|Sundog: Remind me about the technical aspects of the heat.Jim: The foot-thick slab we are standing on has six inches of foam insulation under it. This thermal mass stores the sun’s warmth while keeping the home cool in the summer. Essentially, what the designers suggest is solar gain through south-facing windows, thermal mass, lots of insulation and no air leakage.Sundog: And how about ventilation?Jim: Yes, good question. When you build this tight, they say it is wise to install a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) – and we did. (We have a foot-thick wall and every crack has been caulked, I know!) The HRV draws in fresh outside air and passes it by the warm moist air that it is being pushed out of the dwelling and recovers a good portion of that heat. You could just open your windows when you shower or cook, but you then lose heat. You may also be low on oxygen at night when sleeping… active ventilation seemed like the way to go. It will also help with any indoor woodstove pollution. It will take another solar panel to run it, but they have come way down in price.Sundog: So this stove does more than heating and cooking? It’s a classic cast-iron Waterford Stanley cook stove with lift-out cooking plates. Jim points to the valves and pipes behind the woodstove that Sundog Solar installed.
Jim: Here, feel the difference- One is hot, the other is still pretty warm. This is the hot, this is the return. This system that Sundog Solar designed and installed is really at the fuzzy edge of Mainer back-to-the-land sustainable. There is a hot water jacket inside the fire-box of the stove. It is connected to a tank inside our bedroom’s walk-in closet just above our heads. This hot water rises to the tank. The cool water falls back to this heat jacket. It’s called a thermosyphon and needs no pump. Right now we’ve got 80 gallons of hot water-enough for several luxurious baths. The same tank is also heated by two hot-water flat plate collectors on the roof. Danny set the angle more optimum for summer sun when we’d use the cookstove less. If the tank gets too hot, a pump will circulate coolant to a radiator in our guest room as a “heat dump.” If we are in a rush, we have a 20” propane range to cook but no other backups. But I’m not a fan of fracking, so most mornings and evenings, we start a fire… The PV system Sundog installed ran all the power tools to build the house. We ran a back up generator a bit on cloudy days or the few times we needed to run a planer for a few hours while someone else used a chop saw. We have a small back up generator that can charge the batteries for five hours on a gallon of gas.
Sundog: Everything is definitely multi-use here.
Jim: Yes, we wanted functionality without feeling crowded.
Jim opens the door behind the wood stove.
Sundog: The pantry? Jim explains to me that the home is banked into the hillside, and the elaborate root-cellar is reliant upon thermal mass, the efficiency of which is easily demonstrated as I step through the second door into the frigid, cement box in the back of the home through the small transit space that serves as the dry, cool storage pantry near the kitchen work space. He points out the thermostat in the dry room that indicates inside temp and outside temp.
Sundog: I’ve never seen one of these. I am guessing you designed it? Jim describes the design process. Working along with his students at Unity College, he designed the cellar prototype, even consulting the expert on food storage for the state of Maine in order to conceive of the resulting system. It combines thermostat and simple, yet powerful fan motor to create an air exchange system that automatically draws in cool nighttime air when needed. If the thermostat registers outside temperatures cooler than the inside temperatures, the fan operates – providing the temperatures inside are above freezing – all programmable functions. The baskets of various roots are a testament to the precision of the design- Jim locates some roots from the October harvest that are poised to make it through these last weeks of winter- some minimally hairy yet firm carrots and perfect potatoes.
Sundog: Was it costly to build? Even as I ask this question, I am thinking it is less often that we consider day-to-day living and our relationship to the materials we use and more often monetary cost.
Jim: We hired out the construction of the 8’ X 12’ root cellar and 4’ X 8’ pantry and it cost about $5,000 to build including a concrete roof. The material cost is about $1,500. The controller and fan cost about $120.
Sundog: That’s not inexpensive, but over time, I assume less than the cost of a refrigerator, electricity and purchasing shipped-in out-of-season produce.
Jim: Exactly. 100 years ago, there would have been 100 root cellars within a few miles of here. Once you have one, it is tough to live without it. How are you going to safely keep all those potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, rutabagas, apples and pears? The root cellar my Unity College students built serves the campus but also the local food pantry.
Sundog: The food pantry is sure to benefit by having a sustainable means of storing food. It’s striking how using sustainable methods also equates to the health of a community by adding to its resources. Because you don’t have to work as hard to pay for your energy, your time can get used to do more good. What ways do you rely on your community here?
Susan: We have the most wonderful neighbors here, and have been blessed by their generosity and kindness ever since we arrived. We even lived in our friends’ back yard for several weeks when we first moved to the area.
Sundog: So, the goal isn’t necessarily self-reliance.
Jim: Self-reliance, to a limit, but as Susan says, we have great neighbors who have helped us in more ways that ever imagined.
Susan: We want to be integrated with the community: to be supportive and helpful. We welcome neighbors to walk on our land, and a couple people who live in town like to come and pump water from our well in order to avoid drinking fluoride and whatever else is added to the town water.
Jim: We’d thought about co-housing, but figured that since we are already part of the Belfast community, we would still feel connected.
Sundog: Spatially and aesthetically, the co-housing prominently expresses its ideas.
Jim: Yes, it’s great. Part of it, our choice to build, is related to being used to being more self-reliant, Although I’m sure I would quickly adapt and enjoy living in eco-housing, I’m just resistant to stop doing those things I’ve been doing, like cutting firewood or planting an orchard and garden without having a meeting. The past 25 years I’ve been living in cabins in the woods. This will be my first indoor toilet in years. We’re interested in doing something that’s comfortable that doesn’t make too much trouble for the city, and is also comfortable for guests. We have a compost toilet that we use when we want, but when we have a guest who’s uncomfortable with that, we have a flush toilet.
Sundog: It’s off-grid from the city sewer?
Jim: Yes. As required we install a leach field and a tank. It’s well worth it. I don’t want to choose my friends on the basis of their beliefs. We can put the word out about our experiences without imposing on people who may not be comfortable with it. There’s a lot of cool stuff to share. Walden is singing upstairs at a volume that says he wants everyone to hear. I’m curious to see his room, so we climb the hand-milled oak stairs. Upstairs, I discover subtlety and humor in the paint colors in Walden’s room- very close in hue, yet distinct shades of green-honeydew and tupelo green, a shade of olive green which give the small room a lovely dynamism.