New Ways of Living

Case Studies of Sustainable Homes
by Jonathan Wright

On the road to sustainable energy solutions, two local businessmen are leading by example.

It wasn’t too long ago that environmentalist was a pejorative term in some quarters, and advocates for renewable energy were derided as liberal “tree-huggers.” But with the concepts of sustainability having taken a firm hold in the business world over the last decade, these stereotypes are going by the wayside.

Here in central Illinois, two prominent local businessmen are among those bucking the stereotype. One lives “off the grid,” in a home that gets most of its energy from the wind and the sun. The other has built a unique structure that incorporates some unusual building techniques. Neither man could be painted as an “environmentalist wacko.” Rather, they are dreamers and doers—visionary, yet practical—undaunted by challenges, unafraid to do things differently, and more than willing to put their money where their mouth is. These are their stories.

LIFE OFF THE GRID

When Bill Cirone’s career brought him back to central Illinois in 2001, he had no plans to become a renewable energy pioneer. Having lived here for a few years in the 1970s, the Federal Companies president had fond memories of hunting and fishing on the prairie land west of Peoria. An avid outdoorsman, Cirone and his wife Paula began searching for a location on which to build their dream home—somewhere that would allow them to be close to the wildlife and plant life he knew and loved.

Their search led to a 550-acre plot of land once owned by the Midland Coal Company, just outside of Farmington in Knox County. Furrowed by former coal mines and dotted with wooded areas, five lakes, and deer, ducks and turkeys roaming free, the idyllic property seemed to offer everything they were looking for. There was just one problem: there was no access to electricity. After learning the steep costs of obtaining an easement to get traditional power from the utility company, the Cirones, undaunted, began examining the alternatives.

“We wanted to live in an environment that put us close to lakes, close to recreation, close to the flora and fauna, and the animal kingdom,” says Bill. “That’s what ultimately led us to take on the alternative energy route. From a practical standpoint, it was really the only way we were going to live where we wanted to live.”

With that in mind, so began a massive, years-long project to build a self-sufficient power system from scratch. The Cirones enlisted their two sons—William and Chris, both studying to be engineers—to help research, design and build the system—along with all the infrastructure required to make it work.

Design for Power

Bill Cirone - Solar Panel

With no roads on the property, it first had to be made accessible. To that end, a network of roads was developed—more than three miles worth—allowing them to fully appreciate the breadth of their new land. “We learned where we liked to be on the property, where the animals were, where the prettiest spots were—things like that,” explains William. “Then we started to hone in on where we wanted to put the structures.”

The first to go up, in 2006, was a large barn—to serve as the centralized location for any future power system. That was followed by a detailed study of potential solutions to the family’s energy needs, both current

and future, leading to scores of discussions with a range of companies and consultants, both locally and outside of the state. Eventually, plans were worked up for a hybrid power system comprised of four main components.

In one corner of the barn is the hub of the system— two parallel banks of 24 two-volt batteries each—which stores and parcels out energy as needed. “Everything ties back into the batteries,” William explains. Not far away, a large wind turbine, more than a hundred feet tall, colle

cts energy from the blowing prairie wind. Beneath it, three rotating arrays of solar panels follow the sun, feeding solar energy back into the battery bank. The fourthcomponent, a propane generator, kicks on if the energy produced from solar and wind can’t keep up with demand. The entire system is “off the grid”—meaning there is no connection to the utility company at all.

The Efficiency Equation

With the power system in place, the Cirones turned their attention to their new home. “We knew that we wanted all of the modern conveniences, just like anyone in a grid-tied home in the city,” said William. “The goal was to make the house as energy-efficient as possible.”

Essentially, that means two things: keeping the heat inside in the winter, and keeping the cold inside in the summer. “That starts with energy-efficient windows—double-paned windows with argon in between—and energy-efficient doors, a good weather seal, and good insulation,” explains William.

For some homebuilders, insulation can at times be an afterthought, yet it’s a critical factor in the energy-efficiency equation. With two inches of InsulStar super-insulation foam sprayed on the exterior and fiberglass batt insulation lining its interior, the walls of the Cirone home offer an R-29 value—far superior to the R-12 value of a typical home. (R-value is a measure of thermal resistance used in the construction industry.)

The home also features two wood-burning stoves and a geothermal heat pump, which leverages the moderate temperatures beneath the earth’s surface, transferring heat into the home in the winter and cooling it in the summer. “If we have sufficient energy, we can heat the home withthe geothermal heat pump,” William explains. “We also have the ability to kick the furnace over to propane. So we truly get the best of both worlds.”

With its many windows and skylights, natural lighting is prominent throughout the home, while all of the appliances are energy-efficient. All of these features—the appliances, lighting, geothermal pump, insulation, windows and doors—add up to a home that’s far more efficient than a similar one half its size, as reflected in its Energy Star certification.

Home Batteries

A Laboratory for Learning

After a year and a half of construction, the house was completed in 2008. But a project like this is never really over—the system has to be maintained, and eventually, upgraded. In the meantime, an instrument monitors the batteries continuously, feeding data back to the Cirones and determining the most efficient way to transmit energy into the home.

“At any point in time, we can see how much power is flowing into and out of the batteries,” says William. “Then, we can see whether the power is being provided by solar or wind. If it’s not coming from either of those, it must be from the generator.”

As parts wear out, they must be replaced or upgraded, which means keeping up with the latest industry trends. “The technology changes all the time,” Bill explains, “whether it’s solar or wind, the Cat generator, the battery system, or how they all hook up together and deliver energy into the house.”

One area in particular that’s seen tremendous change is the battery system, from the technology inside the batteries to the environmental conditions necessary for off-grid use. Most recently, the original battery system had to be replaced, which required several months of research into the available options. “When we put the system in seven years ago, we didn’t even have house plans!” William notes. “Given what we’d learned and the changes in technology, we went with a completely different manufacturer.” These new batteries were made specifically for renewable energy applications, and offer triple the storage capacity of the original system.

Through all of this research, William and Chris Cirone gained a world of knowledge about renewable energy—so much that they set up their own consulting firm, Sigma Energy Experts, to pass that knowledge on to others. And they have a laboratory for learning right in their own household.

Calculating Value

Viewed strictly from an economic standpoint, the project was not exactly cost-effective. Given that, in hindsight, would they do it all over again? “Absolutely,” says Bill Cirone without hesitation. “I wouldn’t change it for a minute. When I go home in the evening, I go on vacation. Paula and I do not have to leave to find a vacation spot—where we live is a vacation spot.

“The return that we get every day,” he says, “is the view. What’s a painting worth, to look at every day? What’s a view worth? How much is a plane ticket in order for you to take an extended vacation to have the same view that we have every day?”

Bill waxes poetic as he describes the herds of bucks and does he saw on the property just the night before. “And we traveled a total distance of one mile from the house... That’s how we get paid back. There is not an economic return that we can measure. It’s an investment in the environment, and in satisfaction.”

While an off-grid renewable energy system is not yet cost-effective for the average consumer, it’s getting more and more so each day. The components are being standardized and energy capacity is improving, while costs are decreasing. “Even to put this system in today versus when we did it in 2006,” William says, “we would have gotten slightly more efficient components for slightly less money. The lines are constantly approaching each other. I believe in the near-future it will be cost-effective.”

Besides the environmental benefits, Bill suggests that aging transmission lines and the potential for brownouts are additional reasons to consider alternatives to traditional power. He points to the “green roofs” that have been installed in recent years at Caterpillar, the new museum, area hospitals and Illinois Central College. “They’re doing everything they can to lessen the need for traditional grid energy to power their systems. That is absolutely going to continue.”

The use of fossil fuels is just not sustainable in the long run, he adds, and there is growing recognition of that in society. “Our responsibility is to be better stewards [of the earth’s resources] than we are. To do that, we will have to start using resources that we are not depleting. So… how do we use the wind, how do we use the sun, how do we use the water in a way that begins to channel everyone to… be less wasteful?”

THE EARTH-SHELTERED HOMEGrieves Earth-Sheltered Home

About 20 miles outside of Peoria in the village of Banner, there’s something unusual happening at the junction of Routes 24 and 9. In the distance, beyond a sign that reads “Hobbit Hollow: Smart Sustainable Living,” a dome-shaped structure with a log-cabin façade beckons curious passersby from beneath a rolling hill of grass and dirt. The home’s owner and developer, Bud Grieves, steps out of the front door. “I’m kind of into alternative housing,” he says with a smile.

Grieves, former mayor of Peoria and owner of the Mark Twain Hotel, is well known in Banner, both as a resident and a developer. He renovated the motel just down the road, and built the restaurant next to it that’s now Boss Hog’s. His latest development, Hobbit Hollow, sits on an adjacent lot that once housed a gas station. A bit of an iconoclast, Grieves does things his own way, taking on projects that some might find unconventional.

At this busy intersection, one can watch the cars slowing down as their occupants eye the structure with curiosity. “There has been tremendous interest!” Grieves affirms. “In fact, the workers couldn’t get through a day without three or four cars pulling in to ask what they were building.”

A long-time conservationist, Grieves has dabbled in energy-efficiency projects at his own home just a few miles away, where a wind turbine provides two thirds of his electricity and is supplemented by a wood-burning stove, which paid for itself in cost savings in about two years. Most of what he spends on utilities is in the form of kinetic energy—cutting wood for the stove.

“There will be a day that I think we could go off the grid,” Grieves says, “but I can’t do it with wind power alone quite yet.” Noting that the price of solar panels continues to fall, he adds, “I’m getting close to the point where I may look at [solar] as a next step.”

Logs, Steel & Concrete

It was Grieves’ interest in alternative housing and renewable energy that led him to create the home at Hobbit Hollow: a 1400-square-foot, earth-sheltered building with very little wasted space. A kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom and utility room make up the first floor, while a spiral staircase leads up to the master bedroom, which opens onto a second-floor deck. A wood-burning fireplace, with electric baseboard heat as a backup, heats the home in the winter.

The basic framework is comprised of curved steel beams that rise out of the poured concrete base and are bolted together at the floor and ceiling. These beams are covered with a layer of wire mesh woven in burlap, then a layer of steel rebar, crisscrossing every four inches. A six-inch layer of concrete is sprayed on with a high-pressure hose, followed by two inches of foam insulation, and a layer of rubberized black tar for waterproofing. Finally, the entire structure is covered with four feet of soil.

That leaves just the front of the home open to the elements; it can be finished in any number of ways. “We did the log look because it fits the area here,” says Grieves. He gestures toward another structure on the property, then turns and points to the restaurant and motel down the road—all made of logs. “But you could do an adobe look, or even traditional aluminum siding if you wanted to.”

Grieves House - InsideUnconventional Advantages

“This is about as compact and efficient a home as I think you can find,” Grieves declares. Built like a bomb shelter, it’s termite-proof, fire-proof and tornado-proof. There’s no roof to repair, no gutters to clean and very little maintenance required. “You might have to put a coat of stain on the front every six years—that’s about it.”

Bolstered by the steel rebar, the concrete offers greater strength and durability than conventional building materials, and it’s neither flammable nor chemically hazardous. The dome shape itself offers superior strength, as well as improved air flow.

And “the house itself is the energy system”—that’s according to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory report on earth-sheltered homes. “Windows are the collectors; roof, walls and floor are the storage; and earth is the protector and moderator." These types of buildings use the earth as a thermal mass, absorbing its temperature, which remains relatively constant throughout the year even as air temperatures fluctuate. Meanwhile, the south-facing wall of the home, with its large windows, utilizes passive solar design, capturing natural sunlight without an active mechanical system.

This is no dark cave, Grieves affirms, as one might mistakenly envision upon hearing the phrase “earth-sheltered.” Because the building was designed to work with the earth and sun, the need for air conditioning (in the summer) and extra heating (in the winter) is minimal—translating into substantial savings in monthly energy costs.

Trial and Error

Like the Cirones, Grieves poured many months of research and planning into this project, along with a fair amount of trial and error. His initial idea was to create a housing unit out of stacked cargo containers— each 40 feet long and eight feet wide. “It was sort of an ill-fated first attempt on my part,” he explains.

Placing two containers side by side, he cut out the walls between them and covered the top with dirt, but ultimately found they were not strong enough for his purposes. “You can still build something with them,” he explains, “but I wanted the insulation factor of the dirt.” But the structure wasn’t built for naught; it stands a few dozen yards from the dome home, making for a convenient storage unit.

Grieves went back to the drawing board, and that’s when he came across Performance Building Systems of Durango, Colorado. Founded in 1979, the company offers bolt-together construction kits for spherical earth-sheltered structures, with all the materials needed to form the structural shell, from the main beams to the nuts and bolts required for assembly. (It does not include the wood, concrete, interior materials, waterproofing or insulation.) With decades of experience and numerous patents on key technologies, the company and its founder were reputable. And so, this kit formed the basis for the home at Hobbit Hollow.

Ahead of the Curve

“It’s not a way to cut costs,” says Grieves, explaining his motivations for taking on this project. “I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can do this… You might call it somewhat of a hobby. I’m not in it to make a lot of money, though [I hope] to get my money out of it, of course.”

Grieves explains several goals he had in mind. He wanted to put someHobbit Hallow builders to work, and in the process, create a model to demonstrate new possibilities for sustainable living. He hopes to recoup his costs by selling the home to someone who shares this vision. Eventually, he’d like to build several more earth-sheltered homes on the same property and create a small community.

“I think there’s a market for this,” he declares. But he also understands that it’s still a bit out of the mainstream. “It’s going to take a special buyer—someone who is into this sort of thing. It’s not a typical family home by any stretch of the imagination.”

Rather, it’s a statement. Grieves believes the movement toward sustainable living is clear and inevitable. “I see some major, major trends affecting young people… They’re not going to live the way I was able to live. We’re going to need smaller, smarter, more efficient housing. You’ve got to think in terms of the long-term costs of ownership.”

The industrialization of the developing world, he says, is putting tremendous strain on the earth’s resources, causing the cost of energy and building materials to skyrocket—even as our incomes have compressed. And that’s not just a trend—it’s a long-term shift.

“We have to go this way,” he says. “I’m not sure the market is quite there yet, but I do think that in 10 years, the idea of buying value—and buying something that’s sustainable—is going to catch on. I might be a little ahead of the curve.”

In July, Grieves held an open house, and more than 200 people showed up to see the inside of the home for themselves. Most were simply satisfying their curiosity, but a few, Grieves says, were seriously interested. He will host another open house on September 9th—visit hobbithollow.info for details.

Pioneers of Possibility

As society continues along the path toward sustainable energy solutions, Grieves and Cirone find themselves playing the role of unlikely pioneers. “There’s a picture painted that anyone who’s ‘green’ is a nut… and chains themselves in front of bulldozers,” says Grieves. “Well, none of us have done that. We’re pretty level-headed people.”

Both men see the writing on the wall pretty clearly: future generations will not be able to live the same way as previous ones. Innovative solutions must be found to support our current energy needs, as well as the tremendous growth in India, China and the rest of the developing world.

And it’s going to take men like Grieves and Cirone—leading by example—to demonstrate what’s possible. Today, they’re on the cutting edge, but tomorrow, the cutting edge will be commonplace. The old stereotypes are remnants of a past that’s not coming back. Now, we look to the future. iBi

Add new comment

This question is used to prevent automated spam submissions.