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Thomas J. Elpel - PO Box 697 - Pony, MT 59747   E-Mail   Search this Site   Join the Team!
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Green Building - Green Architecture
Building Low-Cost, High-Efficiency Houses

Pathway in stone home greenhouse.

      By any reasonable measure, I cannot call myself an architect, since I've never taken any architecture or engineering classes, and I've never learned to draw conventional blueprints. On the other hand, I've done enough building to develop my own distinctive style, philosophy, building methods, and preferred materials. In short, I believe that a house should be made of local materials and built to last for centuries. It should enhance our connection with nature without bulldozing virgin land for construction, and it should maximize energy-efficiency on a shoestring budget. I don't believe in mortgage payments, thermostats, or utility bills.

      My preferred medium is stone masonry, which is definitely not the cheapest, fastest, or greenest method of construction, at least in the short term. But I really like the look and feel of stonework. Stone masonry is the stuff of castles and cottages, of houses that have been around for centuries or will be. Our own house is built with 2.7 billion year old metamorphic gneiss, rock that started out as ancient sandstone, before being heated, compressed, crystallized and sometimes twisted, deep in the bowels of the earth. This stuff has been around long enough to negate the need for any warranty. It will last long enough for me!

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log & Strawbale Construction. By Thomas J. Elpel.       I don't care much for the veneer of stonework often laid up the side of many modern buildings, which has the look, but not the substance or structural support of a real stone wall. I primarily work with slipform stone masonry, using forms to guide the stonework. Stones are placed inside the forms, pushed up against the formwork. The space behind the rocks is filled with concrete and rebar, resulting in a hybrid stone and concrete wall, as demonstrated in our Slipform Stone Masonry DVD, which can be insulated by a wide variety of schemes, as detailed in my book Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

Slipform Stone Masonry DVD. By Thomas J Elpel.       I also like to incorporate stone masonry inside the home, along with log framing, natural wood work, and handmade tile floors, so that a home becomes a rich, tactile environment to live in, rather than a mere box with glaring white flat walls and ceilings. And most of all, I feel that a greenhouse is a necessity in a northern climate, making it possible to enjoy a little piece of summer all winter long. I especially enjoy taking my breakfast out into our greenhouse on a sunny morning. The greenhouse smells entirely tropical when the orange tree blooms!

      I believe it is far better to incorporate nature into the house, than to do the reverse and bulldoze pristine lands in the hopes of building a house in nature. Plowing new roads into fields, forests, and riparian areas greatly fragments wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and the viewshed for all. Those who seek the best view often achieve it only by ruining it for everyone else.

      A house should also be highly energy efficient - or entirely self-sufficient - to negate our dependence on fossil fuels. Forty-percent of America's energy use is presently consumed for heating, cooling, and powering buildings, of which twenty-one percent is consumed just for residential use. If we are to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, then we must construct every new building - and retrofit nearly every existing building - to be so energy efficient that we can ultimately shut down all the coal, gas, and oil-fired generators. Unfortunately, most net-zero houses are also much more expensive than conventional, energy-wasting houses, which are themselves too costly for most people to afford. Thus, I've been exploring concepts in low-cost, passive solar and energy-efficient house design in all of my building projects.

Elpel's stone and log house with solar panels.       My interest in low-cost, high-efficiency construction began as a teenager. I hated the prospect of getting a job and working the rest of my life to pay down a mortgage and high utility bills. I read and reread all the back issues of The Mother Earth News magazine, as well as a handful of do-it-yourself house-building books, seeking ideas to build my dream home on a budget. I somehow convinced Renee, my girlfriend from high school, to get onboard with this crazy dream, and at the age of twenty-one, we married, bought land in Pony, Montana, moved into a tent, and started building a passive solar stone and log home on a shoestring budget.

      Construction took quite a few years, since we started the project with very little money and even less construction experience. But ultimately, we built a reasonably efficient 2,300 square foot passive solar stone and log home in the 1990s for $23,000 or about $10 a square foot, as detailed in my article Building a House on Limited Means. Later, I installed solar panels to generate all of our electricity from sunlight, as described in my article We've Gone Solar! Surplus electricity is fed to the grid, running the meter backwards. This gives us a credit from which we can draw off the grid at night or on cloudy days.

      With the north and east sides of the house built into the side of a hill, and the south side protected by a big greenhouse, the house is energy-efficient enough that we can leave it all winter and not worry about the pipes freezing. On the other hand, the house could be greatly improved upon. If left alone, the temperature quickly drops to ground temperature, and we are dependent on firewood to keep the house comfortable. The house could be greatly improved with better windows and better insulation in the roof, and I hope to do that one day.

Slipform stone house with lilac hedge.       I don't believe in thermostats and furnaces, which mask the inefficiencies of a house, keeping it artificially warm so that the occupant cannot feel where heat is being lost. Turn off the furnace in a house and you will quickly get a sense of which rooms, walls, outlets, windows, and leaky doors the heat is escaping through. Among other improvements, I retrofitted our house with double doors, so that there always two insulated doors between the inside and the outside. These are not necessarily true "air locks," since some of the doors are only twelve or eighteen inches apart, but in cold weather we can close both doors, giving twice the protection between the house and the subzero weather outside.

      My desire to build a net-zero house grew with the every load of firewood we cut for the fireplace, and I spent years playing with ideas to build a low-cost, fully passive solar home. I finally had a chance to test my ideas on a project that was intended as housing for our Green University® internship program. We built the house almost entirely with rocks excavated from the hole we dug for the basement. We also utilized a lot of free building materials culled from the industrial wastestream, as described in the five-part series, Building a Passive Solar Stone House.

Slipform barn style stone house and garage.       I designed the house to utilize free scrap insulation panels or SIPs (Structural Insulation Panels) from a local manufacturer. The factory made very large panels, then custom cut out the doors, windows, and roof angles, discarding all the scraps on a massive pile behind the factory. We got these scraps for free and puzzle-fitted them together to make a super-insulated house with 9 inches of beadboard insulation in the walls and thirteen inches in the roof. (Fortunately, the factory recycles their own scraps now.) The house we built was designed such that there were no studs cutting through the insulation in the walls nor rafters cutting through the insulation of the roof. So this was solid insulation, without thermal breaks. We also utilized all kinds of scrap lumber and materials salvaged from the local dump and from a trailerhouse we dismantled and recycled. We obtained many other building materials secondhand at good prices from Habitat for Humanity's local ReStore.

Masonry Heater stone woodstove.       I was able to field-test many design details, alternative materials, and building methods in construction of the house. In addition to being superinsulated, the house has passive solar gain through the south-facing windows and greenhouse, double doors or full airlocks on every entry, integral solar water heaters, and a roof slope optimized for solar panel installation.

      While much more insulated than our original house, it is unfortunately not as efficient as I'd hoped for. We used many, many cans of expanding foam sealant to fill the gaps between the scrap insulation panels, but evidently, there is still a significant amount of air flow leaking through the cracks. It is, nevertheless, significantly more efficient than most houses, and there is still room for improvement. I included a masonry heater, much like one we built in Pony, as the sole source of heat. When Renee and I separated after twenty-one years of marriage, she moved into the new stone house, and I kept our original homestead in Pony.

Build       The stone house incorporated far more modern materials, such as the insulation panels, plus interior stud walls and plaster than our original house, which ultimately made it more costly than I'd hoped for, even after getting many of those building materials for free or at a steep discount. The house cost about $20 a square foot to build, or about the same as our original house when adjusted for inflation. Surprisingly, it was also much more labor intensive than anticipated, especially due to all the time we spent puzzle-fitting together scrap panels of insulation. I finished the project much less enthusiastic about manufactured materials, and ready to explore natural alternatives in greater depth.

      I am continuing to evolve my theories and methods for building low-cost, high efficiency homes, as expounded on in the current edition of Living Homes. I would like to build a net-zero house from scratch, one that is low-cost, not too labor intensive, very natural, and built to last for centuries. When I am satisfied with my materials, methods, and designs, then I hope to mass-produce these houses for the market... or perhaps more likely, find someone else who wants to run with the idea.

Slipform Stone Masonry: Building a Slipform Stone House

Living Home: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction. By Thomas J. Elpel.
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