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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.