Saturday, October 6, 2012

2012 Berea Solar Tour

Today we took part in the 7th annual Berea Solar Tour. The day began at the Berea Welcome Center, where we visited a few vendors. After leaving the welcome center we visited 6 of the tour sites. There were 13 sites on the tour, but there was just not enough time to visit them all. We chose the sites that were most of interest to us, some of which were quite out of the way. Had we focused on those closer to town, we probably could have visited 10 or 11 of the sites.

Berea College Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) House

The tour of the SENS House was very interesting. The house itself features various designs elements and technologies that we are interested in, including passive solar design, solar tubes, solar hot water, grid-tied pv system, rainwater catchment, a gray water system, and even a composting toilet.

In addition to the house, there were several other features of the property that I enjoyed. We were given a tour of the garden, and discussed the raised beds, cold frames, and composting. My favorite part of the tour, however, and the feature that made the SENS House a must-see stop on the tour, was the Natural Building Shelter.

The Natural Building Shelter was built using a different natural building method for each wall. The methods used include earthbags, straw bale, cob, and cordwood. Both the inside and outside, other than the cordwood wall, have been finished with a natural plaster. The roof features a small cupola with windows, which is an idea I would like to experiment with in our building projects.

I have to admit that I'm a bit envious of the students who live in the SENS House. I'm not suggesting that I'd be willing to go back to college to have the opportunity to live there, but if I were a student at Berea College, I would, without doubt, be eager to have the opportunity to live in such a unique house.

HomeGrown Hideaways

When we showed up at HomeGrown Hideaways we were immediately greeted by a couple of friendly dogs. Jessa, one of the owners of the farm, was inside making lunch, which gave us the opportunity to see the beautiful interior of the home.

Since natural building is one of the topics I am most interested in, much of the tour focused on the natural building projects around the farm. The first stop was the earth bag fence. Rather than being built with the long, tube-like earthbags that I've seen before, the fence was built using old feed sacks, filled with dirt. Jessa said that earthbag building is one of the most physically demanding building methods that she has tried. The only reason they built the earthbag fence is that they had been requested to host an earthbag building workshop. Rather than finishing the fence using earthbags, however, they decided to finish by adding strawbales on top of the earthbags, which were only a couple of feet high at this point.

After seeing the earthbag/strawbale fence, we toured the cottage which is in progress. The cottage is a  modified geodesic dome with cob infill. Unfortunately the structure is far from being complete, so didn't really provide the feel of being inside a cob home. I would love to go back and visit once the building is complete, or, maybe, attend a future workshop and help with the cob infill myself. One aspect of the dome that is very interesting is that because the walls are angled, it means the windows are angled as well. I'm curious to see how well this works out.

We finished the tour by checking out the mobile chicken coop and tractor. The coop was built on the frame of a small trailer, which allows it to be easily moved. By moving the chicken tractor against the coop, they are able to leave the doors open and allow the chickens to choose whether to be inside the coop or outside in the tractor at any given time. Andrea has been researching coop designs lately, and I think she picked up a few good ideas from Jessa.

The Jeantheau House

The Jeantheau House is a modern residence that utilizes many technologies to make the building more sustainable. The home includes many sustainability-focused features such as passive solar design, rainwater catchment, grid-tied pv system, solar hot water, geothermal central heating/cooling system, and trellises for growing vines in the summer to cover the east and west exterior walls. There is also a greenhouse and solar composting toilet, several garden beds, various berry bushes, and fruit and nut trees.

Of all the homes we visited on the tour, this one is the farthest from the type of home we would like to live in. The house would be, however, a great house for anyone wishing to decrease his/her environmental impact without giving up their modern lifestyle and conveniences. Even though the house isn't my style, I did take away several ideas that I want to at least consider implementing.

The first idea that I really like is the way the owner had constructed the trellises for growing vines on the east and west walls. Rather than having permanent trellises, he ran bailing twine vertically between supports at the base of the wall and the roof. When it is time to cut down the vines, he simply disconnects the bailing twine at both ends and disposes of both the vine and twine, which makes cleanup much easier than with other trellising methods.

The second idea that I really like is the way in which the rainwater is initially diverted. I've never really considered a roof-washing system before as part of our rainwater catchment process, as they seem overly complicated. The system used in the Jeantheau house, however, is very simple. The water is initially caught in a 55 gallon barrel. Once the water level rises to the top, a rubber ball seals off the bottom of the downspout, allowing the remaining water to be fed into the cisterns on the property.

The final thing that I saw at this house I want to look into is the solar composting toilet. I have read a bit about such composting toilets in the past, but this was my first time seeing on in person. There appear to be several real advantages to such a system, most notably the ability to clean the holding area out from the outside.

Egrets' Cove

Egrets' Cove is an intentional community, consisting of 4 cabins and a community building. Unfortunately we had to cut the tour of Egrets' Cove short, because we were running short on time. Even without being able to receive the complete tour, however, we were very impressed. The lifestyle the inhabitants live is inspiring, and makes me wish that we could surround ourselves with a group of like-minded individuals as these folks have.

During our tour of Egrets' Cove we saw the community building and two of the cabins. The community building houses the components for the shared pv system as well as the washing machine and freezer that are shared by the residents.

The first cabin that we saw was a recent construction, with an interior that isn't completely finished at this point. The building itself is a strawbale structure. There was a green roof, which I was able to climb a ladder and look at. Unfortunatley, however, there wasn't a whole lot to see. We didn't spend a great deal of time in the first cabin, as the owners were not available, and the lady giving us the tour didn't have a great deal of information about the home.

The second cabin that we visited was a more traditional stick frame structure. The lady who lived in the home was present, and was able to give us a tour and answer several questions. There were several features of this house that Andrea and I liked, and that we may want to consider implementing when we build. One of these features was the use of vents below fixed windows, rather than having more expensive operable windows. In addition to using the vents for creating a breeze in the summer, the vents are positioned so they can draw hot air in from a cold frame in the winter. Another feature that I was really interested in was the chest-style freezer that had been converted to a refrigerator. This is a topic I had recently been talking to Andrea about, so it was nice to talk to someone who uses this method. The owner indicated that the freezer-turned-refrigerator used so much less energy than a refrigerator that each cabin was able to have their own, with less energy used than with the previously shared refrigerator at the community building. Also, the refrigerator was located on the back porch, which provided significant energy savings in the winter. Even during the summer she said that the energy usage was still much less than that of the high efficiency refrigerator that had been in the community building previously. One last feature of the cabin that really caught my attention was the alternating tread staircase. I'm not sure if we'll have an upstairs or loft in our home or not, but if we do, a space saving stair design is certainly something that we'll need to look into.

If Egrets' Cove is on the tour next year, I would love to return and see the remaining cabins. It is very encouraging to know that there are local people who are building such communities. I suspect that these people are a rare breed, and that the majority of people would find such an arrangement difficult. If only all communities were so well integrated.

Reedy/Clemons Residence

The Reedy/Clemons Residence is a modified geodesic dome located in rural Rockcastle County. The house, and its setting, are picture perfect and I would challenge anyone to visit without becoming inspired. The home is completely off-grid, with the only utilities being a land-line phone and liquid propane, for which they use a 20lb tank like you'd use with a grill or RV.

The home has many features which allow the small 350 watt pv system to provide all necessary power. The efficiency features include the passive solar design, 12v DC refrigerator and other appliances, and the propane on-demand water heater. Not only does the pv system provide the necessary electricity to power the home, they also have a battery bank which can store a week's worth of electricity. We weren't able to see the battery bank, as we were trying to make one last stop before the end of the tour.

There were a couple of features of the home, which were very different than what you might see in a "normal" home. The first was the spiral staircase to the loft area. The staircase took up an amazingly small amount of space, although it was quite narrow and steep. I did climb the stairs to check out the loft, but I believe it would get old after a while. The other feature that stood out was the lack of a traditional bathroom. The bathtub was visible in the corner of the home, and I assume that the toilet was located behind the curtain that obscured the area near the tub. As long as Andrea and I were the only people in the home, a setup like this might work for us, but I'm not sure either of us would be very comfortable with the arrangement when entertaining guests.

Similar to the Natural Building Shelter of the SENS House, this geodesic dome has a cupola. In this home the cupola serves several purposes, such as providing light, providing ventilation, and reducing the risk of leaking that apparently is a problem in some traditional geodesic domes. Seeing this cupola convinced me that we need to strongly consider incorporating one into our home design.

The Reedy/Clemons Residence was one of my favorite stops on the tour. Tammy and Timi, the owners, were great to talk with. They built the home, with the help of friends, over the course of five years. This home is yet another piece of evidence I've seen for the necessity of being part of a close community, or at least, surrounding ones self with friends who are willing and able to provide help and support. Timi said that the work done on the dome actually resulted in the formation of a "garden group", which is a monthly event in which they gather with several other friends to help out with projects around the home of one of the members. This seems like a great way to, not only connect with people, but to also help friends.

If the Reedy/Clemons Residence is on the tour next year, we will be certain to make it one of our stops. I would like to hear more about the pv system and see the battery bank. The primary reason, however, for stopping back by will be simply to say hi to Tammy and Timi and see what is new around their home.

Disputanta Cob

I have been wanting to visit Disputanta Cob for some time. I drove by there a few weeks ago, and was very excited to see one of the cob structures from the road. Unfortunately, however, we were late getting to this stop. We hoped to be able to still tour the solar powered cob cottage, but were unable to do so. The owner's ill mother lives in the home, and just gotten settled back in after being displaced all day for the tour. I was able to check out a smaller cob cottage that is still in progress, which was nice. I was also invited to make arrangements to come back another time for a tour of the solar power cottage. I would love to go back sometime, so will very likely take her up on her offer.

The 2012 Berea Solar Tour was a wonderful event. I wish we could have toured more residences, but, I am very happy with our choice of sites to visit. I definitely plan to attend the tour again next year. While I'm sure that we'll visit a few additional homes, I am just as sure that we'll be revisiting some of the sites we visited this year.


  1. Thanks for your kind words about visiting our home! BTW, the dome handout is now posted online ( We enjoyed our visit as well and look forward to seeing you next year! T&T

    1. Thanks for the link to the handout, and thanks for linking to my post on Facebook. I noticed a jump in traffic yesterday and it took me a bit to track down the source. I finally realized the traffic was from Facebook, and was being directed to this post, so you must have been responsible. I certainly appreciate it.