Off the grid, on the green: Saturday event to showcase buildings, materials friendly to the environment
Off the grid, on the green: Saturday event to showcase buildings, materials friendly to the environment

Walter Redfield is off the grid. No city electricity, no city water, no industrial chemicals, no clear-cut lumber, no big, fat heating bill.

But the house Redfield is building isn't a candlelit, stove-heated cabin with an outhouse, either.

When finished in the fall, it will be a fully functional, three-story home that has employed cutting edge alternative energy and building techniques. It's called "green" or sustainable building - homes and workplaces built with efficiency, affordability, health and the environment in mind.

Redfield's home is one of 15 locations using green building techniques that local affordable-housing developer homeWORD will be highlighting on a guided bike tour Saturday. If you don't want to pedal with the group at noon, building owners welcome self-guided explorers to stop in for a peek between noon and 5 p.m. A map is your ticket to either of the 2006 Sustainability Tours and can be purchased at homeWORD, Rockin Rudy's or Burley's Earthwise Mercantile for $6.

Betsy Hands at homeWORD hopes the tour will show people the possibilities of going green, and its accessibility to a variety of income levels.

"When you talk to people that are promoting green building they talk the most about the lower utility bills, but more than that I think it's an empowering tool for the families. It empowers our families when they live in high-quality housing, and it's healthy housing."

Redfield's home-in-progress is just one example of the many different ways a house can utilize green techniques.

Solar panels provide power - they're now running all the power tools at the work site.

The living roof will collect and drain water through natural grasses and its unique helix shape - a spiral that starts at the top of the third floor and winds down to the first, centering around the sealed, solar chimney that will store heat through the winter.

"The helix itself symbolizes the way energy moves, the way nature moves everything," said Redfield, a local builder who has also studied sacred geometry, and incorporates this knowledge into the home.

Water not collected from the roof will draw from a well.

A composting toilet will recycle waste.

All of the lumber used is salvaged or sustainably harvested, meaning it comes from local sources that log in ways that ensure re-growth and a healthy forest.

The complex system of heat gathering and storage gives the house its independence from typical heating systems and is one of Redfield's more advanced experiments. It should keep the house at a neutral 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, all without relying on conventional utilities.

"Check it out," said Jack Barnwell, a University of Montana environmental studies graduate who has been working on the house with Redfield since its start. "The coolest thing about this house is it'll never, ever have a bill."

The house draws warmth from the ground and from the hot summer air, storing it in its own thermal mass throughout the year.

The walls themselves are made from earth bags below grade, and straw bale insulation above grade. The earth bags allow the house to use the warmth or coolness from the ground beneath the house, and the straw bales serve as a very efficient and natural insulator above ground.

The plaster and paint that smooths these insulating materials also doesn't stray far from on-site materials. Sifted earth and a simple plaster mix to form the coating on the walls. Three coats of varying mixtures complete the inside wall, with the last one including a natural pigment that will replace the use of conventional paints.

Excavation gave Redfield the materials to start construction instead of producing extra earth to haul away.

Paints are one component of conventional building that green builders often carefully side-step. Typical household paints tend to release chemicals into the air, which is why many green builders prefer low-to-no volatile organic compounds, or VOC, paints.

Redfield calls his house a research project, a house to prove that alternative systems and environmentally sound materials are a viable force in the future of building.

Local architect Don MacArthur sees green building as a mark of quality in the world of home and land development.

"A lot of green building is a commitment to the best building practices," MacArthur said. He said he is very particular in the choices he makes while building - whether it's choosing the location, building tight and efficient houses that reduce energy costs, environmentally healthy materials or keeping as much as possible in the local economy.

Elizabeth Thompson, a local architectural designer and avid green builder, said buying local products is actually a large component of green building.

"One, there is the energy to transport it, (and) there's also a bigger issue where green building is making a better place to live," she said.

This better place is created partially through supporting local economies, Thompson said. "The more that local communities can be self-reliant," she said, the better off we'll be.

Another place where green building can come into the community is through affordable housing. All of homeWORD's projects, including their new and nationally recognized housing development Orchard Gardens, include elements of green building.

"When we started building homes about 10 years ago we realized that you can't build homes for families and for the future by destroying the environment," Hands said. "It's a holistic look at both the resources that surround our community and the need to create affordable homes, including lower utility bills."

Many people, including Hands and Thompson, agree that green building is doable for low-income families, and that a combination should be sought out more often.

"People think that it's an expensive thing for rich people, so they aren't necessarily likely to pursue it," Thompson said.

But according to local builders, that isn't the case. Many aspects of green building, including efficient insulation and choosing healthy materials, aren't any more expensive than conventional methods - you just have to know where to look.

Hands said it's important to ask about low VOC paints and non-formaldehyde particle board. It's also important to research the source of your lumber. Hands said often times the local, sustainably harvested wood is less expensive.

Redfield's house, while it employs some of the pricier alternative methods, compares in price.

"It would be no more expensive than a fancy custom house - it's just the money was put into different things," he said.

Another local architect, Pat Supplee, also has a house on the tour. Her three-story home up Blue Mountain uses a variety of green aspects that have made it a happier home.

"The other day, my son was saying, 'I love this house Š this house makes me feel happy,' " Supplee said.

Supplee and her husband, Keith Niederman, designed their 2,900-square-foot home to include partial solar power, very tight insulation and a thorough ventilation system.

All of the architects spoke to the importance of air ventilation in an efficient house, because while a tight house holds in heat, it can also hold in air particles that can be unhealthy - especially to someone with asthma or other respiratory problems.

Supplee and Niederman use an energy recovery ventilation system, which allows used air to cycle out but retains the heat. The heat is then transferred into the fresh air flowing in. Supplee thinks this is part of the reason she and her son, who has asthma problems, have been healthier.

On top of being green in design, Supplee's house is also actually green - part of her plan to blend into the wooded environment around her. They took it one step further by not including a lawn into their landscaping.

"We didn't want to come in and put in this big lawn and turn it into suburbia," Supplee said.

Instead, they left the natural grasses surrounding the house and Supplee's work studio. She said her husband told her when they moved in that he was getting rid of the lawn mower. And they haven't needed it since.

Soon to also have a green carpet is Supplee's roof garden. She plans to use a drought resistant and naturally short strain of grass that cuts down on water and maintenance costs.

For more information about the 2006 Sustainability Tours, call homeWORD at 543-3550.

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