Every trip to the Desert Rain site reveals changes and surprises as many aspects of the project are coming together and nearing completion. Color and texture abounds in the materials inside and out. The landscaping is underway with pavers, boulders, and gravel being installed. It is getting easier to walk about the site as holes get filled and ground is leveled. Electrician, Mike Wagnon has been diligently installing the LED lighting system throughout the project creating a warm glow. The myrtlewood flooring in the main house is being sanded. Many of the cabinets and built-ins are in place. Tile is up and grouted. Browse the photos for a current peek at the progress. We are working on a new photo Gallery page for the website that will keep you updated. Please check back and visit our Gallery/ New Progress.
How many decisions are made during the process of building a home? I don’t have a number but I know it is many. Designing and building Desert Rain, the compound of structures, and mechanical systems and meeting the Living Building Challenge criteria, stretches those decisions by leaps and bounds. I recently listened in on a design meeting for the proposal of a new structure on the compound. In the three plus years the project has been underway there have been a series of design changes as building for LBC certification has many unknowns and is a ‘learn as we go’ process.
The plan to this point has been to keep the garage from the original structures on the site and remodel it to create Desert Station – a studio space. With the waste water system still pending approval there is the need to build a composting toilet facility. In the usual team effort that keeps Desert Rain evolving, the new concept is to build a structure that will do more of what meets the needs of the project and Barb and Tom’s lifestyle. Al Tozer, designer, presented the preliminary concept for the new structure – Desert Lookout. Included in the design is a garage, an upstairs unit that could be office or dwelling, a fitness space, and the composting toilet facility. The design is functional, aesthetic, and may have some dramatic elements. The decisions begin.
Considerations in the decision process factor in the cost, time-line, aesthetics, function, materials, and how it can meet the LBC standards. The water petal has been a significant challenge to meet. The permit is still pending for the water system. The city required that the site is hooked to city water and sewer. Early in the process the decision was made to plumb the structures for both conventional and alternative systems. There has been discussion about hooking the Accessory Dwelling Unit to the sewer. That would result in losing the LBC Water Petal; Barb and Tom are reluctant to let that happen – a tough decision. The big choice about Desert Lookout: keep it functional and affordable, sacrifice drama for costs, or make a statement. Tom reminded everyone that, ‘ The whole home is a demonstration project. Every aspect needs to demonstrate something innovative and it also needs to make an aesthetic statement’. More tough decisions.
As the large decisions loom there are ongoing, daily details that need answers; choosing fixtures, appliances, cabinets, doorknobs, wall textures and colors, how many shelves, art niche or storage cabinet, – the list is long. In addition to making choices every product and material used must be vetted through ML Vidas, a sustainable architect and consultant for Desert Rain and LBC compliance. The spread sheet for that process is growing.
While Barb and Tom and the design/build team collaborate on new questions, work continues with the elements that have completed the decision-making and approval process. Inside is seeing more finishes.
The American Clay plaster is nearing completion, cabinet bases are being installed, and the reclaimed wood is in place on the ceiling and trim. The exterior of the site is currently under siege as trenches are abundant laying infrastructure for the rainwater catchment, gray-water, and waste-water lines. When the excavation moves out of the courtyard construction on the exterior Miro wall and other landscaping features can begin. The exterior plaster will be applied to the structures, and the old garage will be deconstructed. As many materials as possible from the garage will be reclaimed and used. Jim Fagan, general contractor with Timberline said,’we are wrapping our arms around all these elements, staying within a time-line’.
With so many questions unanswered, options to ponder, choices to make; many of us would simply give up or collapse . Barb and Tom keep forging forward. Continuing to embrace this innovative and conceptual project, Barb stated, ‘this is a learning environment and still very much our passion’. Perhaps in the process of creating Desert Rain, Barb and Tom have learned the ‘art of decision’.
Last week a group from Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls toured Desert Rain with Tom. Tom’s tours are chock full of information about the project, the house, materials, the process, and the Living Building Challenge. For those of you that have not yet visited Desert Rain, you are invited to come along here for a condensed version focusing on the Seven Petals of the Living Building Challenge.
“About 6 years ago we started thinking about building a home here in Bend. We wanted to build a green home. Well into the design we were driving in Utah to go backpacking and we were listening to the radio and heard a presentation of a Bioneers conference by Jason McLennan, the founder of the LBC. We both just knew, right there – that’s what we wanted. We realized we were really drawn to the LBC for a number of reasons. One, it is about a living building. It is not about getting points and putting a plaque on the wall. It is very much a performance based standard. We really wanted our home to perform that way, not just to look nice and have green products in it. We were excited about that aspect of it and the community aspect of it, and the equity aspect. All the various pieces of the Living Building Challenge excited us and challenged us. “
The Living Building Challenge is based on Seven Petals. Tom talked with the group about each of the petals.
“The Site petal is very much focused on limiting growth and building on existing land or renovating in place, rather than expanding and contributing to urban sprawl. Site issues revolve around accessibility and minimizing the use of the automobile. We particularly picked this site because it is in a diverse neighborhood, very easy access to everything – library, stores, and recreation. We like to bicycle and walk so it is very easy here. It is also a place we thought we could age in place. The other piece is a living building fits into the community. There’s a certain sense of engagement that invites participation in the neighborhood and not just isolating ourselves. That was something that really attracted us about the Living Building Challenge – the site piece of it. “
“The Water Petal has two components. The first is net zero water in terms of where the water comes from. We won’t use any city water. All of our water will be from the water that falls on the site, the rainfall. We have a very extensive rain water collecting/harvesting system. All the roofs that you see on all the five different structures here – all that water feeds into a single cistern – a 35,000 gallon cistern. We get to charge that cistern once to start. So net zero water in terms of source and also, what they call ecological water flow. That is, all the water that falls on the site needs to remain on the site. Storm water needs to remain on the site. After it has run thru the house, the discharged water has to remain on the site. Nothing will go in the sewer. Water has actually been our largest challenge here because we’re in the city limits. If we were in the country we could put in a septic system for wastewater and the problem is solved.”
“The other side of the ecological water course is handling our wastewater. The original intention was to build an underground bio-constructed wetland that would handle both the greywater and the blackwater. Current regulations won’t allow us to that. We’re still going to build one. The only thing that will run through our constructed wetland is greywater. The greywater will travel from the various buildings into a collection tank that basically separates any solids. From there it goes into a small constructed wetland where it is processed using a natural process through gravel and plant root systems. At that point the DEQ qualifies it as Type ll greywater. It will go to a holding tank by the side of the garage and can be used for irrigation and water features. Basically it will be used as irrigation water or evaporated. It will be sub-surface irrigation. We are relying on the constructed wetland to purify the water.
Then we have the blackwater. That’s been particularly challenging. Early on we had some indication from the city that they were going to allow us to use the constructed wetland for that purpose. So we designed the home that way. We didn’t design the home based on the idea of having a composting toilet. So we had to go to plan B and C as we worked our way through that issue. What we’ve come up with is a using a hybrid system. The sewage will go from the homes to what we’re calling, ‘The Desert Throne’. It will be a separate building. Solids will go through a commercial scale composting unit and the liquids will go to what we are fondly calling, the ‘evapatron ‘. Basically it is a large scale evaporator system. That is a dead end. Once it gets there it will be composted or it will be evaporated. That takes care of the blackwater and everything stays on site. We are required by code to be connected to city water and sewer for safety purposes.”
“Then we move to the Energy part of it. The imperative there is net zero energy. We want to be not only net zero in the home, but we also wanted to provide enough energy for two electric vehicles so that our transportation is also net zero energy. Our first approach was to have as efficient building envelope as possible. Our intention is to be net zero energy or maybe overall, surplus energy producing. We’d like to be a power plant too and provide enough energy to be on the positive side. I think it’s likely. We’ll be grid connected so we’ll be net metering with the power company. We’ll use the grid as our storage device for now. The house will be heated, in fact is currently being heated, with a solar, atmospheric hot water system with infloor radiant heat. When I say atmospheric, it is not pressurized. When there is no demand all of the water drains back to the storage tanks in the corner of the house so there is no risk of freezing. There is also a super efficient therma-monoblock heat pump that is tied into that system if there is not enough solar heat and we need a little boost.” Jim Fagan, General Contractor with Timberline entered the conversation, “ It is an extremely efficient, electric, air to water heat pump. Also the domestic hot water is tied into the system.” An interesting side note: Bobcat and Sun the contractor that installed the solar thermal system said that normally on a home here in Bend, based on efficiency of the building envelope, at least 26% of the homes’ energy could be met with the solar system. The calculations on Desert Rain are somewhere in the 86 to 90% range that will be met by solar.
Then there is the Materials Petal : The red list is very stringent. There are 14 chemicals or materials that are not allowed. “That’s probably been our second biggest hurdle – just vetting through materials. We have a very comprehensive process. We maintain a spreadsheet with all these questions that would have to be answered for that material. We’ve had to reject a lot of materials for various reasons. PVC is on the Red List. It is very difficult to build a home without PVC. There are a couple of instances where we’ve had to get a minor exemption because there is just nothing but PVC – like some of the wiring in the house has a PVC coating. Jim Fagan comments, “there is really no other code material we can get. Another one is that there is a fire retardant in this foam that is on the red list but there is no alternative.” In order to mitigate that, we found that if you only put on 4” at a time it off gasses very thoroughly. Where as, if you put on 8” at one time it sort of traps the gas and it takes years to off gas.
We’ve tried to stay with local materials as much as possible. Part of the materials requirement is that heavier items come within 350 miles. That would be stone, cement products, aggregates – the heavy materials. Then you can step out as the weight range shifts, you can go within 500 mile. As you get a little lighter you can go 1000miles. It is basically intended to minimize the carbon footprint. There is so much CF associated with the transportation of materials and that is always externalized. Basically, society pays for it rather than the person actually using the material. The LBC feels that needs to change. We need to pay the current dollars for those things or minimize them.”
Jim adds, “One of the things that is required when we do get an exception, like the PVC on the wire or the fire retardant; the LBC requires us to write a letter to the manufacturer. We let them know that yes, we are using this because it is the only thing that will make our envelope what it is. But we tell them we’re not happy about it and we want them to figure out a different way to do it. It is pretty comprehensive -covering all those bases. Our stucco contractor has developed his own Oregon mix. Most of those products, at least part of them come from California or Mexico. He found all the aggregates and parts and pieces to create a stucco product that is all Oregon. That is kind of cool.” That is part of the Living Building Challenge intention, to be pro -active that way and push change, not just exemplify it but push the envelope with manufacturers and sub -contractors.
“There’s lots of interesting stories about materials. Every material that has gone in the house has a story. Interestingly we know the story a lot more than on a normal house because of this process and the qualifications of that material. We’ll see that even more as we get into the finish work. One example of that is there is a fair amount of walnut on some of the surfaces, counters and built-ins. All the walnut in this house comes from one tree that was harvested when a parking lot was being constructed in Portland at Concordia College. We got that whole tree. Everything has a story and that’s awesome. For me it adds a lot of interest and connectivity to the house. When we look at that walnut – the rest of our lives we’ll feel a special connection with that walnut knowing where it came from or where the tile came from or the story with the rocks or whatever. I think that is an attribute of the Living Building Challenge.”
“Health is the next petal. Having a civilized environment basically means, light and fresh air. And what is calld biophilia, basically mimicking nature in some way. It is pretty well documented that humans respond to natural settings and natural dimensions. We wanted to build a supertight container and have controlled air through an air exchange. We’ll be required to measure air quality after the house is constructed, for VOCs and particulates. We’ll have to measure it again, nine months later to demonstrate that the house has exceptional air quality.”
Jim tells, ‘We did a preliminary blower door test. We were at .65 air changes per hour. That is almost at the Passive House standards. We did that pre -sheetrock and actually don’t even have the spray foam in the sub- floor or under floor yet so we’re pretty happy with that.”
“Then we move to the Equity part – that is making things human scale and accessible. All of our homes are wheel chair accessible. We did that for a few reasons. One, we already have a couple of friends in wheelchairs and we know as part of the aging process people are in wheelchairs. Also equity refers to terms of production of materials. All the lumber in the house is either reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Certified. They certify all the way back to source, and that the labor was treated properly, and the material is treated properly. Awareness and that consciousness – we need to embody more and more. I think a lot of times we feel like we don’t have any individual power. But certainly we make a choice. I think collectively we have an enormous amount of power to make important choices and that really applies in this materials and manufacturing.
Finally Beauty. We hope we’ve designed something beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We’re confident that the space and form, and when the terraces are in and the landscaping, the courtyard, the interior finishes – it will be a beautiful home. Certainly it will be beautiful in our eyes.”
This dialogue is a glimpse of the information to be gleaned from a tour. Tom and Barb very much see Desert Rain as a demonstration project and an educational tool. Tours are part of that process. Many groups have been through the site at various stages of the building process. Are you interested in learning more about Desert Rain? Send us an e-mail or email@example.com or subscribe to our e-mail newsletter at the bottom of this blog page.
Building to meet the stringent requirements of the seven Petals of the Living Building Challenge has been an eye-opening and educational experience for all involved with the Desert Rain project. While each petal has presented challenges, the Materials Petal has had a tremendous impact on time and research. According to the Living Building Challenge, the intent of the material petal is to promote a ‘successful materials economy that is non-toxic, transparent and socially acceptable’. The LBC requires that every material or product used in the project is carefully scrutinized for distance from the source to the site, quality, durability and longevity, aesthetic appeal and beauty, energy efficiency, and effects on health. These considerations are applied to each level of the process from raw material extraction, to manufacturing, to installation, and use. In addition, labor practices at all phases of material production must be acceptable.
The rigorous process of tracking and approving materials for Desert Rain is the work of ML Vidas, a sustainable architect and the LBC/LEED consultant. ML collaborates with the designers, builders, owners, and Living Building Challenge staff to arrive at approved or denied status for each item. She has an extensive spread- sheet of the materials that have been considered, approved, denied or pending. Each product must meet the intent of the Materials Petal and the imperatives and must not contain any of the 14 materials/chemicals that are on the Red List.
Embodied Carbon Footprint
Keeping all that in mind as I walk through the Desert Rain site – it is mind-boggling to think that every component of construction has undergone this approval process. Each material element can be a complex story. For example, the house is wrapped in a weather barrier called Hydro-Tex. Parr Lumber in Bend is the local supplier for the material that is made by a family owned company – Fortifiber Building Systems Corporation in Fernley, Nevada. As a product, Hydro-TEX falls within the LBC/LEED requirements. It is comprised of 22% post consumer waste. It does not contain any of the Red List materials or chemicals. It enhances the durability of the structure, reduces maintenance, and helps to minimize energy consumption. It is manufactured within 500 miles of the project site. Fortifiber actively works at improving their products and their facilities to raise the bar on sustainable standards. Those are the kind of details that must be researched for every material used in the construction of Desert Rain.
Concrete is a major element visible on the project site. The aggregate for the concrete footings, foundation, and cistern, is sourced through a local Bend company, Hooker Creek. The cement and fly-ash originated in Portland. Fly-ash is a byproduct of the coal industry. It was used in the house foundation but not the cistern. The cement slab floor in the main house had the addition of crushed lava rock, recycled from the cistern excavation process. The slab was then polished creating a beautiful finished floor without using any additional building materials or resources. Concrete forms were re-used lumber and timbers.
Empire Stone and Willamette Graystone in Bend are the source for masonry lava rock, landscape gravel, boulders, and pavers. Other rock to be used for landscaping was reclaimed from the on- site deconstruction. This includes broken sidewalk pieces that will be used as pavers for a patio on the north side of the house. LBC highly suggests using as much material as possible from the home site; eliminating waste, transport, and the use of new resources.
All lumber used on the project must be either reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Council Certified. All framing lumber, interior and exterior is FSC. Wood sheathing was one of the items that received a ‘temporary exception’ status. The added formaldehyde in the composite wood products, is a Red List item. Sustainable Northwest Wood based in Portland worked with the builders and Parr lumber to find FSC lumber harvested within the 600 mile zone. Siding is FSC cedar. The exterior soffits are covered with reclaimed lumber from on-site deconstruction and from a potato barn in Prineville. The lumber was re-milled. Re-claimed lumber will also be used on the interior ceilings and some of the interior walls. American made nails were used in the framing instead of the commonly used, made in China nails.
River Roofing of Bend provided sources for the metal roofing, fascia, and belly- band that was coated with a LBC approved coating. The roofing steel arrived in a continuous roll from Kalama, Washington. River Roofing crew fabricated the panels on site. Jim Fagan, builder with Timberline Construction, said, ‘Steel is one of the things that LBC refers to as globally sourced. There is a lot of recycled content in almost all steel now – there is no virgin steel. Obviously, if we can buy a coil of steel from somewhere in the Northwest, we’re going to stay close.” River Roofing also supplied the two-part gutter system. There is a stainless steel gutter set inside the coated steel gutter. The stainless steel was used for its durability, longevity, and resistance to residue build-up since the gutters will be collecting rainwater for domestic use, including drinking water.
Local sub-contractors were also the suppliers of many of the construction elements. They did the research to find appropriate materials from local and regional sources. The solar thermal system was supplied by Bobcat and Sun Inc. in Bend. The photovoltaic modules installed by E2 Solar were sourced from, Solar World Oregon, a company in Hillsboro, Oregon. The general rule of LBC guidelines is the larger and heavier the material, the closer the source should be to the project site. The Loewen windows were an exception to this rule. Though they were supplied through Glacier Windows and Doors in Sweet Home, Oregon, they were manufactured in Manitoba, Canada. The extended distance was balanced by the superior quality and energy efficiency of these windows.
Canada was also the source for the LED lighting cannisters. All Phase Electric Service in Bend is the supplier of all electrical wiring, conduit, outlet and switch boxes. Finding non-PVC plumbing pipe and fittings was quite a challenge. PEX and BPEX tubing from Uponorpro were used for the hydronic, infloor heating system and water lines. All insulation materials were supplied by Energy Conservation Insulation in Bend from a variety of manufacturers. Some of the spray foam insulation contains Halgenated Flame Retardant, a Red List chemical. The approval for use required a LBC exception and a letter to the manufacturer advocating alternatives for the future.
With so many material elements comprising the Desert Rain project, I have shared only a small portion of the depth and detail that is required for this LBC process. Some of the stories are still unfolding. The structures are currently being prepped and tented to receive the exterior lime plaster. Elite Plastering in Bend is a family owned business committed to learning and growing toward a more sustainable built environment. Coming on board with the Desert Rain project, David Kaiser Jr. developed a non-toxic, lime based plaster recipe to cover the exterior walls of the structures. All of the materials in the mix are available very close to home – lime from Washington, clay from Prineville, and pumice right in our backyard, a few miles south of Bend. Lime absorbs carbon monoxide from the atmosphere to chemically change it into limestone, it is durable and will last for decades. The plaster significantly demonstrates a successful story of meeting the imperatives of the Materials Petal.
Part of the Living Building Challenge goal is to create catalysts of change among the owners, builders, sub-contractors and suppliers. They want each project to ‘figure it out’. The Desert Rain team is on the ‘bleeding edge’ of this goal; doing their due diligence, pioneering, researching, creating, to meet the challenge of a sustainable, built environment.