When Tom and Lisa McGinnis moved into the foothills of Sequoia National Park eight years ago, they knew they wanted to build a life for themselves that would efficiently integrate them into the natural landscape with little environmental fallout. When it came time to build their dream home 2 1/2 years ago, they worked to design a home that would be as efficient as possible, while providing them with a quality of life that served as a testimonial to the beauty surrounding them.
First, they wanted no trees felled in the process of building their home; instead the trees’ shade, the cool earth and an evaporative swamp cooler provide a natural cooling system that keeps the McGinnis’ 1,200-square foot home comfortable even in triple-digit heat. Constructed mainly of ICFs (Insulating Concrete Forms) — hollowed-out I-beams filled with thick bats of insulation — the house requires 44% less energy to heat and 32% less energy to cool than comparable frame houses. Passive solar invites southern sunlight, while an insulated slab floor keeps them warm and toasty. The benefit? Low heating, cooling and lighting costs.
Taking advantage of a rare sunny patch under the forest canopy, they installed a solar-PV system to replace their propane water heater. “The difference,” says Tom, “is remarkable. There’s virtually no real cost to heat the house.” He’s eyeing one other sunny spot on the rooftop — a project for another year.
McGinnis says it feels good to be living in a home that’s not emitting the volume of greenhouse gasses of the typical household, particularly given that the air quality in the valley in which they live is known to suffer. “One thing we’d like people to take away from the tour is that people do have choices. We built this home ourselves. Initiatives like the National Solar Tour demonstrate that people don’t have to get huge loans to build the house of their dreams. If they consult books and experts, they can build homes fairly inexpensively and get exactly what they want.”