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Want To Build An Energy Efficient House? Try Concrete

Oct 10, 2017

In the small town of Warren, Vermont a so-called “net zero” house is being built that will not use any fossil fuel. The house has solar panels on the roof to generate electricity and pipes in the ground to capture geothermal energy for heating. It won’t be using power from the grid that was generated with fossil fuel.

There are other houses like this but what makes this home unusual is that the nationally acclaimed architect building it is using an unconventional material, concrete.

Renewable Energy Coverage From The New England News Collaborative

The man who designed it is known for his improvisational approach to architecture.

“This was not designed, ‘Here’s the drawings and go build it,’” said architect Dave Sellers. “It was a big learning curve.”

Sellers was named one of the top 100 architects in the world by Architectural Digest magazine. Sellers founded The Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design in Waitsfield, Vermont, which received the million dollar contribution used to build this all-concrete structure. Sellers dubbed it the “Home Run House.”

“This is such an amazing material. You take a liquid that comes up the road in a giant bucket and you dump everything in the bucket into whatever your form is,” Sellers said. “The next day it’s a rock, a thousand year-old rock.”

Sellers is one of the founders of Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, Vermont. He taught a course called “The Joy of Concrete” that resulted in another all-concrete house that came to be known as “The Archie Bunker.” Concrete is great at sealing out cold air and radiating warmth from the sun in winter. It’s also incredibly strong. The Home Run House’s exterior walls are five inches thick.

“A five-inch concrete wall is probably a hundred times stronger than a stud wall,” Sellers said. “You could take a fully loaded concrete truck in a giant helicopter, take it up three or four hundred feet and drop it on the house. It won’t go to the basement because this thing is so strong.”

Architect Dave Sellers at the "Home Run House."
Credit Jon Kalish / NENC

Strong, but yet quite flexible. The living room wall, for instance, is 16 feet long and 9 feet high and made of glass with a wood frame, but skateboard wheels and stainless steel rollers allow it to slide open, exposing the outdoors.

Architect Sellers says the local craftsmen who worked on the Home Run House have had a blast building it.

“When I first walked up here, I’m going, like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” said carpenter Pierre Jaubert. “But it all made sense in the end. It’s all fitting together, bit by bit.”

The house has a 120 square foot space for plants to grow in huge plastic containers filled with five feet of soil. A rain water collection and drip irrigation system will nourish banana trees, tangerine trees or possibly pineapple plants.

Still, some in the green building world have questioned the idea of an all-concrete house.

“Cement uses a lot of energy in its manufacture and so it has a fairly high carbon footprint,” said George Harvey, a writer for Green Energy Times.

But, because the house is expected to be maintenance-free for 500 years, Harvey says its carbon footprint is the equivalent of eight to 10 conventional homes.

“Clearly, this architect has done his homework,” Harvey said. “It’s not a good idea to say never use cement because there are places where cement is just dandy, and this sounds like it might be one of them.”

The "Home Run House" is "net zero," meaning it won't require fossil fuel to heat or cool. It has both solar panels and a rain water collection system.
Credit Jon Kalish / NENC

Architect Dave Seller said he already has someone who wants to buy this all concrete house, and, he’ll take the proceeds from the sale and build another all-concrete home in Vermont.

“I can’t wait to do the next one,” he said.

But there’s a catch. Whoever buys the Home Run House will have to let the public in to see it. And, Sellers said that demand is set in stone.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.