This Erdhaus is not what you see everyday in Falls Church, but it makes perfect sense!
Andreas Betz and Mike Nichols serendipitously found everything that they needed in a deep set lot in Falls Church, Virginia. The Little City, as it is now known to the residents, has become an amalgamation of old school to the new school of architecture and design with the completion of Andreas and Mike’s Erdhaus, which is German for Earth House. You see, the lot they were seeking to build their very green dream house needed to have a very long south facing elevation, and when they found the lot on Grove Avenue, among the 1940’s cape cods and newly restyled federals, they knew they had the perfect spot to start digging. Digging? Yes, digging. The exemplary environmentally conscious home that Andreas and Mike set out to build was going to be comprised of mud bricks. It may sound strange to some, thinking of all of the construction technology available; but really, the use of mud as a building material and concept dates back to pre-Roman and Neolithic times actually makes sense in contemporary times just as it did then.
By excavating the clay based soil upon which the home would sit, compressed earth bricks were produced to create the infill for the very lean and linear home. Using the soil dug up from the construction site mixed with sand and Portland cement, compressed earth bricks were formed and cured. Mind you, these bricks were air-cured, not kiln dried, which significantly minimized the carbon footprint of this construction. Utilizing a brick making machine created by engineers Steve Keiley and Ron Hubbard, the construction team on the Erdhaus hand made the very bricks that were laid to create the form of the home. To produce the over 5,000 bricks that were handmade for this structure, Keiley and Hubbard’s machine only used a little less than six gallons of fuel and a whole lot of man-power; this is impressive. By dry stacking the cured bricks, which have a very thoughtful tongue and grove pattern, the bricks interlock in an almost foolproof pattern. To stabilize the earth-brick walls, eco-friendly slag (iron based) concrete columns and headers reinforced with rebar were poured around window and door frames and again every twenty feet to lock the bricks in place. Each brick weighs just over twenty-seven pounds and can stand the test of pressure, as they will need to, since they are the load bearing support system to the home. Finally, just as a ring symbolizes an eternal lock to someone professing their love, a ring of the super-strong slag based concrete was poured to form the ultimate bond for the structure.
After the bricks had been placed and the structure strengthened with the concrete support system, the home was skim-coated and wrapped in 3” R15 insulating foam. The foam “acts just as a blanket would in winter” protecting the thermal envelope. Finally, the structure was coated in EIFS synthetic stucco that will require minimal upkeep and no paint, which is a great cost effective technique for an easy-maintenance exterior finish. The minimally used wood component of the home is primarily FSC certified (wood which has been rated by the Forest Stewardship Council) and was reused where ever possible. The exterior of the home is very modest and reminiscent of a sexy Dwell Magazine cover-model, with the crisp, clean lines of the front elevation’s slightly angled projection towards the southern horizon accented with neatly placed square windows and richly stained cedar planks. The wall of windows facing the south isn’t just for their prominent beauty, but actually acts to warm and light the home, passively. The thought behind this tranquil and earth friendly home is that it is going to maximize its energy use through proper site location and by utilizing the southern exposure to passively heat and cool itself. Green Consultant Chris Conway of Conway Construction notes that the Erdhaus’ passive solar heating keeps the home at a comfortable 65 degrees even on the coldest winter day. This is in part due to the strategically placed cardinal glass windows and doors along the southern exposure and the proper insulation that the earth bricks and foam insulation create. On the north side of the home is the entrance where you can see the long system of gutters which pipe into one of three buried fiberglass cisterns which can hold over 4700 gallons of rainwater. The harvesting of rainwater, an incredibly earth friendly feature of this home, allows for Mike and Andreas to use the roof water run-off for the watering of exterior landscaping and the flushing of the toilets inside.
Just as with the site location and architectural lay out, much thought went into the high performance systems of this unique home. Andreas mentioned that he absolutely had to have the sleek Belgian wall-hung, dual flush toilets, radiant floor heat and the rain water collection systems. Partly because of his European heritage, Andreas felt like the wall hung toilets just made sense for the maximization of space; radiant floor heat is a given since, in his German spent youth, all of the homes he lived in had radiant floor heating systems. The rain water collection system is his very own pet project; he pointed out, quite excitedly, that the rainwater collection can be switched on and off to City water. Also, if they ever needed to, and if they went the extra mile, they could ultimately install extensive filtration systems to make the water potable so that their home could be entirely sustained on harvested rainwater. The Ecoprocote stained concrete floors have an elaborate labyrinth of hot water fueled tubes which warm the floors making the home toasty-warm and ever so comfortable in five different controlled zones. The Polaris hot water heater is top of the line and 95%+efficient than the average heater. In the soon to be finished out basement along the eastern wall, the tubing system controls are housed and when switched on, the sound is surprisingly hushed. From the basement you can see that the interior walls are framed just as they would be in an average home, the sub-flooring is advantage recycled sub-flooring. If you see any yellow-pine, that wood was not FSC certified. Additional soy-based Agribalance foam insulation creates an even tighter home where it has been used at the floor joists.
The system of duct-work is totally sealed and was “treated like a plumber should treat pipe” to ensure that there is no leakage or wasted air in this very tight thermal envelope. Through a top of the line Canadian made Total Air Recovery system, the “stale” air in the home is cycled through the home and fresh air is pumped inside. The Energy Recovery system sends air from outside past the air from inside the home to transfer the energy of the air either heating or cooling the air through the system that is then filtered through two pleated media filters; the ERV acts somewhat as a dehumidifier and keeps the home nice and tight, while supplying cleaner air. Mike and Andreas like their peace and quiet, and this tightly- built 1500 square foot home is cozy and calm.
In keeping with the tranquility of the healthy living lifestyle, the entire interior of the home is thoughtfully laid out to encourage maximization of space and function. The entry delivers you into a great room comprised of the minimalist kitchen complete with wheat-board counters and a crushed granite sink –then opening to the combined living and dining area. The living space has a waist-height, wall-mounted Bodart & Gonay fireplace that vents the heat through the space when in use. Throughout the home you will find the- quite literally- warm, cola-colored, soy-stained concrete floors. All walls have been covered with a sumptuous, suede-like American Clay Plaster that requires no paint. The serene gray of the walls with their playful texture casts the luminous natural light around all of the spaces. On the west side of the home is a guest suite which has its own full bath and can be sectioned off for guest privacy, thanks to the homeowners’ selfless attention detail. Mirroring the guest suite is the master bed and bath on the east side of the house. A great concept that you have to look up to see is that there are cut outs in the closet space that pull in the natural light from the wall of south facing windows- this is Erdhaus’ practical genius at work. The master bath has a clean-spa feel with a slate grey tiled walk-in shower partitioned by an iron-free frosted glass (a lovely little splurge).
Everyone wants to know what the bottom line is on a home as superiorly green-built as this Erdhaus. The answer is that the average new construction price in Falls Church, Virginia is about $200/sf; Mike and Andreas have managed to spend about $140/sf. So, they were entitled to their little splurge on that glass in the master! The layman generally associates green-building with a heavy price tag; however, this doesn’t have to be so. Mike and Andreas found that they could save over $17,000 in haul-off charges by using the earth from the project site to build their home. They researched good deals on products from the R15 foam insulation to the recycled glass tiles and they even got a fantastic deal on the Energy Recovery System which saved them hundred of dollars. Building a green home can be done and it can be done cost effectively- you just have to have the team who knows how!
Mike and Andreas were lucky enough to have an architect with over three decades of experience on their side; Architect John Spears even got his hands dirty making and laying bricks on this project! Having a knowledgeable resource such as Chris Conway who acted a consultant and provided verification for the Level III EarthCraft House certification was also something that paved the way for this project to come to fruition. Chris says, “This should have been a four to five month build from start to finish- but it took twelve months.” Even though the price tag may have been lower for this custom built green home, building a home of this green-caliber does not come without its very own hiccups. How could the building experience have changed for Mike and Andreas? For starters, the homeowners could have created a team from the outset who had worked on green projects such as this one to ensure that obstacles could have been more easily navigated. Proper planning and “understanding site and location is a must for a home like this.” Another hiccup for any build is the weather: it is bound to happen and can be a major delay factor; rain and snow added extra potholes for their building crew. Windows and doors should be properly ordered and installed- this is a biggy! Sometimes it only takes a very small mis-read of plans to make for a very large problem. The Erdhaus experienced a near three month delay for replacement windows when it was discovered that the wrong size windows had been ordered and delivered. What happens when the subcontractors just don’t show up? It happens and even the best general contractors can’t always foresee when their subs aren’t going to pull through. Of course, having a solid general contractor from the get-go is truly imperative. They had some bad luck with contractors in the beginning, and had to weed their way through to find the solid team that they ended up with. With a gracious smile, Andreas noted that “our neighbors were incredible! They were very interested in what we were doing. We actually found that some of the best builders that we had ‘on our side’ were the people who live around us.” The house that doesn’t necessarily look or perform like the others on Grove Avenue may have brought the community together; now that is in fact the spirit of green! By announcing the project to their neighbors and inviting them to follow their detailed blog of trial and error, setbacks and progressions, these two were able to bring their community together by educating them about the process and encouraging them to be interested.
Both commercial pilots by trade, Mike and Andreas didn’t want to be viewed as “crunchy granola people.” They just wanted to find a place to build a home that was going to endure time. Oh, and they absolutely had to be inside the beltway! The lot they stumbled upon in Falls Church fit their needs entirely: it is just 2 blocks away from the Metro, there was hardly any demolition required for the lot, it is deep enough for the plan they’d worked so hard on with their architect, John Spears. With “some extra thinking and maybe a little extra effort” they have managed to successfully build a practical, sustainable home for themselves that they plan on staying in for a very long time.
Mike and Andreas’ advice to someone looking to build a home by following green practices:
•You should have a team that has done this sort of project before and who will know what questions to ask.
•Find a builder who is established and innovative. The builder must understand the flow and processes and how to build a green certified project.
•Having the system of checks and balances in place is very important; it validates what you have done.