Want To Build An Energy Efficient House? Try Concrete

Oct 3, 2017

The all-concrete "Home Run House" in Warren, VT.
Credit JON KALISH / New England News Collaborative

  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.  

 


Workmen are putting the final touches on an 1,800 square-foot house made almost entirely of concrete. 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 Dave Sellers who was named one of the top 100 architects in the World by Architectural Digest magazine. "It was a big learning curve."

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 has dubbed it the Home Run House.

Architect Dave Sellers
Credit JON KALISH / New England News Collaborative

  "This is such an amazing material," Sellers said. "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. 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."

Strong and yet quite flexible.

"Even though it’s concrete, we can have some parts of the building change," Sellers said. "So, that entire living room wall rolls away."
 

That living room wall is 16 feet long and 9 feet high. Made of glass with a wood frame, a combination of skateboard wheels and stainless steel rollers allow the 800-pound wall to slide open, exposing the outdoors. A similar wall on a custom-made hinge at the other end of the house swings open with the pull of a pinky. 

Architect Dave Sellers said the local craftsmen he worked on the Home Run House have had a blast building it, making a concrete balcony, counters and bathtub.

Carpenter Pierre Jaubert worked on the house.

Interior of house shows that almost everything is made of concrete.
Credit JON KALISH / New England News Collaborative

"When I first walked up here, I’m going, like, 'Wow, this is crazy,' " Jaubvert said. "But it all made sense in the end. It’s all fitting together, bit by bit."

Glass walls on wheels and a concrete bathtub are not the only aspects of the Home Run House that are raising eyebrows. It has a 120 square-foot space for plants to grow in huge plastic plastic containers filled with five feet of soil. A rainwater 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 Brattleboro-based writer for the Green Energy Times. 

Harvey said when calculating the carbon footprint of the Home Run House, we need to consider how long it will last. 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."

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

"We learned a lot," Sellers said. "I can’t wait to do the next one."

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