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2010-11-10

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Off the grid: A solar panel, a straw bale house and a quest for energy independence

By Caitlin Huston, Daily News Editor
Published November 7, 2010

GRASS LAKE MICH. — Joe Trumpey, a professor in the School of Art & Design and the School of Natural Resources, stands in front of his two-story adobe house on a crisp fall afternoon, the wind whipping across 40 acres of forests and pastures hiding cattle, a flock of sheep and a 2-foot solar panel.

Trumpey and his family live in this home completely off the grid. They use the solar panel to gather energy from the sun, which is then stored in 35 golf cart batteries located in the roof of a utility shack on the property. When full, the batteries could power his home for four full days without needing to be recharged.

What's more, Trumpey built the home with his own two hands. Using straw bales as the base and a homemade adobe mixture as an outer coating, Trumpey has been constructing the 3,000 square foot residence for the past two-and-a-half years with help from his wife, two daughters and the occasional volunteer group from the University.

“This isn’t normal?” Trumpey jokes, surveying his property.

It’s a home of striking appearance, a stark combination of functional beauty and spartan ruggedness. Seeing the home for the first time, it's hard to believe that the basic building material is hay.

Trumpey gestures to the adobe coating on the outside of the home. He says the adobe acts as a type of paste, strengthening the structure and protecting it from the elements at the same time. The adobe also allows the straw bales — taken from a straw harvest across the street — to breath. In addition to the adobe, the straw is protected and elevated off of the ground by a stone base, made up of stones taken from Trumpey's property. He and his wife collected the stones and built the base by themselves, and his wife's artistic touches can be seen underneath some of the windowsills, where she has the kids' names spelled out along with other designs.

With big sweeping windows facing the southern exposure, the house also acts as its own air conditioner and heating system. After all, in an eco-friendly house completely off the power grid and dependent on solar power, central air-conditioning would greatly detract from the goal of energy conservation.

Instead, Trumpey and his wife intentionally placed heavy stone and woodwork in the house, which retain heat for long periods of time. They also installed a system of pipes that run beneath the floor, allowing it to be cooled or heated. Combined with the proper opening and closing of windows, Trumpey said the temperature in his home is normally quite comfortable.

“Most days you could stand by an open door and it felt like air-conditioning was blowing out of the door,” he said of the summer months.

Trumpey added that the ceiling also has a high insulation level with its coating of bio-based soy foam, recycled newspaper and cellulose insulation, helping further regulate the home's climate.

With walls constructed entirely from local straw bales, lumber milled from an invasive species of wood and stones taken from the area, along with a sustainable energy system, some may consider Trumpey’s home to be an eco-friendly experiment — a sort of giant, livable test tube. But for the professor and his wife and two young daughters this place is their home.

Walking through the front door, the foyer opens up into a fully functional kitchen, complete with a stove, refrigerator and other modern appliances. Toward the back of the first floor there’s even a flat-screen television mounted on a turntable in the wall, allowing the TV to swivel between two separate rooms.

Trumpey turns toward the front of the house and points to what he calls a "truth window," a small opening on the wall revealing its bare structure, which Trumpey says all straw-bale houses have to prove that the walls are in fact made of straw.

A further look around the inside of the house reveals a mixture of home and the outdoors. His children’s artwork fills the adobe walls, cork flooring covers portions of the floor and twigs line the staircase railing.

The other reminder of the surrounding environment is more obvious, as his wife calls out that one of the cows has escaped and Trumpey has to run outside to usher it back inside the fenced-in pasture.

Why did Trumpey decide to move from a small, conventional farmhouse to a self-sufficient adobe home?

The reason dates back to his time in the Boy Scouts and evolved throughout his college years, a time in which Trumpey admitted he didn’t live on a farm or in an eco-friendly house.

As a boy scout, Trumpey said he learned to appreciate the outdoors and developed a respect for the environment. Then as he reached college, he said he carried the same sentiments with him as he studied abroad in Scotland, which proved to be a turning point in his life. Trumpey met his wife there and they both developed an interest in livestock and farming techniques.

Fueled by their interest, Trumpey and his wife created a farm of their own in North Carolina before transporting all of the animals to a small farm in Michigan. But their innovation didn’t end there.

“The designer parts of us started to think about a well designed homestead that brought together all of our interests, meshing indoor and outdoor space, meshing efficiency and an ethical way to keep the animals,” he said in a recent interview at his office in the School of Art & Design.

Trumpey said he and his wife were also concerned about their home and its effect on the environment.

“That was one of the main efforts, trying to minimize the energy and be really conscious about what the materials are and where we got them from,” he said

Thus began seven years of extensive research, leading to the acquisition of 40 acres of land and, after two-and-a-half more years of construction, a home.

When she first went out to work on Trumpey’s home, as part of a volunteer group from the University, Kinsey Brock, a fifth-year senior in LSA and the School of Art & Design, said she was surprised by its appearance.

“I was expecting 'OK, this is probably going to be small and shoddy looking,' but no, it looks modern, really well put together," Brock said. "I mean it’s a beautiful house."

Working for Trumpey as a student volunteer two-and-a-half years ago, and again last summer, Brock said she completed many tasks, including stacking up straw bales and mixing and applying coats of adobe to add finishing touches to the house as it neared completion.

While Brock saw the volunteer opportunity offered to students in Trumpey’s “Technology and the Environment” class as a way to further her interest in sustainable design, she said she was also struck by Trumpey’s commitment to the principles he taught.

“It was really nice to see a professor who was practicing what he preached,” she said.

Stephanie Starch, an alum of the School of Art & Design, said she also appreciated Trumpey’s commitment to the project, adding that she admired the amount of time he took out of his day to work on the house.

“I couldn’t believe when I first saw it, that he was starting this massive project and he’s already such a busy guy,” Starch said.

Starch also said she felt many students were eager to help work on the project.

“That was something that was almost always at Trumpey’s house, somebody to help,” she said.

Through her work on the house, mixing adobe and cutting boards, Starch said she developed a passion for sustainable construction.

“I think it’s really important to have an environmentally friendly house," she said. "Because we waste so much energy in traditional housing, that in a building like this, everything from the materials to the way it functions is easier on the environment."

While the environmental effect of conventionally built housing varies depending on the structure, Larissa Larsen, associate professor of urban planning and of landscape architecture, said structures that are not eco-friendly definitely create a strain on the environment.

Quoting an estimate from the U.S. Green Building Council, Larsen said conventional structures like homes, offices and schools consume 72 percent of all electricity and 14 percent of portable water used in the United States, while creating 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and 30 percent of waste output.

But even with this large toll on the environment there is still hope, as Larsen explains that she has seen many buildings and homes opt for LEED certification, a certificate developed by the U.S. Green Building Council that measures green-building practices and energy conservation.

“The number of certifications in the housing dimension, either in new construction or in renovation, has really been going up significantly,” Larsen said.

This trend is also true on campus, as the University announced in August that it will require all new construction to meet LEED silver certification, the third highest in the LEED rating system.

Larsen said this announcement, as well as the current search committees studying sustainability practices on campus, demonstrate the University’s commitment to reduce its carbon footprint.

“I think that we’re lucky to be in this community. There’s a real enthusiasm, a general level of enthusiasm,” she said.

She added that as the number of people choosing to build sustainable housing is increasing, Ann Arbor is also in a position to easily improve its eco-friendliness through business and supplier practices.

“I think more and more this is going to be a common practice, not an unusual practice,” she said.

As Trumpey’s tour is interrupted by a runaway cow, a survey of his property also reveals a farm stocked with sheep and other various livestock and a house complete with dogs, chinchillas, birds, cats, snakes and lizards.

While some of the animals are in residence for his wife’s third grade class or for sale to an area pet store, others, like the cows and sheep, are a continuation of Trumpey’s sustainable practices.

Self-titled locavores, Trumpey and his family try to eat locally grown food as much as possible, with eggs and meat coming from their own farm.

“Footprint is something we’re conscientious of and the best way to start to think about your footprint I think is to pay attention. The farm forces us to pay attention to food, so we pay attention to meat in ways that other people don’t pay attention to meat, because we grow our own meat,” he said.

With this practice in place, Trumpey said he had gone 12 years without buying meat and eggs from the grocery store, until the construction of the home, which has caused him to make the occasional purchase. As the house is completed, Trumpey said he and his wife have a goal to grow 50 percent of their own food.

Trumpey added that the house and its dependence on solar energy is also a reminder of the family’s environmental impact.

“The house connects us to site as well and we pay attention to our electrical use in ways we never did before, because we’re off the grid,” he said.

As the house construction nears an end, Trumpey said he’s very pleased with the outcome of his design, but added that there are more projects in the future, namely a barn for the livestock.

Though the family has been living in the house for the past year-and-a-half, official residence will be declared before Thanksgiving. Trumpey and his family will be authorized residents of the only straw-bale house in Jackson County. But as Trumpey reminds us, this way of life isn’t out-of-the ordinary.

“It’s a pretty normal American lifestyle,” he said.