.

The solar system on the roof is waiting to be fully connected, but will exponentially increase the home’s ability to create heat and power. Cassandra and James have opted to use photovoltaic and evacuated glass tubes to draw power. Evacuated glass tubes can satisfy a home’s demand for lots of heat for washing clothes and bathing.

The heating system is the home’s most expensive feature, but it allows the couple to meet code and leave home for months knowing that pipes will never burst because there is a steady stream of solar heat flowing through the house. So far they have only used passive solar and the masonry system and have been very comfortable.

When it comes to powering a home, “It’s basically you pay now or you pay later,” James said. “If you pay now, you’re basically buying your energy for the next however many years, for however long this house stands.”

Inside the utility room, a thermal mass refrigerator acts as a root cellar and keeps produce, wine, and food chilled. Four inches of mud provide thermal mass and poured concrete on the floor ties to the earth. Air drawn through a pipe feeds fresh air to the masonry heater and cools down all thermal mass in the wall. This keeps the cold box at 55 degrees with no electricity

If the power went out and there was absolutely no sun at all, the couple could make few changes to their lives and live comfortably.

“Theoretically, at this point we could live off the grid for two days,” James noted. But he is excited for the house to be operating at full solar power. Once the evacuated tubes on the roof are fully functional, this number increases.

Every decision the couple made in building their home had to match against their matrix: First, what is the most environmentally friendly way to do it? Second, how much it is going to cost? Last, will it be aesthetically pleasing?

“We wanted to design a house that the size was good for a family to live in it in the future, but not too big,” Cassandra said.

“This is our Craigslist house, really.” James joked.

The luxurious bathtub downstairs? Craigslist. The beautiful glass tile in the kitchen? Craigslist. The ceiling fan in the loft? Craigslist. Gorgeous wood for interior trim? Craigslist.

“Limiting the amount of choices… was one of the real benefits and what kept us sane during the process,” said James.

The home’s loft also captures passive solar and effectively regulates heat from the large windows and masonry stove. The upstairs contains two bedrooms and a beautiful deck that overlooks the garden. The walk-in shower features amazing reclaimed tile work that Cassandra designed and laid. The master bedroom is serene and Cassandra smiles about her “girly, girly, walk-in closet.”

This is not the only nod to luxury. There is a receptacle for a disco ball and space for dancing. There is a sound booth where Cassandra plays and records music while James mixes. The soundproof door and window provide a cozy room for creativity.

While describing the process of building the house, the couple told many stories of friends helping them and having fun. An inlaid shell in the floor is from a friend who wanted to contribute to the house. Eleven-foot madrone tree beams support the loft and were felled with their friends. The earthen floor was troweled and finished by a work party.

The project succeeded in large part because of the couple’s willingness to experiment and the help of many hands.

Cassandra was happy that so much of the work was done locally so she felt they were investing in the local community when it needed it most. They used creativity to save money. They did work themselves when they could.

They knew most of the people who helped them with the house prior to the project. The couple noted that their relationships grew stronger, not weaker, during the process.

“It can go so wrong!” Cassandra noted of home projects. She was happy they did it differently.

The couple has many plans for their home. They are working on a permaculture plan and garden. They started nut and fruit trees, enough to feed themselves and some neighbors.

There will be a composting toilet upstairs to accommodate a family of four. They plumbed a grey water system that will water the future greenhouse. Cassandra plans to “take the grey water and treat it through plants” so they can “reuse the water for the flushing toilet downstairs and irrigation.”

She notes, “The thing that’s unique is that we have a really good well and lots of water so we don’t need to do it, but we want to experiment for people who do need to do it. We can say, ‘This is how you do it.’”

They have one of the highest performing, greenest homes in the area, but bragging rights don’t interest them. Cassandra is proud that they achieved their dreams while not compromising their goals.

“To build a house and heat a house for the rest of its life is incredibly intensive on the Earth. We couldn’t willingly go into that and have this house that for two or three hundred years leaked energy,” she noted.

She also has advice for those with similar sustainable home ownership dreams. “You can get very creative and you can actually achieve your goals,” Cassandra said.


Get Some Local Help

Want some local help with your green ideas? Here are some experts who helped build this green home:

Fire Speaking masonry stoves

Barefoot Radiant heating and flooring

American Home and Stone

Welding Wizardry by Dan McKenzie

Abundant Solar

Mark Kosmerl construction and general contracting

Willamette Energy Solutions

From These Hands flooring

by Bridget Egan