Stonework on Desert Lookout

September: Progress in Pictures

September came in fits and starts for us with the construction of Desert Lookout – the newest part of our Living Building Challenge Project. We took huge steps forward, followed by small sticking points, and then more big lurches forward. This is nothing new for a building outside of the traditional box and we continue to keep our enthusiasm for moving forward.   Installing the Phoenix composting system was a huge mile stone for us. You can read more about how this component will  compost and treat our blackwater here.

Tom and Advanced Composting Systems

Tom and Glenn Nelson from Advanced Composting Systems in front of the newly installed black water composter.

Blackwater Composter

Our new Phoenix will compost our black water – a very important part of the LBC water petal.

The Phoenix Composting ToiletWe’re very pleased to be including biophilia into our landscaping:

New plants for Desert Rain

New plants for Desert Rain from Winter Creek Restoration are ready for planting.

Desert Lookout will have a hybrid insulation system which helps us manage expenses while maintaining a high level of insulation.

Blow in with spray foam hybrid insulation

A hybrid insulation system is helping us manage expenses during construction while providing long-term benefits.

We moved beyond another challenge of building a LBC project, getting the eve trimmed back.

Trimming the eve

We had to trim back the original eve to allow for the solar collector.

drying out the cistern

The leak in our grey water cistern had to be repaired. A large fan was used to dry it out before applying a new layer of waterproofing.

Bob Buckmann with TVM

Bob Buckmann with TVM was in the grey water cistern, checking on a new layer of waterproofing.

Richard from Clausen Drywall.

Richard from Clausen Drywall has been drywalling since he was a teenager, working for his dad.

Hand texture for the drywall is complete

Hand texture for the drywall is complete.

Jared and Scott from American Painting and Prefinish .

Jared and Scott from American Painting and Prefinish are staining the wood siding.

ready for stonework

While we get ready for stonework, Winter Creek Restoration has been planting.

Ready for stonework

We’re ready for stonework.


Stonework on Desert Lookout

Stonework on Desert Lookout.

Another month down. And we’re ready for October!

After a Short Break – Desert Lookout Construction Begins

We had a short break in construction this winter along with a brief hiatus in sharing updates on our home, the project, and the process.  But rest assured, we were not resting. During this time, we were preparing for Desert Lookout.  This new structure will include an office/apartment, a garage, a yoga studio, and –  perhaps most importantly – will house the composting/evaporator unit for blackwater.
Staking Desert Lookout in early April 2014.

Staking Desert Lookout in early April 2014.

Early this April, we received the exciting news regarding the approval of our permit to treat blackwater — toilet and dishwasher wastewater — on site, without putting it into the sewer lines.  Desert Rain has become the first in the state of Oregon within a city sewer district to receive a such a permit, and with this good news in hand, we broke ground on April 15.
Breaking ground on Desert Lookout.

Breaking ground on Desert Lookout.

Breaking ground and preparing the foundation has gone smoothly and quickly. Now, we’re excited to see the Desert Lookout structure rising.
Desert Lookout Foundation

The framework in place for the Desert Lookout foundation

The framing of Desert Lookout is nearing completion in Early June 2014.

The framing of Desert Lookout is nearing completion in Early June 2014.



Desert Rain – Breaking Barriers

More visitors take a tour with Tom to learn about Desert Rain and sustainable building elements they may incorporate into their own projects.

From the beginning of the design and building process, Tom and Barb envisioned the Desert Rain project as a demonstration site with an educational element.  Along with their dream of building and living in their own extreme, green home, they have an objective of setting an example of what is possible in sustainable building. They are making an effort to expand ideas and push barriers with regulatory agencies, contractors, product manufacturers, and building materials.  In Tom’s words, ‘we’re not saying everybody should go build a home like this, but we think there are elements of this home that could and should be incorporated into just about any structure that is being built.’   There have been a number of people who have toured the site and been inspired by one piece or another of the project. They  may not be interested in building a Living Building Challenge home but they may be looking for methods or materials that they can utilize in a home being built or remodeled. For example a tighter building envelope saves enormous amounts of energy, no matter the source of the heat.  Insulation, windows, framing methods, passive solar design, and alternative heating systems may be pieces of the project that many people would implement when building a green home.

The 35,000 gallon cistern – a large piece of the Water Petal puzzle.

The water systems at Desert Rain have created the largest hurdles and are perhaps the least applicable for others to embrace.  Not many homes will have the extensive rainwater harvesting system and 35,000 gallon cistern collection tank that Desert Rain is using. Nor will the average, green home have a graywater system that treats all household wastewater for reuse to the standards that Desert Rain is setting. The proposed solution pioneered by Tom, Barb, ACS, Whole Water Systems and Tozer Design Design, to use efficient, conventional toilets that process blackwater and solid waste through a solar evaporator and on site composting facility is remarkably, innovative.  These systems that are currently difficult to encompass for the average homeowner, may prove to be the most educational element of the design and building process of Desert Rain.

Inspired by Desert Rain
As a result of his work with Desert Rain, Morgan Brown, President of Whole Water Systems has proposed a Living Future Talk for the Living Building Challenge. LBC Water Petal Solutions – Technology & Permitting Challenges; Lessons Learned on the Bleeding Edge
“Navigating the bleeding edge of LBC Water Petal technology and regulatory approval can emphasize the “Challenge” in Living Buildings. This session will focus on lessons learned from Desert Rain, an LBC home located in historic downtown Bend, OR. The session will highlight the 3-year Odyssey seeking approvals for cutting-edge blackwater, graywater and rainwater harvest systems and the joys of stretching city building codes and new state guidelines to the breaking point. An overview of Water Petal solutions by early LBC projects followed by audience participation in Fantasy LBC Water Design will help others learn from pitfalls and avoid costs.

‘Some of the above came about out of necessity – given the current situation – in order to achieve the Living Building standard. Others are a result of inflexibility and shortsightedness in interpretation of regulations. ‘ said Morgan Brown, president of Whole Water Systems. He refers to his work on Desert Rain water system solutions as a ‘3- year Odyssey.’  Brown sees each of the water systems: rainwater harvest, graywater, and blackwater as cutting edge. He believes, ‘that if these systems are realized they have the potential to become extremely influential.  That they are state-of-the-art green systems pushing the limits, that they will be a vehicle for valuable study, that others will want to emulate them, and finally, that they will make it more affordable for those that follow.’

Tom sees Desert Rain as an opportunity to break through hurdles. He and Barb are hoping to leverage this Desert Rain b experience by building an affordable Living Building Challenge home that could then be replicated by others.  He also hopes that Desert Rain will create an awareness of possibilities that might benefit the community in a larger sense. The idea of ‘scale jumping’ – taking some of the elements of Desert Rain that may not be cost-effective or make sense for one home – and incorporate them at a larger scale. A constructed wetland for a single residence may not make sense but a constructed wetland that can serve a small residential development of 15   homes makes a lot of sense toward decentralized and sustainable water treatment.

Tom and Barb deserve much appreciation for their pioneering spirit, persistence, and vision for breaking barriers with the Desert Rain project.

Desert Rain is an educational tool demonstrating what is possible. Tom compares the process of building extreme green to Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile. “ It couldn’t be done. It was humanly impossible, bio-mechanically impossible, physics wouldn’t allow  it – just couldn’t be done until Roger Bannister did it. Then all of a sudden everybody was breaking the 4 minute mile.’

Breaking Barriers
In the sport of athletics, the four-minute mile is the act of completing a mile run (1,760 yards) in less than four minutes. It was first achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister in 3:59.4. The ‘four minute barrier’ has since been broken by many male athletes, and is now the standard of all male professional middle distance runners. In the last 50 years the mile record has been lowered by almost 17 seconds.   resource – Wikipedia 

Desert Rain has been pushing the limits of new state rainwater harvesting guidelines and local and state codes for pre-treatment and reuse of graywater.  The blackwater, human waste system design is innovative and untold. Thanks to the persistence of Tom and Barb, and the Design and Build Teams, Desert Rain is jumping the hurdles, breaking the barriers, and setting some records in the built environment.  Like the breaking of the 4 minute mile, Desert Rain may be setting some new standards.

The Desert Rain Design/Build team – thanks to their persistence and innovative thinking, Desert Rain is pushing the barriers of the built environment.

Looking Outside to Landscape

Site grading and fill have eliminated the need for the ramp at the east entrance.

The site has been changing the last couple of weeks as fill dirt arrived and grading is taking place. The large holes, lumps, and bumps from construction are disappearing and it is more evident how the site will function. When all the major construction is done, the landscaping will be one of the last elements in place.

The landscape plans.

The landscape design is the work of Heartsprings Design. Chris Hart-Henderson, owner and Ani Cahill, designer have been with the project from the time the lot was purchased. Chris was brought on board to help guide the early design process: the location of the house for views, vegetation, and orientation, what vegetation had inherent, long-term value, what should stay, what needed to go. The landscape plan with the original house plans was part of the package ready to go to the city of Bend for approval. Then Barb and Tom discovered the Living Building Challenge. Those plans were not feasible to meet the LBC goal. There was a difficult decision to pull the plans and start again. The first phase had been a big learning and awareness building period. Chris was excited to embrace the challenge of redesigning around a new physical space, as well as the challenge of the LBC.

Chris, Tom, and Barb discuss the landscaping from the west side ‘mail trail’ that leads down to the street on Shasta Place.

Heartsprings Design has a history of using hardy, locally proven, long-blooming, native and drought tolerant plants that effectively conserve water and minimize the need for irrigation. These landscapes thrive in the unique high desert terrain of central Oregon. The constraints of the LBC present some additional challenges for designing the landscape at Desert Rain. Ani said the limitation of water is the most challenging; ‘how to create an atmosphere with virtually no water?’ Desert Rain does have a 35,000 gallon cistern and will be collecting rainwater from the roofs of all the structures on site. All of that collected water will be stored and used for domestic purposes only. None of that water is available for irrigation. With average, annual precipitation in Bend at 10 to 12”, there is little available water for the vegetation. A storage system for grey water is in the design and approval process. There will also be a wetland area on site. The available water from those systems may be used on the landscape plantings. Will that water be enough?

The native bitterbrush that is growing on the west side rock outcrop is well adapted to the sparse soil and water conditions.

Another requirement of LBC is that 35% of the landscape must be edible. Growing edibles in the high desert climate is tough in the best of conditions. Chris said, ‘the limitations of trying to grow on a rock outcropping with poor soil and scarce water will be tricky’. In addition to the apple trees that are well established on the site, Chris and Ani decided to go with plants that provide more of an indigenous culture diet. Service berry, elderberry, currants, wild strawberries, rose hips, Oregon grape and choke cherry will help meet the LBC requirement of edibles and hopefully, will adapt to the marginal conditions on the site. The landscape design includes raising up planting areas with native lava rock and reclaimed rock from the site. Good quality soil will fill these beds to provide a better growing base. There will be some small raised beds for vegetables and herbs.

The hardscaping and the plantings will have a dramatic impact on the appearance of the site. Desert Breeze, the Accessible Dwelling Unit will have a private courtyard. Desert Rain, the main house will have several private patio and courtyard areas. One of the patios will be using the concrete remnants of an old sidewalk from the original houses. There will be accessible pathways to many areas on the property. There is a ‘secret terrace’ below the house that provides a private and quiet sanctuary. Al Tozer, designer of the structures described the project as a ‘marriage of the inside and outside’. Chris said from an artistic standpoint, she loves that coordination of the architecture of the home and the integration of the indoor and outdoor spaces. An example is the curved, ‘miro’ wall that begins on the outside of the west end of the house, continues through the house, out the east end of the house and will be reflected by an exterior courtyard wall. That kind of detail brings continuity and beauty to the project.

Heartsprings Design has three projects that have the distinction of certified Platinum LEED for homes – the highest honor awarded by the Green Building Council.

When I spoke with Ani last week she said Heartsprings Design frequently works within the constraints of CCandRs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) on their landscape projects. Desert Rain is a similar process. Coordinating the elements of local materials, native rock, native plant material, drought tolerant plant material, poor soil, and little water with the additional criteria of the LBC, has taken that process up several levels. The landscape plans indicate that Chris and Ani have embraced the challenge. We’ll be anxiously waiting for the rock, pavers, steps, walls, pathways, and plantings to be installed – the final transformation from construction site to home.

Teamwork in Every Phase

What goes on behind closed doors …

Mission control at Desert Rain (the garage from the site's former home).

… is a lot of planning! And it most certainly does not stay behind closed doors when it comes to Desert Rain and Living Building Challenge.

Jim Fagan (contractor, Timberline Construction), Al Tozer (architectural designer, Tozer Design) and ML Vidas (LBC/LEED consultant) meet to discuss what's happening, and what's coming up, at Desert Rain.

The day started off with an early morning meeting on the home site for architectural designer Al Tozer, contractor Jim Fagan, and LBC/LEED consultant ML Vidas. They walked the site–which was abuzz with framing activity, as well as masonry and cistern work–as they discussed all aspects of the project. Building a home to meet Living Building Challenge 2.0 is radically different than building a standard home. What’s being done is new; groundbreaking both literally (I’m looking at you, 35,000-gallon cistern) and figuratively. It requires more time, more creativity, and more communication in all aspects. While there is a written standard, there is also a remarkable amount of details that must be dealt with at every step of the process, and for that there is no trail of crumbs to follow. “I have to remind myself and the team that this is all pioneering stuff. … That’s why having the team is so important. Jim and Kevin [of Timberline, or Jim] and I meet almost weekly,” ML told me last month.

Meeting to discuss the monitoring and control of Desert Rain's water and energy systems. April 17, 2012

After the on-site meeting between ML, Al and Jim, there was a meeting at the Timberline office that brought together Barb and Tom, Al, ML, and Jim, as well as Shawn Allen and Greg Anderson of Resource Conservation Technologies. Shawn and Greg are leading the team in the monitoring and control of the water and energy systems that are so vital to Desert Rain achieving net-zero water and net-zero energy. Detailed monitoring of systems is essential to the conservation and efficient use and management of water (rainwater harvesting) and energy (generated via solar panels) in Desert Rain. Real-time analytics will alert Barb and Tom to any energy “leak,” giving them the ability to quickly react and improve efficiency. Even if they’re away from home, they’ll be instantly notified of any inefficiency via a system-generated email or  text, and with remote access they can explore and address the issue from wherever they may be.

More photos from today’s collaboration are below. If you’d like to learn more about Living Building Challenge—the standard that inspired and informs every aspect of this home—please join us on Thursday morning (4/19) at 7:30 for an LBC presentation in Bend. Email me via the “contact” form on the blog and we’ll add your name to the list of attendees.

Tom meets with Desert Rain team members to discuss monitoring and control of the home's water and energy systems.

Barb meets with the Desert Rain team at the Timberline office to discuss the home's sophisticated monitoring and control of energy and water generation and usage.

Shawn Allen of Resource Conservation Technologies.

Greg Anderson of Resource Conservation Technologies.

Discussing energy monitoring in Desert Rain.

April 17, 2012
























Putting Up Walls and Breaking Through Barriers

I began delving into the Desert Rain project just two weeks ago, and it’s hard for me to believe how fast things are moving. I know that for most of the people involved in this project it seems to be going at a snail’s pace—and certainly no one feels that more than Tom and Barbara. But when I first walked onto the lot last week this is what I saw—foundation, subfloor, and the beginnings of a couple of walls:

The Desert Rain House just after the walls started going up in February, 2012.


When we walked back onto the lot just a week later this is what we found:

The Desert Rain House—what a difference a few days makes!

To the right of the structure in the above picture is a backhoe that had been hammering away at the lava rock for weeks, clearing out room for the home’s 35,000 gallon cistern. But the pounding has finally ceased; the cistern hole is done! Tom and Barbara have worried over the noise from the hydraulic hammer, as it’s been constant. Perhaps the only people happier than they are to have it done are their neighbors. Even with the consistent hum of nail guns and a small portable radio, the site is now remarkably quiet compared to last week.

On the leading edge of green and sustainable building

Through all the hammering the framers worked on. Contractor Joel Schaeffer and his framing crew—Jason Bozovich and Scott Creson—are putting up the bones of the home, board by board. Because so much of what’s being done at Desert Rain is on the leading edge of green building, there’s a steep learning curve here for everyone involved, and framing is no different. Jason, Scott, and Joel are encountering plenty of challenges. From the nails they’re using (sourced in the United States when most come from China—and with a wider shank they do fire differently out of the nail guns) to the wood they’re driving those nails into, everything is different. LBC certification requirements dictate where products can come from, both in terms of physical distance  and how those products are made or harvested. For timber, all wood must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), reclaimed from salvaged sources, or taken from timber harvested on site with the purpose of clearing land for the construction. Desert Rain incorporates wood from each of these sources—new fir used in the framing is FSC certified from Oregon; reclaimed wood salvaged from buildings deconstructed on site and off site will be used throughout the home; and wood milled from a 201 year old Ponderosa will be incorporated, as well.

A load of FSC-certified lumber from Parr Lumber on the house lot

FSC certified products can be tracked following a “chain of custody” certification process that makes it possible to track the wood back to its source—and in the case of Desert Rain, the fir used in the framing comes from FSC-certified forest in the Pacific Northwest. So, the FSC-certified wood and how it’s harvested fits LBC standards, and the timber’s relatively close proximity to the home site also meets certification requirements.

But, like challenges encountered when using American-sourced nails, the framers also run into problems using FSC-certified wood. “The wood is different,” says Creson. “This wood, which is specialty, comes out different widths. 2′ x 12’s, for example, will come out anywhere from 11′-1/2″ to 10′-7/8″. So having a 5/8″ difference between boards means you really have to pay attention. And we’re welcome to send things back, but it’s a month out. And so, to keep that in line with the progress that you want to be making, you really just have to be creative.”

Because they’re encountering many things for the first time with this project, Creson and Bozovich are figuring some things out as they go. But they both—like many people involved in the Desert Rain project—seem to welcome the challenge of working at the forefront of new building techniques and demands. “Take two giant steps back before you take that first step forward, make sure you know where you’re going,” Creson cautions. “Because you can’t waste wood, you know. So making a mistake and hacking something apart is not an option. It’s almost like, the slower you go the faster you’ll be done. Which is good. It’s how things should be. Just get it done right.”

The FSC wood used in the framing is coming from Parr Lumber. Nate Morgan, Parr’s sales rep for the Desert Rain project, echoes Creson’s feelings about thinking things through completely. “Because of the LBC standards it’s important to minimize transportation and fuel costs, because that all matters and it’s all part of the big picture,” says Morgan. “For example, on this project you might think twice about delivering three boards out to the job and the next day delivering five more. Because every time you do that it takes resources, such as fuel, and causes emissions. The idea of the project it to be as sustainable as possible, so we’ve had conversations about, hey, we realize you need that, but would you be willing to wait until you need the rest of it or more of it? This job is about sustainability and the footprint. So we’re all working to overcome people’s historic mindsets of how construction has been done.”

Jim Fagan of Timberline Construction agrees. “It’s radical change to do this. Construction in general is slow to change. People in the trade can be stubborn; if they’ve been doing something one way for years then they can have a tendency to want to keep doing it that way. But I want to keep moving forward, to stay at the forefront of change. This is a great thing to be involved with.”


Forest Stewardship Council 

Living Building Challenge

Green to Green: The Challenges and Opportunities of Sustainable Building

We reduce, reuse, and recycle in our home. Each week, my nine-year-old daughter is responsible for gathering up the plastics and paper recycling and getting it all out to the collection bin. My son—who, at 13, is a bit older and stronger—carries out the heavier assortment of glass bottles and jars. Both kids were in the inaugural class at Bend’s William E. Miller Elementary School, the first school east of the Cascades built with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Level certification. Each grade level at Miller incorporates an environmental science unit as part of the curriculum. As such, I’ve been lectured by people half my size on shortening my shower time and turning off lights when I leave a room.

We take our reusable bags to the grocery store. We turn off the water when brushing our teeth. And as the old incandescent light bulbs burn out I replace them with more efficient compact fluorescents.

We are so green.

Or so I thought, until I started researching Desert Rain, Tom Elliott and Barbara Scott’s home-in-progress in Bend. Their LEED- and LBC-certified home uses FSC certified wood and will be free of CFCs, HCFCs, PAHs, PFCs, and PVCs, and will have minimal, if any, VOC content—and if any products do have VOC content they must meet SCAQMD 2007/2008 regulations. NAUF wood products are essential.

Got that? If you know what all those acronyms mean, then consider the following a re-cap. But for many people, the planning of this “ultra green” home can provide a broad view of the very leading edge of sustainable design, building, and living. We are now in the realm of extreme green, and I’m on the lower slope of a steep learning curve. But after spending a week with Tom and Barbara, and getting to know some of the myriad people with whom they’re working, I’ve come to understand that the design and construction of Desert Rain is a learning experience for everyone involved. While “building green” is not a new concept, taking it to the level that Tom and Barbara are is a new concept, and one that people will watch and learn from for decades to come.

Beyond LEED to Living Building

Let’s start with the acronyms, two of which form the foundation of what makes Desert Rain truly unique. Desert Rain is being built to achieve standards defined by the International Living Building Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC)—these standards set forth what is perhaps the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today. It is also being built to meet LEED Platinum Level certification requirements—the highest level of LEED standards.

The LBC standards go beyond LEED’s efficiency standards to provide guidelines for a home that is truly sustainable. As a certified Living Building, Desert Rain must be net-zero energy, net-zero water, non-toxic, provide for habitat restoration, and incorporate urban agriculture. Desert Rain should be able to stand on its own for 200 years, drawing only on water collected at the home site from annual precipitation, and generating electricity solely via solar panels and, possibly, a vertical wind turbine. All waste will be processed on site through composting and bio-organic methods. It is a home built to stand on its own and to stand the test of time.

Live Local, Build Local

Just as many communities are seeing a burgeoning “live local” movement, LBC standards require that all building materials be sourced from within a certain radius of the home, with the heaviest products—such as lumber—needing to travel the shortest distance; and indeed, the fir used in the framing is coming from forests in Oregon. So you will find no environmentally friendly products imported from Switzerland or Italy or Germany here. After all, if a product must be transported halfway around the world, much of the “green” factor is lost in the huge carbon footprint left behind. When new wood is called for, Desert Rain incorporates Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood harvested sustainably in the northwest. Some wood features and accents will utilize materials reclaimed from a variety of places—including buildings that previously stood on the home site, as well as an old potato barn from Prineville. Because of these reclaimed materials, every room in Desert Rain will have a history even before it has been lived in.

The home is now well under way. If you were to visit the site you might think it was just any other custom home. Nothing screams “green” with a cursory glance. But hidden in that foundation is fly ash, which was collected by pollution-control equipment from the smoke stacks of coal-burning power plants. All of the wood is, of course, FSC certified. If you have spent any time on a construction site you might notice an absence: there is no dumpster here. To be LBC certified nearly all construction waste must be diverted from landfills through re-use and recycling.

Desert Rain in Progress. February 23, 2012.

The home still has a way to go; it will likely be early 2014 before it’s finished. But even when the home is complete and Tom and Barbara have moved in, they will still have a long certification process ahead of them. LBC certification is based on actual—not projected—performance. The couple must live in the home for 12 months, after which time an on-site audit will assess if the home has meet all standards. If it is LBC certified, Desert Rain will be one of the first personal residences in the world to have met the Living Building Challenge.

After a week of reading up on LEED and LBC, and working my way through a stack of library books on sustainable living (sorry Deschutes Library patrons— I’m the one hogging those books for the next two weeks), I feel like I’m finally coming up to speed. I’m excited to work with Tom and Barbara as they continue on this amazing, demanding, and ultimately rewarding adventure. In the coming weeks and months we’ll talk about all aspects of the project—from designing to building, and from sourcing materials to encountering roadblocks. It’s all on the FSC-certified table.

For more information about Living Building Challenge, visit