Frequently             Asked Questions

What's going on here?  Margy and I have built a solar powered WorkShop and a 2400 square foot house on our family farm.  We’re in western Greene County, Missouri, about 11 miles west of Springfield. 

What’s your elevator speech?  Our house is a tornado resistant concrete structure with a small footprint and remarkable new solar/environmental ABC Wall technology.  It sits on a hill next to a field and overlooks a spring, lake, cave and natural arch.

See the list of technologies here...

What inspires this project?  “Biophilia”, a term coined by E.O. Wilson as “ the innate propensity to affiliate with the natural living environment and a wide diversity of other life forms.”  Ecologist Gordon Orians proposed that humans have an innate tendency to prefer an ideal habitat with these characteristics: “1) a savannah or park-like landscape with a mixture of forest and grasslands; 2) a body of water such as ocean or a lake; and 3) a prominence, offering a view of the surrounding terrain.”

So you picked a spot with a prominence that overlooks a park-like landscape and a body of water?  Yes, but the natives were here first.  Nearby are settlements that have been occupied by people for over 9,000 years.  We can see where they walked from the hill to the spring below in a stony stairway.  We’ve found artifacts including arrow points, spear heads, small knives, scrapers and grinding stones.

Why the concrete design?  Our house is surrounded by areas of intense tornadic activity, known as Tornado Alley.  On May 22, 2011, a mile wide EF5 tornado chewed up nearby Joplin, Missouri, killing 160 people and causing over two billion dollars in damage.  Our walls are built of prestressed concrete, a complex sandwich of high strength concrete reinforced with rebar, reinforcing steel mesh and 16 prestressed high tensile 1/2” steel cables pulled with hydraulic jacks to thousands of pounds of pressure and then permanently bonded with the concrete.  The walls are 10” thick, 10‘ wide, 37.5 feet in height and are welded together.   The massive footing below is 3’ wide and over 2 deep, built of reinforced concrete.  The walls are bonded to the footing with large bolts and high-strength epoxy compounds.  The first floor slab is bonded to the walls with almost 50 threaded rebar sections that lock together the walls, slab and footing.  The roof is covered with a 4 inch reinforced concrete slab to discourage uplift and tornadic missiles.  You can see more here...

So, are you building a FEMA shelter?  No, but we borrow best practices from those designs to give us a fighting chance when the next storm event appears.  Although we can’t watch polar bears disappear in the Ozarks, we can see the first-hand effects of climate change.  These include increasingly violent episodes of killer ice storms, 100 year rain events, straight line winds and tornados.   Our future will certainly include droughts, power outages and sunspot events.  Former boy and girl scouts are always prepared.

Besides storm resistance, what's special about your house?  We use a new technology known as ABC Walls.  Active Building Coupled walls are built with hydronic tube arrays that circulate water/antifreeze.   The whole house is a giant heat exchanger, absorbing, storing and radiating energy to keep the inside rooms warm or cool.   The walls are like a oreo cookie: concrete with insulation in between.  

Say again?  We use a HydroTemp super high efficiency variable speed ground source heat pump and a remarkable new control technology from Climate Automation that looks ahead to weather forecasts to store energy in the walls of the house to keep our operating costs low while providing remarkable comfort in every room.  In the winter, all the walls (and floors) are warm.  In the summer, all the walls are cool and humidity kept under control with an oversized chiller coil.  An Energy Recovery Ventilator keeps the indoor air clean and fresh all year with minimal energy loss. 

How do ABC walls work?  In the summer, we will pull heat from the interior walls and stage it in north facing exterior walls.  At night, North walls reject the unwanted heat using cooler prevailing winds and radiation to clear night skies from the North Walls and the Shop PVT’s.  In the winter, at our latitude, we figure that we will have 1,000 BTU’s of energy per square foot of south wall surface per day. You can read more about it here: ABC Walls

Why not use the water you have available and use a ground source heat pump to heat and cool your house?  Maybe we’re trying to prove a point.   Most buildings in the world don’t have clean surface water nearby (or below) or open fields available for ground loops. But all buildings have walls and if these walls can be incorporated to heat and cool the inside, then we are conducting a small experiment with very large implications.

How is the house powered?  The Shop has about 10.5 KW of peak photovoltaic solar energy production with several days of Northstar battery storage.  The Shop powers the house by way of a utility trench.  We are connected to the Grid with our local electrical co-op, but our goal is to be Net Zero Energy… producing as much energy as we consume on an annual basis.  We want to be COAL FREE.  We’ll have a propane tank for cooking and we’ll consider wood heat because we are located in a hardwood forest.

Who is your design team?  The house is designed by nForm Architecture with principals Jennifer Wilson and Travis Tindall.  The HVAC design is by Brother Mike Chiles.   Engineering and landscape design is by Great Rivers Associates and in particular Jerany Jackson, Ryan Evitts and James Ouellette.  We were inspired by Susan Susanka and her wonderful books about small houses and of course, we studied “A Pattern Language” before any design work began.

The house is tall and you are not spring chickens.  Why are you using a spiral stair to get between floors?   Climbing stairs is great exercise, so maybe we’ll live longer.  As we design the spiral stairs, we’ll incorporate a design for a powered stair-lift that can be added when we need it.

What's your background for this?  My brother Mike and I began our careers building timber-frame structures into bridges and homes.  We began manufacturing solar panels and solar assisted water to water heat pumps in 1980.  Over the next 30 years, we patented, built and sold many types of hydronic and radiant floor technologies.   Our best ideas are on this project.

What about comfort?  We’re pouring gypsum toppings over the two interior truss floors to make the floors quieter and to seal out bugs that might want to hide behind baseboards.  Gypsum floors also give an additional 2 hour fire rating.  We’re using an ERV, an Energy Recovery Ventilator to exhaust the stale air from every room and bring in fresh air from the outside without losing much energy and without bringing in pollen.  And of course, we’re using radiant heating in the floors, walls (and a ceiling called the Wave) to provide the greatest possible comfort in both winter and summer.

What about fire safety?  We’re installing a residential fire sprinkler system in every room in the house.  Otherwise, we would have to depend on the local volunteers and I’m sure they’re great, but sprinkler systems put out most fires in less than a minute.  The gypsum floors will provide greater fire protection between floors and of course, the walls and roof are concrete.

Why are you using a flat roof?  Most roofs are pretty lazy… they keep out the rain and that’s about it.  We have hard working roofs, over the house, carport and entry.  The house roof is insulated to R-38.  It has a 4” reinforced concrete slab to protect against tornado missiles and violent uplift.  It daylights the rooms below with a series of solar tubes.  It supports grass and landscaping along with a picnic table for stargazing and bird watching.  It collects rainwater.   We hope to have a zipline installed that will give us canopy tours of the surrounding forrest and access to other parts of the farm. 

Why collect rainwater and what do you do with it?  We’ll collect rainwater from about 1900 square feet of flat roof surfaces.  So with our annual rainfall of about 43 inches, that is be about 50,000 gallons of clean, soft water for our use.   We store this rainwater in a 7’ diameter, 14’ tall corrugated steel storage tank located just outside the carport that holds about 4,000 gallons.  We use the water for drip irrigation for the native plants nearby.

How big is the house?  Each floor is 800 square feet for 2400 square foot living area.  The basement has a family room and mechanical room.  The main floor is a kitchen, dining room and living room.  The top floor is bedrooms an and office.  The roof is for stargazing.  There is an attached carport with a small storage building to the side.

What septic system are you using?  We installed an AdvanTex advanced secondary treatment system by Orenco.  AdvanTex uses a low energy dosing technology over engineered filtering media along with four 100’ laterals.  In the company’s words, “These systems treat household waste to very high, advanced (secondary) treatment levels: 10 mg/L BOD and TSS*, or better”.  The septic system serves the needs of the Shop and house.

What’s special about your shop?  It is oriented south to optimize the hybrid Photovoltaic (PVT) array to provide both electricity and hot water production.  The domestic hot water comes from two new Caleffi solar thermal collectors and a Caleffi drain-back storage tank.  The Shop makes electricity for itself and the house.    Inside each PV panel we built a special graphite laminate heat exchange device that produces an abundance of low temperature hot water that we circulate through the radiant floor in the Shop for space heating.  The Shop will also have a rainwater collection system and a canning kitchen.   It features a small apartment that uses solar preheated domestic hot water.  We use daylighting and T-5 fluorescents for illumination.  Most people notice the blue sky and clouds when they enter. 

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