Can "gracious living" truly be achieved in an eco-friendly home in the Southern Appalachians? Here's the story of the trials and tribulations one couple experienced in their efforts to do just that.
“I would like to have a house in the mountains, a log house. Would you?"
"Yes," I replied, "I would—on a south-facing slope and off the grid."
That exchange between my wife Pat and me started "it" in the autumn of 2000. "It" became our house in Lost Valley.
The mountains that are most easily accessible from our home in Atlanta, GA, are the Appalachian and Blue Ridge ranges of north Georgia, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. Over the course of a year, we combed them on weekends, looking for just the right piece of land. We began looking in the area around Highlands, NC, on a glorious weekend in October 2000. Eventually, with the help of a real estate agent named King, we found Highland Gap, turned into its access road through the stone columns marking its entrance and drove for 21/2 miles of twisting, turning (but paved) road. We reached the bottom of the valley and were greeted by a bubbling stream of gin-clear water. We learned later that this was Shoal Creek. Alongside it was a small wetland and a cleared meadow.
We crossed the stream on an earthen bridge and began to climb out of the valley, up the opposite ridge. Shortly we reached a shaded plateau and decided to sit for a while in the shade and listen to the stream below us, from which issued enough sound to suggest some kind of waterfalls were there. Shoal Creek turned out to be quite nice, with its waterfalls and natural stock of fingerling rainbow trout.
We could see that the way ahead quickly grew quite steep and I was ready to turn back, but Pat began to explore and we eventually emerged on a cleared knoll. The view took our breath away! Looking southwesterly down the valley, we could see that it stretched miles down into Georgia. Looking up the valley, we were stunned by autumn's reds and oranges on Rattlesnake Ridge, the eastern ridge we had descended to first reach Shoal Creek. The listing had indicated that the tract was 86 acres.
In our hearts, we knew this was it, but we decided to keep looking to be sure. So we looked for almost a year and never found another tract that approached Lost Valley in appeal, including its convenient location two hours from Atlanta. In August 2001, we bought the property, which was contiguous with Forest Service land along our western boundary. Nice neighbor! We learned later the Forest Service had not allowed trees to be harvested from the area for more than 100 years.
Coincidentally, we had been thinking along a different, but related, line even while we were still searching for land. Somewhere, somehow, beyond my memory, I had met Taylor Barnhill, who ran an organization named The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, whose mission was to assemble and protect ecologically sensitive areas of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Sensitive to his cause, we wondered whether we could help in this mission while satisfying our own wishes for a home site. So we went to see Taylor at his office in Asheville, NC, to learn more about his work and how we might fit into his mission. There we met Katherine Eddins, a former environmental lawyer who had left her law practice to found the Chattawah Open Land Trust. Katherine taught us that day about conservation easements and how they are used in a public-private partnership to protect land from development. Taylor and Katherine's mission became our mission that day in Asheville.
Katherine explained the procedure: Have a land planner develop a plan for the "highest and best" use of the land. If ever there was a misnomer! That really means the densest possible development or, if you will, the "lowest and worst" use to the conservation-minded. Then take that plan to a land appraiser and have him appraise the undeveloped land with this maximum development in mind.
Simultaneously, you negotiate with a land trust such as Chattawah, a not-for-profit entity that is chartered to hold conservation easements and enforce their terms. The negotiated terms of the easement define what portion of the land you agree never to develop, forever; thus binding you and your heirs and assigns in perpetuity. In the negotiation, you reserve the uses of the land that you wish to retain, including such activities as selectively harvesting trees or hunting; by your own definition, the right to full enjoyment of the land. You also define the "outs," those areas excluded from the easement, for which you retain full rights to develop.
Before we even owned the land we had decided to go the conservation easement route, ideally reserving three home sites: ours plus one for each of our two daughters. A bit more than a year after closing on the land, we signed with Chattawah Open Land Trust to put 79.18 acres into a "forever wild" easement. The 86-acre tract extends from almost the top of one ridge to the top of the other, so it is a slice through an entire watershed and an extension, as it were, of the Forest Service land to the west. That stretch of Shoal Creek is very healthy and, if we have our way, is going to stay that way.
A Division of Labor
Deed in hand after closing on the land purchase, we set about to plan our log cabin in the mountains, off the grid. A division of labor quickly took effect: Pat took aesthetics, I took the practical stuff. We worked together on some things, such as the size and location of rooms. The first task was to retain an architect. Pat picked Jack Davis, whose office is four blocks from where we live in Atlanta and whose work she really liked, especially his sense of exterior design aesthetics.
I set about to educate Jack and his assistant, Chris Redmon, on building off the grid—meaning no connection to any of the public utilities we take for granted in the city, such as electricity, city water and sewerage, and natural gas lines, none of which were available in Lost Valley. We actually considered hooking up our proposed photovoltaic (PV) system to the local electric grid, and inquired with the local electric utility about its charge to run power lines underground the mile to our site. (Trees fall all the time, so you don't want power lines on poles.) Their quote was $40,000—if they didn't hit rock! There's lots of rock in those hills. So then we inquired as to what they would pay us for electric power we might supply to their grid during times of hot sunshine and surplus on-site PV generation (when they would need it most because of their own line losses). They offered about one-fourth the price they would charge for the same power. We never called back. North Carolina should have reverse metering, as many states do, to encourage distributed generation as a hedge against system-wide blackouts.
First, though, I had to get my own head clear about exactly what "off the grid" meant. How does one do that? I reached out to some of my eco-friends for their advice: Dennis Creech, John Picard, Bill Browning, Steven Strong, and Gail Lindsey—all experts in green design. When Steven, one of the world's leading experts on photovoltaics, heard we wanted a log house with all the comforts of city living—appliances and all the rest (he called it, I thought a bit sarcastically, "gracious living in the mountains")—and wanted to power and heat it with solar energy, he expressed extreme skepticism. Insulating a log house to the degree necessary for solar heating, it seems, "can't be done." That was a setback, for a while.
Then we heard of a log house in the area that had been built unconventionally for greater insulation value. Its logs had been split into an "outside" half and an "inside" half. The two halves had then been applied, inside and out, to a conventionally constructed and insulated stud wall. We floated this idea by Dennis, who runs Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta, the region's main repository for green construction know-how, and by Bill Browning, who created Rocky Mountain Institute's green construction practices, and they agreed it could be done.
Bill, however, insisted the stud wall should be built with two-by-six studs, rather than the usual two-by-fours, and should be stuffed with insulation. Dennis suggested that exterior walls should have the further features of a layer of roofing felt applied to the plywood forming the outside of the stud wall, for air and water tightness, and gypsum board applied to the inside of the stud wall for still greater air tightness. Dennis is a stickler for air-tight walls, windows and doors. He believes porous walls, windows and doors provide the greatest potential for heat loss by way of cold air incursion. Log "halves" could then be applied, or clad, outside and inside. Outside log cladding would be applied to one-inch-deep vertical "sleepers," strips nailed into the felt-covered stud wall, to create a "drip gap" so any rain water that penetrated exterior logs or chinking would run down the gap to an opening at the bottom, where walls rested on foundation. The outlet of the gap at the foundation would be covered with wire mesh to prevent small rodents and birds from nesting in the drip gap. The resulting appearance with this unconventional approach would be exactly that of solid logs with chinking and dovetailed corners, but the wall's insulation value would exceed R20 and its overall thickness would be about 12 inches. This became the wall specification.
Pat was thinking ahead to what kind of logs. She searched the Internet and discovered the concept of harvesting dead standing trees for logs. One firm in particular caught her eye, Wind River Log Homes of Telluride, CO. It guaranteed the use of dead standing Engleman spruce trees, left standing by a beetle infestation in Wyoming some 40 years before. We talked extensively by telephone with Jamey Schuler, Wind River's president (and sales manager), about our "split log" idea, and he confirmed that Wind River could accommodate us. Then we went to Colorado to visit the Wind River yard. Jamey's partner, Rick Warner, took us to Wind River's showcase installation, the Roaring Forks Resort development near Aspen, and we were sold. We did impose one condition—that Rick must come to Lost Valley to supervise the beginning of log erection and to be sure that the carpenters, who had never done this before, were using the right methods. Wind River agreed and we gave them a set of plans for their take-off and quotation, which we promptly accepted. We are proud that no live trees were taken to supply us logs.
The Design Details
Log shapes, sizes and source settled, and with wall construction details determined, Jack and Chris went to work on design. Jack quickly produced an initial floor plan and a perspective drawing for us to approve or reject. He "nailed" the perspective; it never needed to be changed and the finished house is depicted quite accurately by that very first drawing. Jack really does do pretty design. As for the practical and the technical features, I asked Bill Browning to look at the site with me and outline a broad-brush concept for harnessing the sun for electricity and heat, a concept we subsequently followed without deviation. However, finding someone to design in detail a photovoltaic system for electrical power and a radiant floor heating system supplied by roof-mounted solar collectors was no small undertaking. After futilely casting about through my Atlanta contacts, I called another eco-friend, Dan Nall with the Flack + Kurtz engineering firm in New York City, and he recommended two engineers he knew, one for the PV and the other for solar heat. He also agreed to stay involved as an advisor on the PV side. Soon thereafter, I retained Bob Ellington and John Hardesty, who immediately engaged with Jack to coordinate their designs with his.
Dennis, too, continued to offer suggestions, especially on energy conserving structural details, and we followed most of them, though not all. For example, he had definite ideas about the crawl space underneath the house and thought it should be paved, made air-tight and insulated. I balked at this, and compromised by insulating the house's first floor (above the crawl space), covering the crawl space with plastic and plugging the code-required ventilation dampers with Styrofoam blocks. He also recommended a door to close off the fireplace. Though this undoubtedly would have enhanced indoor air quality, Pat rejected the idea because of the too-sleek appearance, and we opted to keep it open and rustic, but screened. The chimney draws well, so fumes have not bothered us.
The most drastic departure from conventional design, aside from the wall construction, was the elimination of the usual heating, air conditioning and attendant ducts; and, instead, the use of radiant heating coils in the floor and open windows. Air conditioning at 3,000 feet elevation (the exact first floor elevation) could be supplied quite adequately by natural ventilation, with help from ceiling-mounted fans (high efficiency and quiet—noise means inefficiency). Heating coils, to circulate fluid warmed by the sun, would be encased in two inches of cement, screeded between wooden stringers about 18 inches on center, sandwiched between the plywood sub-floor and the finished floor. The wooden stringers would be needed for fastening down the yellow pine finished floors.
We specified windows for thermal efficiency, double-paned on the south, east and west sides, triple-paned on the north side. We chose casement windows for selected windows, such that opening one side or the other could facilitate catching the breeze, whichever direction it might be blowing.
For insulation, we selected blown-in natural cellulose, an economic decision we may regret eventually. Isonene™ synthetic insulation was new to the construction trade in western North Carolina and the quotations came in very high. In retrospect, it might have been a better choice in spite of the cost because of cellulose's vulnerability to water; and long range, because we aren't sure about cellulose's "nutrient value" to insects or the continued effectiveness of its treatment for insect repellency.
We paid a lot of attention to drainage and potential erosion. Toward the end of the construction stage, we would build extensive retaining walls to create a parking area and to control run-off. We would also fashion catchment basins, coordinated with drainage piping to prevent rapid run-off.
An absolutely critical choice that had to be made early on was who should be the general contractor (GC). We had heard horror stories about efforts to employ Atlanta-based GCs in the mountains of western North Carolina. The locals, it seems, don't take kindly to outsiders taking their jobs. So we focused in the Highlands area, interviewing a total of five candidates. We settled on Lupoli Construction Co., mainly because we judged owner John Lupoli to be the most flexible in being able to deal with the unconventional, and very custom, aspects of off-the-grid construction. John and his associate John Williams became valuable partners in our very, very custom project, which we undertook together with a cost plus agreement on a handshake.
Pat also selected her landscape architect, Sherman Runions, to begin to plan and execute the landscaping, starting with the wildflower meadow, and to care for the critical trees as they faced the shock of construction activity. The summer of 2003 was to bring a profusion of wildflowers. With the unusually wet weather, the meadow, sown with some 33,000 plants, produced a full year earlier than expected.
As construction got underway in November 2001, Pat and I turned our attention to such issues as appliance selection, design specification for power and heat and furnishings. I undertook, with Dennis Creech's help, to do a detailed electrical load calculation. Dennis did a theoretical heat load calculation, too, as Jack and Chris's plans materialized. These efforts eventually resulted in selection of a 3.9 kWp (kilowatts at peak sun) PV system and five roof-mounted, four-foot by 10-foot solar collectors, with appropriate auxiliary systems (described later). Pat took on the other challenges, shopping relentlessly for the most energy efficient "whatevers," though she always gave appropriate weight to function and appearance, too.
Meanwhile, Lupoli's first order of business was to drill a well for the water supply and obtain septic system approval, the latter requiring a Health Department permit. Believe it or not, John Lupoli retained a "witch" to divine where and how deeply to drill. A local phenomenon, Gail Fisher was said to have a 100 percent accuracy record, and she sure enough found our spot, perfectly located up the slope toward the western ridge. She predicted water at 865 feet depth. She was right about location, but wrong about depth. We found water at 780 feet, with a flow rate of 50 gallons a minute—enough for the subdivision we would never build with a conservation easement in effect. John Lupoli said that he would have stopped drilling at 700 feet without Gail's prediction—a small fee, well spent, for her insight. The water pressure from the aquifer we had tapped pushed the water level in the well to about 50 feet below the surface. This was a big help when we got to sizing the well pump and motor, which would run off sunlight.
The well was equipped with pump, motor, pump housing, pressurized bladder for constant pressure supply and piping to the house. Water quality, tested by the Health Department, turned out to be perfect in purity. The pump is the largest single user of electricity, so low water usage toilets have a double advantage. We would learn to be sensitive to water usage of all kinds, realizing that our water is a double gift from sunlight (from the hydrologic cycle and via the photovoltaic system).
The drainage field for the septic system was located down-slope from the house and the well, but at an elevation well above Shoal Creek flowing through Lost Valley. We hardly give the septic field a thought now, as the forest progressively covers the scars from its installation.
Next issue: In the second installation of this series, construction of the home gets underway and hundreds of more decisions are required.
Ray Anderson is founder and chairman of the board of Interface Inc., Dalton, GA. He is the 2001 recipient of the George and Cynthia Mitchell International Prize for Sustainable Development awarded by the National Academy of Sciences, and his book, Mid-Course Correction (Chelsea Green, 1998) describes his and Interface's transformation to environmental responsibility.