AS FEATURED IN: The Daily Progress article dated January 11, 1979, entitled Builders Home Reflects His View of Energy Efficiency
Glenn and Ron may have matured in 35 years, but they still walk the same talk as the original mission of their building company…
Glenn Robertson remembers a discussion not long ago on building a basic three-bedroom house affordable to the average working man. The figure of 1,500 square feet came up, but that wasn’t good enough for Robertson.
Getting more out of less now seems second nature to the builder of Energy Conserving Homes, a company he recently helped form with two other graduates of the College of William and Mary. Take the upstairs living quarters of his 900-square foot house, for example.
In the bedroom and bathroom, waist-high open shelves line the walls beneath the south-facing windows. They are not designed to save energy directly, but he has to agree that using space economically eliminates the need for extra furniture. That means less square footage, and therefore a decrease in the amount of energy he needs to heat and maintain the home.
With large, reflecting eyes to the south, the rough sawn structure rises affably in a wooded spot of Albemarle County, not far from Stony Point. It reflects an eclectic and congenial mix of features that Robertson and his partners hit upon after years of studying other energy-saving structures.
Robertson is convinced that the essential element in planning an energy-efficient residence is placing it properly on a site. Getting a good wind block to the north and west is crucial for maximum protection from winter’s icy winds.
Consequently, a solid block of trees stands protectively from the house to the road. There are also shade trees to the south and the west, which is also recommended. Deciduous trees, like oak and maple, are the best trees to choose, because they shed their leaves during the winter, allowing the sun’s rays to filter through when you need them most.
Positioning the house so that the large windows face south, however, is only half the story. There must be roof overhangs for protection in the summer. Robertson laments the fact that conventional builders don’t make efforts to include such features in their most common home designs. He believes the features are simple, relatively inexpensive, and a real boon to meeting the demands of an energy-conscious world.
Robertson and others call such passive solar elements “solar tempering,” relying largely on a good deal of insulation and assuring that the house is tight and well-built, rather than concentrating on complex storage capacity.
Of course, one can always do more— Robertson says they lose a fair amount of heat at night after collecting it during the daylight hours. They could have remedied the problem somewhat by adding shutters, but in Robertson’s case, that would have meant the plants would have had to go somewhere else.
Robertson preferred a post and beam construction, thereby exposing the structural elements that are hidden in conventional designs. “It gives me a feeling of solidness,” the young builder explained. “I know this house isn’t going to be coming down soon.
“Why hide it? If you do a good clean job there’s no need to hide the work you’ve done,” he added.
To minimize heat loss, Robertson installed Thermopane windows and put foam insulation in each frame. He also caulked the sole plates (where floor and wall join) and created a vapor barrier with a four or six mill polyurethane skin all over the house before putting up the walls. “Air can go through two pieces of wood, it can go through wood itself, but it can’t go through plastic,” he said.
“Energy conserving homes should also be built with an eye to maximizing internal air flow,” he said. The open style of room design, particularly in the first floor living area, promotes good convection patterns that are the envy of any energy-conscious builder. Not only is the heat from the woodstove sufficient to warm the entire house, but the set-up is ideal for summer cooling – inexpensively.
In summer, Robertson finds that you don’t want to open up the house randomly. If you do, the indoor temperature will quickly match the outdoors. Consequently, he keeps a shaded north window open along with a high vent on the south, with virtually nothing blocking the flow of air in between. “It helps expel the hot air and not allow any in,” he said.
Robertson thinks his house cost about the same as a conventional house costs to build today. But there are advantages to his house. He has ended up with a custom-built, energy efficient home with all exposed wood, which he feels is a better investment in the long run than a conventionally built one.
He realizes that some people might find some aspects inconvenient. For example, when he runs out of solar-heated hot water, he must then turn on the water electric heater. Some people might not want to be bothered, but he thinks we’re coming to changes like that, and anything he can do to save along the way is worth the effort.
One of the most interesting features of all is something Robertson picked up from observing Scandinavian houses – a small 10 by 6 foot room intended as an “air lock.” It’s like a back porch, only this one is on the front, and is perfect for winter activities like discarding winter bundles. It contains cold air from that comes in when the exterior door is opened, rather than passing it on to the major part of the house.
Robertson has placed a small bench in his air lock, a perfect spot of removing muddy or snow-covered boots. His hot water heater is also located there, and there’s room for the washer and dryer, when he has them installed.
The thought of heating a 20 by 18 foot living room around the clock “to drink tea in once a day” really irks him. But he also realizes that not everyone would take to his own living room/dining room/kitchen.
“Some people might have a problem being able to see into the kitchen when sitting in the living room, but I like that,” he said.
He seems immensely comfortable, seated at the dining room table, surrounded by soft woods ranging from pine to rough-sawn hemlock. “I like the texture of rough wood,” he said. “The way it diffuses light appeals to me.”
His conception of the purpose of a house goes beyond mere protection from the elements. If anything, it is for him a symbol of harmony between man and environment.
By Lenny Granger of the Progress Staff