Three Zero Net Energy Homes

In January-March of 2015 I worked for six weeks on Lopez Island, a small island nestled in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington State. After taking a road trip from Northern California to Portland, hopping on a train, four busses, and a ferry, I arrived on shore. At the terminal my host family Al and Carol proclaimed at first sight that I was the lightest traveler they had ever hosted. Together we lived in Hummel House, a large timber frame home on a lake, and the week before the project began they helped me adjust to Lopez life.

On the island when you are driving, biking, or walking, it is understood that everyone who you meet traveling in the opposite direction is expected to wave. The local population on the island is so small that most families just have accounts at their local shops and aren’t expected to pull out cash or a card for every purchase. Because everybody knows everybody, no one bothers to lock their cars, bikes or boats. If something was stolen, the whole island would know about it in an instant. And because living on an island means knowing how much it costs to import goods and export waste, they have a very detailed recycling system and an entire building called “Take It or Leave It,” which is literally a free garage sale. One day a week that I wasn’t building I spent the day working around the house with Al and Carol. On these days they taught me how to elaborately sort everything and I would drive it down to the recycling center as this was just a part of island life.

The three houses were to be built for three women who qualified for low income housing, and the project would be an extension of the already existing co-op on site. The Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT) designed these houses to be zero net energy, meaning that they would consume no more energy than they could produce. In order to do this they were connected to the community’s solar operation, they were installed with energy efficient heat pumps, and collected rainwater from metal rooftops that siphoned into a water tank to be used for sinks and toilets. Two of the houses were studio homes with a gable roof and loft, these homes were 390 square feet.  The larger two-bedroom home with a flex room and partial shed roof was 870 square feet, and received a PG&E grant to alleviate costs. Because this project was in a moist coastal region the LCLT decided to use board and batten siding with cellulose insulation instead of an earthen material. The entire project was completed in July of that year.

When the project began, the other two interns and myself  had a two hour tool workshop. Even though I had used many of these tools in the past, we were introduced to a few new ones. With the cement foundations already set, later that day we framed the walls of the first house with our fellow carpenters Coen and Helmut. Over the course of the next six weeks I learned how to use impact drivers, nail guns, planers, rotary hammers, palm nailers, and became much more comfortable with the skill saw as I had previously been accustomed to making curved cuts with a chainsaw. We continued to raise walls, joists, rafters, trusses, set our glulam, and install hurricane ties.

Coen and Helmut were the best carpenters we could ever ask to learn from, they would make us laugh non stop. One day they climbed on the top plate of one of the walls on the first house and said they would combine their weight to help set the joints, they said they felt qualified for this task because they knew how much butter went into their favorite Dutch recipes. Coen added that sometimes that meant eating a stick of butter as you opened the fridge and decided which recipe to cook. Every morning around ten we would stop our work to have tea time. Many of us would make cookies to go with our hot rooibos tea which felt amazing in mornings that stayed in the 40’s. For lunch we would all sit together and share foods like Indian dahl, nettle hummus, and dark chocolate.

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One morning, one of the other interns Janie took me to S&S farms where she worked. She taught me how to milk a dairy cow and we spent the morning doing farm chores such as feeding the sheep and cows. When we were done she made an amazing breakfast of polenta, fresh milk, pickled jalapeños, kimchi, pickles, S&S cheese, and fresh bread with S&S preserves. Everything was from the farm, the dairy was so fresh and the rest of the food had been canned the season before.

I put all of my heart into work days. I loved the build. Moving boards, cutting lumber, raising walls, and spending hours on end with the nail gun. It was all meditation for me, I found peace, I laughed, I watched our three houses take shape.

I loved framing almost as much as I hated blocking, but once we got to sheeting the walls I almost never wanted to stop. A nail had to be set every six inches, and just to make sure the inspector approved of our work we’d send him photos of our progress with us making ridiculous faces through the nearby windows and doors.

However, in the evenings when I returned home after an eight hour day, and the sun was already low in the sky I became very aware of the obscure choice I had made to live in North West Washington alone on the island in winter. During this time, many unexpected emotions surfaced, isolation, confusion, but mostly an overwhelming sense of depression. Perhaps it was my environment and lack of sun, coupled by a recent breakup, and a spitefully unkind fellow intern and roommate, but each day seemed to take everything I had in me, and more.

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I went to bed early and I awoke to the sun, ten hours of sleep wasn’t uncommon, my attempts to escape inside myself didn’t go unnoticed. I wrote letters to everyone I knew, yet I still felt very alone. I read endlessly, crocheted, forced myself on walks, sat by the lake, and cried. But mostly I dreamed, ten hours of sleep each night meant experiencing a constant flow of incredibly vivid and electric dreams. I lost myself in that world, I played in the state of lucidity, and unraveled myself again and again.

Sometimes I would walk for hours along the beach at low tide and collect sea glass. One day I walked from the the library, to the fudge factory downtown, and about five miles up the coast to Odlin Park. I remember it being sunny that day, I remember finding crabs, shells, clams, and anemones…walking with blue herons, meeting a mink, and being aware of the ferry’s continuous voyage from island to island. On my way back as the sun was setting and my feet were feeling worn, I found a ride home with a yoga teacher from California. Another great thing about Lopez is that hitchhiking is a very acceptable mode of transportation.

We continued working each day. Janie and I made a great team and chose to work together most days, helping each other staple tar paper, stabilize ladders, carry boards, caulk bottom plates, balance various tools, and set pony walls as well as interior walls. I learned to put dowel pins into cement with a rotary hammer. One evening after work as I was taking photos of our progress, Coen turned to me and said, “Great, now you have a photo of your supervisor in the background holding the plans upside down.” I’ve decided to only include photos of Coen holding things in an upright manner.

We watched bald eagles land on nearby branches, heard them laugh over head. We saw large military carrier planes fly low in the sky like reluctant whales. Coen and Helmut passed the hours singing the lyrics to the movie Frozen. In the mornings Coen would ask, “Do you want to build a snowwwmannnn?” They were both very involved dads and never let the 80’s classic rock on the radio get in the way of their favorite Disney songs. Every tool on site we called a “flappentapper” From the catspaw to the carpenter’s square, only a year later when I returned to the island did Coen tell me that flappentapper is really the Dutch word for ATM machine.

Janie and I worked for days building outdoor closets to store each of the heat pumps in the two smaller houses, we then worked on each porch ceiling. We set large cement stones for the porches, “tar and feathered” the poor houses with black tar paper, and protected the windows from moisture by applying Vycor tape. As Coen said, we would make the houses “More water tight than a seal’s butt!”

The ebb and flow of the island’s tide mirrored the pull and release of my deepest emotions. I think each day was difficult but I found many moments of laughter and some moments of peace. One evening as I sat alone on the lake, a high school kid rode by on his bike, he made a quick U-turn and came back to the lake. He asked if I was alright, and I told him that I actually was alright, but thanked him for asking. He said “Okay, I just wanted to make sure because I was biking by and had my headphones in.” I found this to be the sweetest gesture, because many times as I sat by that lake I didn’t feel very alright and was often in tears. I think him taking the time to check in with me really made me feel that people living in a small town learn to watch out for each other from the time they are young. On stormy evenings the sound of the fog horn would lull me to sleep, and I would slip into another dream awaiting sometimes weeks for the feeling of the sun’s warmth on the back of my neck.

As the time went by Janie and I found ourselves going on more adventures, on our days off we went to contra dances and sat in coffee shops. One day we took the ferry to the neighboring Orcas Island and bought carob chips at the local food co-op. We then hiked three miles around Mountain Lake, drove up to a south facing lookout point, then had our fruit, crackers, and caraway-cardamon-clove cheese on the top of Mt. Constitution. From this point I could see beautiful Mt. Baker and the whole coastline of the Washington mainland all the way up to Vancouver, Canada. It was such an intense moment for me realizing that the culmination of everything I had experienced this past year, this home away from home, and everything I loved…and hated, was right before my very eyes, alive, and glowing in the sunlight.

Another day, the week before I left, Janie and I visited four different beaches on Lopez. First we drove to the beach at the end of Richardson road where we walked along tide pools full of purple starfish and red sea anemones. Next we hiked all along Iceberg Point where we saw seals on the rocks, the Olympic mountains, and beautiful gnarled trees. Watmough Bay Preserve was our next stop; a picturesque scene of towering cliffs covered in madrone and douglas fir. Once out of the woods, this cove revealed a secluded beach that focused on gentle waves and a clear shot of Mt. Baker. The final beach we visited was Shark Reef which led us through a maze of swamps to the bright green cliff sides overlooking the sweeping tide and setting sun. In the evening we hung out with Coen, his lovely family, and drank gin and tonics as we laughed about our weeks on the project.

My last week we worked on installing metal roofing. We squared our roofline, made our cuts and lined up our panels. Janie and I joked that my last day on site was such a “flush day,” boards lined up perfectly, mistakes were caught ahead of time, and everything went smoothly. None of us wanted to leave to job site that last day, we waited till the sun had set, then finally shared a last hug and said our goodbyes. My last evening at Hummel house we had a big dinner of burritos, salsa, fresh guacamole, and Carol even made a chocolate zucchini cake for dessert. I said goodbye to Janie and gave her all of the crochet work I had made as well as the books I had finished.

The following morning Al and Carol drove me to the ferry, we saw three golden eagles that morning, and as I reached the mainland I watched fields of bright yellow daffodils and hundreds upon hundreds of swans pass me by as I made my way closer to Mt. Baker and to my next place of landing. I returned to Lopez the following October, and actually stayed with Janie in a remodeled school bus owned by the Yoga teacher from California. I visited the completed houses and was able to see the interior finish work as well. They let in a brilliant amount of natural light, seem to sustain a very comfortable temperature, and all hold their own unique charm.

Living on Lopez Island and building those three houses no matter how difficult it was, also allowed me to see some of the most troubling sides of myself and realize that I could still endure. Being alone allowed me to slow down, to find one good thing each day, and to forgive myself for owning my pain. I was aware that I had signed myself up to live in total darkness alone on an island, and I expected that something was bound to come up from the center of myself…something I couldn’t easily access in the comforts of my familiar surroundings. In retrospect I see that the ways I dealt with this pain was nothing short of transformative. I threw myself into building, writing, art, and into my dreams. I took long walks in search of sunlight. I sat by the sea and knew in which direction was home, I spoke with my parent’s on the phone as we looked at the night sky together. I accepted the experience exactly as it unfolded, no matter how raw, I wished for nothing ingenuine. I saw this journey as a part of me, and I learned so much from building in a more traditional manner. Since this experience I feel confident in advocating for a variety of energy efficient building alternatives, and that is something that will continue to influence my work.


During this experience I always looked to the the horizon, and I always found solace in that sea… I knew in my heart those oceans were wild, I heard the seals barking and saw sea anemones reach out towards my boots. I watched the eagles catch themselves on clouds above, and despite the whirlwind in my mind I would close my eyes and find stillness, and think to myself…living on this island helped me to trust in the unknown, it forced me to slow down but never told me to stop.

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