Welcome to Ben Levi's Sustainability Page
In 1999, in response to the possibility that Y2K was going to have a significant impact on the infrastructure of society, I began the process of securing land to build a self-sustainable house. Having studied solar engineering in college 20 years prior, I knew the principles of how to incorporate solar design into a house, but had never actually put those principles into action.
Working with Michael Bertin of Architectural Harmonics, we co-designed a 3,000 sq. ft., 3-bedroom, 3-bath house that is basically self-sustainable. Michael specializes in incorporating sacred geometric principles into his buildings, and was familiar with the building materials I was proposing to use.
The house is built on concrete foundations, and uses Pumicecrete as the wall material. 50 tons of pumice was delivered on-site from a quarry in New Mexico and mixed with water and concrete, then poured to form 14" thick walls. The advantage of using pumicecrete is that it has very good insulating value (minimum R-1.5 per inch) as well as providing substantial thermal mass for the house. The exterior is finished with stucco, and the interior is plastered with structolite, a beautiful peach-colored gypsum plaster material that does not require any paint.
The home has been designed to be extremely energy-efficient, while still maintaining the quality and lifestyle typical to a home in the mountains. I initially installed 1.8kW of photovoltaic panels on the roof, which at the time was designed to provide power to the entire house on a typical sunny day, with sufficient battery backup to maintain that power for a minimum of three days without sun. In 2010 I added an additional 2.5kW pole-mounted array, bringing the total power up to 4.3kW. The house is connected to the local utility grid, and is contracted to sell electricity back to the utility at the same rate as the utility charges the customer. This is known as “net-metering” or “running the meter backwards.” Low-wattage fluorescent lighting is used throughout the house, which also has energy efficient appliances and suntubes installed to provide light to interior spaces that do not have windows.
The house has two flooring systems: concrete slab-on-grade, and bamboo for the upper floors. It is heated by a radiant-heat under-floor system in both in the concrete slab as well as under the bamboo floor, which circulates hot water through tubes in the floors. There are separate zones for master bedroom, main living room area, guest bedroom, and studio. The hot water for the entire house is provided through a “hot water maker,” which, consists of a 500-gallon stainless steel insulated tank with heat exchangers in it, along with a small 72,000 btu furnace as backup. The tank is heated through six thermal solar panels on the south side of the house, as well as glycol-filled tubes in the living room fireplace which provide significant heat to the tank any time the fireplace is used. When the tank is hot enough (above 125°F), all the heat needed in the house for domestic hot water and hydronic heating comes from the tank. If it's not hot enough, then the backup furnace is used when heat is demanded. All domestic hot water is preheated through the tank as well.
Water is provided by the local subdivision, Pine Brook Hills; however, a cistern has been installed with a whole house 1-micron filter to provide additional water when necessary. Natural gas is provided by the public utility, but propane can be substituted if on-site gas is desired as an alternative. Pine Brook Hills built a dam downstream of the house a few years ago, and runs water down the creekbed that goes through the property about nine months a year. We built a small dam of our own, and have a beautiful pond during the periods when the water runs.
The home is also zoned as agricultural land, and we grow various herbs and flowers for resale to local producers of tinctures and other herbal products. There are also fruit trees planted on the property which are starting to bear fruit, and Aria, my partner, has planted a large veggie garden as well.
For more information on how to design your own self-sufficient house, please contact me.