natural

Features of Woodhaven

A look at Linda and Scot DeGraf's handmade, eco-friendly home in West Virginia.

Thermal mass: More than 30 tons of plaster and other mass on the inside of the house collects and stores heat from sunlight.

Forest-certified lumber: Along with local posts and beams, we used wood certified as sustainably harvested.

Recycled vinyl shingles: Located on the one "traditional" roof that holds our solar panels, these shingles are made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled material and will last more than 50 years.

Straw-bale walls: These fire-resistant, agricultural waste products (not hay) provide 18 inches of cheap insulation, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer.

Reclaimed doors, windows, and kitchen cabinetry: Most of the doors and windows are reclaimed from predemolition sites.

Lime plaster: This ancient material (think of the longevity of lighthouses) provides waterproofing and is carbon neutral. (Contrast this with concrete, which is the sixth largest contributor to carbon emissions worldwide.)

Earth roofs: Plants absorb sunlight, convert heat to sugar and water, and keep the roof cool in the summer. Earth roofs provide water runoff protection and hold snow well, keeping us warmer in winter.

Cordwood construction: Local, renewable building materials—such as log-ends—were used to build some of the walls.

Solar hot water: A thermal system uses solar energy to heat water.

Local clay and stone: We repurposed local stone and unwanted clay gathered from a nearby construction site.

Passive solar design: Sun comes in through ample windows on the south side, naturally warming the house during winter.

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Built to Last

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staff home, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

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