Exhausted by a house that saves energy

SUSTAINING IT Sandy Keenan chats with Dotty and Eric a couple that invested all their energy into building a home that would be energy-efficient f

Exhausted by a house that saves energy

Dotty Kyle and Eric Brattstrom had an ambitious vision for the home they would build when they sold their bed-and-breakfast here at Warren, Vermont, seven years ago and retired.

They were environmental and community advocates, so they wanted it to be as sustainable as possible - ideally net-zero, producing as much energy as it used. And because they would be living on a modest fixed income, they needed to make sure it was inexpensive to maintain.
But they didn’t want to scrimp on luxury or size, so against their architect’s advice, they insisted on 5,000 square feet, enough space to accommodate all their children and grandchildren at the same time. And a $30,000-hydraulic elevator, so they could age in place. And a separate apartment for the inevitable time when extra help was needed. The indoor pool was just for fun.

“We sold a nine-bedroom B&B and then pretty much re-created it right up the street,” said Dotty, who is now 78, shaking her head with the kind of clarity only hindsight affords. “I was an idiot and built a house that was way too complicated and labour-intensive,” said Eric, also 78. “Only a masochist could enjoy it.”

The good news? The house is very inexpensive to operate. With 71 photovoltaic and eight solar hot-water collectors, there is plenty of free power. In fact, in the seven years they’ve lived here, they’ve never written a check to the public utility for electricity, because they generate more than they consume, sending the overage back into the grid.
And because Eric did most of the labour himself, using trees cleared from the property, the cost of the whole compound was $100 a square foot, or somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000 for the house, garage and outbuildings like the chicken coop, which is heated in the winter organically, using compost.

Self-effort
That’s just one example of the couple’s willingness to try almost any newfangled sustainable strategy in what has become their own private incubator for green building science. Eric, a geologist by training and a commercial construction manager for most of his working life, has been interested in environmental engineering since the 1970s, he said, when he slapped some crude homemade panels on his roof in an effort to get more hot water. “That first system was copper and plywood and glass,” he said.

But he really got going after reading Al Gore’s 1992 book, The Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Now he and Dotty anchor their small town’s energy committee, one of about 170 in Vermont, charged with figuring out how the state can meet its goal of having a 90 per cent renewable energy supply by 2050. And Yestermorrow, the well-known design-build school based in Waitsfield, often sends its students over to study Eric’s green construction techniques: his super-insulating wizardry, fancy ceiling constructs and tight walls (some of the exterior ones are more than a foot thick).

Gaelen Brown, who teaches at Yestermorrow and advised the couple on their composting system, said he is “uber impressed” by their experimentation. “Dotty and Eric are creative and open-minded,” he said. “Not your typical homeowners.” But all that creativity can be difficult to manage. For months now, Dotty has been gathering photos and graphics, and working off her husband’s scrawled notes, in an effort to produce a manual that explains which levers do what and what combination of heating systems should be deployed in various seasons and weather conditions (those systems include the solar array, a mile of radiant heating divided into 15 zones, a wood-pellet boiler and a super-efficient fireplace that distributes its heat through ductwork to various parts of the house).Any takers?

It’s not the kind of place you can up and leave for, say, a week’s vacation in Florida. And it is hard to imagine who would take this on if it ever hit the real estate market. Perhaps someone who wouldn’t mind raising and lowering the 56 insulating interior shades, a task that must be done every day.

This fall, Eric added another component to the already complicated systems: a single-compressor, cold-climate air-source heat pump, which cost about $5,000 and runs on the electricity the couple’s solar array produces. “These pumps are right on for the way to heat homes today,” he said. “Especially if you have a lot of solar panels to begin with, as we do. They’re so inexpensive to operate.”

The problem with being an early adopter, he has discovered, is that simpler, less costly technologies emerge over time, and the choices you made in the beginning, which seemed sensible at the time, begin to feel ill-advised. All that experimentation, he concluded, has produced a smorgasbord of systems, rather than something streamlined and focused. “It’s clear now,” he said. “This was the wrong way to go.

” If they had it to do over, the couple agreed, their house would be much smaller - no more than 2,000 square feet. They’d still opt for solar power, but would use it to run heat pumps like the one Eric just bought and would forgo the pellet boiler and the radiant heat, which is slow to respond. During the coldest months, they’d supplement the system with propane water and air heaters.

“If we did that, and had the same kind of heavy insulation and tight construction we do now,” Eric said, “our house would be easy to run and cost next to nothing.” But one out of two isn’t bad.


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