The Just-Right, Real-Tight House

By Jane Lyon

The brains behind the eclectic structure going up on the site of the old T Street Market in the Avenues is ShruDeLi Ownbey, a woman so talented a teacher and harpist she twice received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars. But music is not Ownbey’s only passion. So is having a net zero emissions home, a dream she and her husband Ray, a retired English professor, are slowly, painstakingly realizing on this small property in Salt Lake’s lower Avenues.

Imagine completely tapping out of energy dependence on fossil fuels. A zero-energy, or net zero, building is really the only structure with a chance of doing that. These structures are designed to be so super efficient that, with a renewable energy system like a rooftop solar array, they can run completely off the energy they create and draw nothing from the utility grid.

Of course, it’s not easy, or cheap. For the Ownbeys it began by finding the right piece of land and then hiring an architect, Tom Francis Jakab, and a local contractor, Sausage Construction.

“It’s a lean house, everything about it,” says Jakab. But the Ownbey house is also a thoroughly modern, somewhat complicated, scientific creation with all the necessary components for a successful net-zero home right down to the windows. To start with, solar panels on the roof of the house will provide all the necessary electricity for the home. Secondly, the house is practically air-tight, no cracks around windows or doors here. Double-paned argon, fiberglass windows make it easier to maintain the desired temperature inside, as does the home’s spray foam insulation.

On top of all that, the walls of the home are specially designed with double offset studs that reduce thermal bridging, a common heat loss problem that occurs when framing materials inside the wall create a bridge for heat to escape through. All these controls help create a consistent temperature for the home. But because this house is so sealed, a fresh air duct system through out the home and motion sensored fans were installed to create a nice airflow (don’t mistake these with air vents that just blow air into the home). But all this is still just the beginning. What really makes the Ownbey home stand out is its unique physical connection to the earth.

While insulation and solar panels do a great deal to get a house to net-zero emissions, holding the home’s interior to a constant, moderate temperature means that less energy has to be utilized for heating and cooling. One way to do this, and the way the Ownbeys are going, is through geothermal energy.

In October of 2014, before the Ownbeys began laying the foundation for their home, a massive well driller excavated three shafts 250 feet down into the Earth. Into those deep holes dropped three separate cables until their ends reached a soil layer where the temperature maintains a fairly constant 55 degrees. As the house went up on the surface, the other end of those cables were placed coiled under the floorboards, back and forth down the whole length of the home. Even with no furnace and no air conditioning, the process of geothermal radiation created with those coils maintains a constant, livable temperature inside the home.

“Geothermal and solar power together create this symbiotic relationship to provide energy,” explained Mark Haslam, Director of Operations for Sausage Construction. A geothermal system without solar energy to run it would just not be sustainable, efficient or effective. If it were not for the solar panels, it would be outrageously expensive to pay for the electricity that would run the geothermal system.

For the Ownbeys, the best possible outcome would be to create a net positive home, one that produces more energy than it uses. Removing themselves from the world of polluters is an ambitious act. The geothermal and solar installations together, according to Sausage Construction, which has installed one other such unit in Holladay, run about $50,000. “We are definitely learning as we go,” says Haslam. “Right now it requires problem solving and teamwork, but we would like to help more people do it in the future.”

As new technology innovates more efficient geothermal systems, the price of installation will fall. In 10 years, the Ownbeys might well have a geo-solar relic on their hands, like an old DOS computer or a gramophone antique. It will work fine, but not as well as the neighbors’ system. The Ownbeys don’t mind, as long as it means this clean energy technology makes its way into more homes throughout the Avenues and beyond. They will have been early adopters in a truly green revolution.

Jane Lyon is a senior at the University of Utah, majoring in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Geography. She is CATALYST magazine’s intern.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2015.