Beauty on Site

Living with Nature – Beauty and Challenge

Beauty on Site

Beauty on Site


A hummingbird stopped by while Barb and I chatted in the courtyard.

An important part of the Site Petal in the Living Building Challenge is the restoration of a healthy co-existence with nature. The team has worked diligently to create spaces onsite that support native flora and fauna, making Desert Rain a space shared with the area’s wildlife. Living with nature can offer great beauty and pose interesting challenges.

Well within Bend’s urban area, delicate and drought tolerant plants attract migrating hummingbirds. Native shrubs and grasses provide shelter and food for resident deer. Carefully chosen plants prevent the spread of invasive species while simultaneously contributing to the overall health of the soil. Mature trees protected through the construction process provide shade, food sources, and homes for small animals like squirrels. It’s a beautiful place to be for every being.


The Challenges of Living Together

Deer Rubs on Saplings

A typical deer rub on one the Desert Rain saplings early this Fall.

While every creature is welcomed at Desert Rain, some pose a challenge. Take our resident deer herd, for example. Male deer rub their antlers on tree stems and trunks in the early fall. Bucks do this to remove the velvet that has been growing on their antlers throughout the summer. They prefer small trees, usually one to three inches in diameter – like our very newly planted serviceberries. The vertical scrapes and shredded bark are problematic for our saplings because the bark (the xylem and cambium layers) makes up the tree’s system for carrying food from the leaves to the roots. If the rubbing is too severe and the bark is removed all the way around the tree, the flow off food is cut off and the tree will die.

Tubes to protect trees from deer rubs

These tubes protect small trees from deer rubs.

Can we live with nature while maintaining our carefully landscaped spaces? A quick web search for deer rubs results in many ways to keep deer out of a yard. But Barb and Tom are not trying to keep the deer away. Instead, they have turned their attention to protecting their newly planted trees in a way that doesn’t push the animals away. Simple tubes passively protect the young saplings, while the deer still happily bed down in the nearby grasses. It’s a wining compromise.

Living with Nature



Controlling Weeds the Natural Way: By Hand

Landscape contractor Chris Hart-Henderson, left, discusses options for removing annual ryegrass from the property. May 8, 2012.

I’ve talked before about the wood being used in the construction of Desert Rain–how it is all either Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified or reclaimed. To meet the Living Building Challenge (LBC) the project must not only incorporate, but must solely use materials that are “safe for all species throughout time” (LBC 2.0). Meticulous planning has ensured that everything–from the foundation to the roof and everything in between–will be non-toxic and equitably sourced.

Annual ryegrass growing on the Desert Rain site.

The same amount of concern for what goes into the Desert Rain environment applies to what’s being taken from it. Careful board-by-board and nail-by-nail deconstruction of the homes that previously stood on the site ensured that materials stayed out of the landfill and were put to reuse. Now Barb and Tom are faced with a new dilemma: what to do with the annual ryegrass that is quickly spreading along the west side of the property. It needs to be removed, but the question is: how?

Chris and Tom in the quickly growing ryegrass.

When faced with a wide area weeds, a too-common approach is to spray the area with a noxious weed-killer. But that obviously isn’t a solution when working on an LBC project, and it isn’t an approach Barb and Tom would take regardless. But the non-native ryegrass is a tremendous fire hazard and must be removed, and it needs to come out in order for other plants to thrive. To meet LBC standards, a dedicated percentage of the project area must be used for food production, and landscape contractor Chris Hart-Henderson’s plan incorporates service berry, elderberry, currants, wild strawberries, rose hips, Oregon grape, and choke cherries.

Barb and Tom met with Chris on the site on Tuesday afternoon. They pulled ryegrass as they discussed their options, which essentially are to try to smother it with a mulch or to pull it–and keep pulling it. With its wide distribution throughout the western portion of the site as well as in some rocky areas, it doesn’t sound like it’s feasible to smother it. So the answer is to pull. With constant maintenance, Chris says that it can, over time, be controlled.

Tom, Barb and Chris pulling the annual ryegrass as they discuss ideas for keeping it at bay.

Chris Hart-Henderson of Heart Springs Design.

Pulling annual ryegrass.

The ryegrass quickly piles up.

A visitor with a mild interest in the grass: a yellow-bellied marmot.

Once the grass is pulled it will leave room for edible plants on the site--as well as for tulips like these.


Reading the Signs

There’s a lot of curiosity about Desert Rain. Much of that is because of how it’s being built and the Living Building Challenge standard that it strives to achieve. A home in the middle of town that uses no water or energy resources other than those that are available to it on site—well, it raises some eyebrows.

It is, without a doubt, unique.

It gets its fair share of drive-bys and walk-bys—people who have heard about it and want a peek at what’s going on. Whether they approach the property on its east side or its west side, they’re met with a large wooden sign that clearly states the mission of the home:

The Desert Rain sign on the west side of the property (Shasta).

The Desert Rain design and build processes have been remarkably transparent. Tom and Barb are clear about their intent to share their experience and the information they gather as they go. By sharing, they hope to educate people about sustainable design and construction, as well as perhaps inspire others to take on their own Living Building Challenge or to incorporate some of its philosophy into their own homes.

The sign, and its mate on the east end of the property, are part of that open approach.

After Tom and Barb came up with the idea for the sign Barb mentioned it to her brother, Kevin Scott. Kevin is an engineer by trade, but he is also a talented wood and metal craftsman. When I asked him why he built the sign he smiled and said, “Oh, Barb said they needed a sign.” Bear in mind: Kevin is an engineer and craftsman, but he is not a sign-maker. In fact, he had never made a sign before. And in terms of signs, it’s doubtful he could have started with anything more complex. But when he heard that his sister and his brother-in-law needed a sign he jumped at the chance. What he created is remarkable.

First, Tom and Barb sent Kevin a PDF of the sign’s design. “I took that PDF and re-drew it in AutoCAD. I used a program called MasterCAD to cut it.” He already had salvaged hardwood ready for the job. “The wood was leftover from a job that I did. I bought it from a Mennonite lumber yard in Ohio, and had some leftover. You can see some patterns in the wood, like here [pointing to a darker vein]; that’s called spalding, which means the wood had started to rot. It gives it unique coloration and patterns sought after by woodworkers. So I thought it would be perfect for the sign.”

The wood Kevin Scott would use for the Desert Rain sign. Plans for the sign, which he re-drew in AutoCAD, sit on top of the wood.

As you can see in the above photo, the wood came in different widths. “The wood was all twisted, and I had to form it down to sizes. Then, even the width of each wood piece is different. So I had to line those pieces up just right so the joints fell between the text just right for the cutting machine. And it matched up well,” said Kevin.

The wood for the sign, after being straightened and trimmed by Kevin.

After the pieces were straightening, trimmed and sanded, Kevin was able to key, or joint, them together.

A piece of sign board with a groove cut into its length. It was in this way that Kevin was able to join the many strips to make one large 5′ x 8′ sign.

Once the individual pieces of wood were jointed together, Kevin was able to begin inscribing the text for the sign. Or, more accurately, the lines and arcs. “It’s text, but in my world it’s lines and arcs,” he said. “Because my computer numerical control [CNC] machines can’t cut text. My machine doesn’t see letters, it only sees lines and arcs. So I had to take everything they had and create lines and arcs with it.”

Cutting the lines and arcs that would form the text for the Desert Rain sign.

What I found amazing is that the cutting tool did not move during the process. Instead it was the table that moved. Kevin would attach sections of the sign to the table, and the table would move to his line-and-arc specifications. The cutting tool just moved up and down as the table danced beneath it. He was limited by his table’s size capability, however, so could only cut three boards at a time. “My machine cuts 15” x 30”. So, I had to do it in thirds for every three boards, so it took some time.”

This photo shows how Kevin worked with three boards at a time, and how the text had to be laid out just right so that it would fit in between the board joints.

But over weeks the sign came together. And once it was together he had to take it apart again to ship it from his home in Colorado to Bend. It made for a more compact package. He then met up with the sign in Bend and reassembled it in town. Secured to a steel frame made in Bend, the sign now sits firmly in place, inviting passers-by to learn more about the Desert Rain house. Kevin, who was in Bend visiting Tom and Barb this past weekend, talked with me about the sign while we visited the site. I asked him if he had put his name on the sign–an artist’s signature. “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t need that.”

But now everyone can imagine the signature at the bottom: Crafted by Kevin Scott.

Kevin Scott talks about the many steps involved in creating the Desert Rain sign.

It’s good to be able to lean on family. Barb and her brother Kevin during a recent picnic lunch on the Desert Rain site.

Weekly Update – Week Ending April 13, 2012

Specific construction concerns & LBC:
It is common during construction to have questions arise that require a site visit and a good look at
several options. Details, on both the interior and exterior, are being worked out between the
contractor James Fagan and the designer Al Tozer. Usually these do not involve any Living
Building Challenge concerns but revolve more around construction techniques and the finish
details. We continue with steady progress on several fronts.
For the Materials review, Vidas is still awaiting a final lighting plan and fixture selections. It is
anticipated that most, if not all, luminaire choices will already be compliant with LBC. The lighting
designer, Zach Suchara with Luma Lighting in Portland has worked on an LBC project.
Constructed Wetland Bioreactor
The approval process for the Constructed Wetland Bioreactor is in a holding pattern. Vidas is still
talking with several people outside the project who may have experience in other CWBs being
approved in other jurisdictions.
Energy & Lighting & Monitoring Systems
A meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday April 17 to review the capabilities of the CES panel
and begin itemizing all the components and circuits to be monitored and controlled.
Construction Update:
Al, James, Kevin and ML met at the job site April 10 to walk through and discuss any design,
construction and LBC concerns. James and Al talked through flashing detail options for the
exterior stonework. We discussed how the salvaged stone on site could be incorporated into low,
dry stack landscaping stonewalls. James will work on some possible methods and people to help
with that. We also looked at the fascia flashing detail and confirmed the best method as proposed
by Craig Junker at River Roofing.
The formwork for the cistern walls was completely ready and the concrete pour was scheduled to
begin that morning.
James is working on a 2’x2’ sample of the polished concrete with the site-salvaged basalt as the
exposed aggregate. Cement Elegance needs the concrete to attain its full strength before
polishing; that curing takes at least 28 days. This sample would be a close representation of the
surface for the interior concrete floors but would not contain the anticipated coloring. It is not
feasible to color such a small sample.
We discussed the placement of control joints for the stucco, determining that placing them behind
the downspouts on the longer stretches of uninterrupted stucco would be best. There is no
requirement for control joints in the stucco but they can help prevent cracking.
Control joints in the concrete floor will be diamond cut. James and Al to work out the locations.

During framing, care has been taken to caulk all possible sources of air leakage throughout both
the Main house and the ADU. The garages will not be sealed as tightly except for the Mechanical
Room for the Rainwater Collection System.
On the Lighting side, we are still waiting for the final lighting plan and expect it very shortly. It will
be hand drafted, not drafted into CAD. This should be acceptable for the electrician. The difficulty
lies with changes in the floor plan or ceiling plan; the lighting plan cannot be easily updated to
include those changes. The general idea is for the electrician to do a walk-thru to finalize the
lighting & switching decisions and the electrical outlet locations.
Time was spent discussing how best to install the lighting planned for the top of the Miro wall. The
light fixtures are linear, have a very low profile, and will be inset into the top of the wall. We also
reviewed ideas for the art hanging system and how it will interface with the uplighting at the top of
the wall.
We reviewed the change at the Media Room from barn doors to pocket doors. We considered
salvaged door hardware but realized that simple hardware that matches the door hardware
throughout the home is best.
We also examined several options for the joint between wood trim and the interior American Clay
plaster or traditional lime plaster. James will verify that Fry Reglet has a trim piece that will assist
the plaster installation and maintain the desired reveal at any joints with wood or dissimilar
materials. Fry Reglet components are made of extruded aluminum and have been vetted for LBC
For the ADU, we reviewed the laundry area and any required venting, confirming that there is
adequate space for everything.