We all try fighting high utility bills and lowered thermostats, plastic storm windows and fiberglass blankets for water heaters. Some even invest in massive solar heating "retrofit" systems. But energy-saving measures taken after the fact are always costly. It makes you wonder -- if you could start from scratch, how would you design your home to conserve energy?
When James Buriss tells you his new 2,000-square-foot West Virginia isn't much to look at, he's not kidding. Most of it is buried underground.
"I think of it as the home of the future," says Burris, an electrician with Martin Marietta in Martinsburg, W. Va. "Sooner or later, with things the way they're going, the cost of energy is going to force people underground."
The Burris home is made of pre-formed sheets of concrete called "waffle concrete." It is insulated with two inches of Styrofoam on the exterior walls and two inches of urethane on the roof. A foot or two of topsoil covers the roof.
For air conditioning, Burris is relying on roof louvers to send breezes down into the kitchen, living and three bedrooms, which open onto the atrium. For heat, he plans on using wood stoves in the kitchen, living room and back redroom. Without any heating, the house maintains a 55-degree temperature.
When custom home builder Noel Clark set about building a 5,000-square-foot home and office in Harpers Ferry four years ago, he made sure that he insulated every exterior wall and floors and ceilings with six inches of fiberglass. In addition, he put four inches of insulation between the interior walls, so that he could seal off an entire wing and not worry about heating unused sections.
With 23 acres of trees from which to pick his fuel, Clark relies on three small wood stoves to heat major areas and uses his electric baseboard heating only as back-up.
Margarita Seckinger, a Bulgarian-born, U.S.-trained architect, designed her Potomac home with three independent heating systems -- solar heat, a heat pump and radiant panels installed with separate therostats in several rooms. To retain heat in winter and cool air in summer, Seckinger has 12-inch-thick walls and close to 14 inches of insulation in the roof. Even without the solar heating system in full operation last winter, the all-electric, 3,200-square-foot home uses just $130 worth of electricity a month.
Should there not be enough sun for a period of days to supply heat with the solar system, there is a heat pump for backup. Seckinger claims her builder thought her insame when she removed the pump's resistance coil, which heats the pump when temperatures drop below 25 degrees. "That coil uses a tremendous amount of electricity," she says. "If we get really cold, we can just use the panels in the ceilings." The ceiling panels look like ordinary sheetrock but are imbedded with wires that give off heat. "The panels are low wattage and can be individually controlled. The most I have installed in any room is 1,500 watts -- which draws the same amount of electricity in an hour as an iron."
The cathedral-ceiling living room is dominated by a masonry fireplace with a Heatilator and a grate to hold logs that blows hot air into the room. Seckinger also has installed a small hole that takes cold air from the space between the first floor and the basement and feeds it to the fire rather than drawing already warm air from the room.
Today, one of the few things one-time arch-conservative Karl Hess is conservative about is energy. His 2,000-square-foot home on 12 acres in West Virginia is entirely heated by a single wood stove.
Built three years ago by Hess and his wife Therese (who owns the home and property because Hess is a tax resister and cannot own any asset that might be attached by IRS), the house is not air-conditioned. But with its 54-foot span of clerestory windows that open in summer, Hess claims the temperature rarely goes above 70 degress. In winter, without any heat at all, they have left the house and returned to find the recording thermometer did not go below 55 degrees.
Electric bills for the $11,000 house run around $30 a month. To help make ends meet, Hess claims to do "as little as possible," but occupies himself welding and writing. CAPTION: Picture 1, James Burris, his wife and grandchild perch on the atrium's spiral staircase.; Picture 2, As you turn into the driveway, a garage peeps out of the mound concealing the Burris house.; Picture 3, Below, one of Noel Clark's three wood stoves, which he expects will help him save about $800 this year.; Picture 4, Karl and Therese Hess' 2,000-square-foot home in West Virginia is entirely heated by a single wood stove.; Picture 5, Solar collectors are part of one of three heating systems for Margarita Seckinger's Potomac home; Picture 6, A bow to more traditional heating methods in the family room's wood stove "hearth " made in Chile; Picture 7, Surrounded on three sides by earth the south-facing living room/dining room/kitchen is ablaze with light due to the five patio doors which span the front of the spacious three-room house. Photographs by Breton Littlehales