Our low-energy home in the woods

I was a teacher at Gibraltar Schools when I came, as a bachelor, to manage and serve as chief naturalist at the Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor during the summer in June of 1964. By August of 1971 I had met Charlotte; we were married in May of 1972 and came to live in the Rangelight Residence at the Ridges, an un-insulated house that was dreadfully frigid to live in during the cold months and could be described as a very high energy-use home.

The oil embargo of 1973 helped us realize that we needed to own some land with a large gardening space and enough trees to provide us with wood for heating what we hoped to achieve, a low-energy-consuming home. By 1977 we decided that it was time we looked for some land. We bought a 17-acre parcel of mostly wooded property midway between Egg Harbor and Jacksonport, close to the middle of the “thumb.” A glacial moraine runs through the land from west to east roughly 1,100 feet north of our south boundary road. This is where we planned to build the house — when we accumulated some money! It took us three years to decide where we wanted the long driveway to go, then we cleared the route ourselves and began planning the home on paper.

The 100-plus year-old wood cook stove in the kitchen upstairs provides most of the home’s heating needs.

By 1982, five years after we had purchased the property, and with help from an architect, Carl Carlson, who had a good background designing solar-heated homes, we decided to go the passive solar-heat route – no solar panels or moving devices – only good design and planning. The house faces about 12 degrees west of due south, has a long sloping roofline toward the north and only four small windows on the entire west and north sides. A higher roof with a four-foot overhang on the south front side shades upper story windows in summer, and lots of south-facing windows make use of solar energy.

There are many deciduous trees to the west and north of the house providing protection from the colder north winds of winter, which sweep nicely over the low north-facing roof. There is a thick layer of blown-in cellulose roof insulation while all of the vertical walls are foam insulated. This two-part liquid is applied to the inside vertical walls between the studs before the wallboard is put in place and plastering completed. The non-formaldehyde-type liquid quickly hardens into cellular foam making the house not only extremely well insulated, but also very quiet on windy days. The insulating company guaranteed that the cost of the insulation would be entirely paid for in five years by the savings in fuel. That turned out to be entirely accurate.

The house was built into the glacial moraine with most of the bottom story bermed on the east, north and west sides of the building up to the second floor. The bermed soil slopes away from the west, north and east sides of the foundation. Two-inch-thick rigid foam insulation was applied to the entire basement vertical walls before backfill was put in up to the top of the first story. One-inch-thick foam board insulation was attached to the inside surfaces of the poured concrete basement walls before the sheetrock wallboards and plastering were completed. One can hold a hand on the basement walls on the coldest winter day and they are warm to the touch.

The sunroom on the south side of the house, at ground level, has two-inch foam board insulation around the foundation and three feet of coarse stones below the concrete floor serving as a heat sink to absorb the sun’s rays, and windows to allow solar heating too in winter. The roof is heavily insulated. Most of the heating of our home is done with solar heating and two wood stoves. A 100-year-old kitchen wood stove upstairs, the “Queen,” stands in front of a stone wall that also acts as a heat sink whenever the stove is operating. Downstairs in our heavily-used study is a soapstone-paneled cast iron “Hearthstone” stove which heats beautifully, doesn’t use much wood, and holds the heat exceptionally well during the night.

The last small load of wood goes into the stove at 10:30 pm and at 7 am the following morning the soapstone panels on top of the stove are still too hot to hold one’s hand on them. A good bed of hot coals remains in the airtight firebox and the new fire for the day is very easy to start. We also have a high energy propane gas furnace to be used when needed, as well as electric baseboard heating panels in a few of our most commonly-used rooms whenever we don’t want or need to heat the entire house.

Our dining room floor is covered with dark ceramic tile to catch and absorb the sun’s heat in winter. The four-foot overhang of the roof on the south completely shades all upstairs rooms in summer on the south side of the house. The second-story deck at the front of the house also serves the same purpose of shading the basement floor study. All windows are double-panel of thermal design. Insulating cloth blinds on the south and east-facing kitchen windows cuts down heat loss on winter nights.

The southwest corner of the author’s home showing the low roofline to the north and the rock wall holding the earth berm that helps hold heat in.

We have utilized “Time-of Use” electric rates from Wisconsin Public Service in our home for 17 years, whereby we can save as much as $30 monthly. This requires some planning as to when, for example, the electric clothes dryer will be used but it is quite simple to do. A timer called the “Little Gray Box” was installed on our electric hot water heater in the basement so that the heater is turned on for only about three hours daily, also saving us a considerable amount of money.

Several tall Sugar Maple trees help shade the house on the south and west sides during the summer and fall. Then, with the trees naked during the cold months and the sun quite low in the sky, the welcome sunlight streams freely into all of the south-facing rooms as well as through the east kitchen windows in the early morning.

There have been many greatly improved methods of home building and insulating developed during the 28 years since we had our home built. Based on our experiences, we highly recommend considering these new developments, combined with passives-solar-heated design, when planning a new home.

Ordinarily a great deal of our free sun’s energy is not put to good use. People must learn to live closely in touch with the Earth and the sky.