Underhill House got a thorough once-over last week.

Scott Godfrey, Director of the Iowa County Office of Planning and Development in Dodgeville, had asked  if he and a group of other regional zoning/planning colleagues from surrounding counties, all members of the SW District of the Wisconsin County Code Administrators, could have a tour of Underhill as a part of their quarterly meeting.

Scott said our “unique architecture and construction techniques” would be a “field trip of interest, and expose the planners to an alternative style of construction.”

We were glad to throw open our doors –well, the only operational door we have so far is a sliding door, but we slid it wide open.

There was no one available from Whole Trees Construction to lead the tour because they were conducting an off-site retreat that day, so Doug led the tour, and we tried to cram in as much of the innovations and out-of-the-box building practices of Underhill  into the tour as we could for Scott, along with Dan Everson of  Dane County, Brentt Michalek of Sauk County, Terry Loeffelholz from Grant County, Steve Sorenson from Sauk County and Jeff Krueger of Grant County.

Scott told us later that they shared the experience with the planners who couldn’t make the field trip, but did attend the business meeting…colleagues from Richland, Green, Lafayette and Crawford counties.

Part of the purpose of building Underhill House is to explore and popularize a number of alternative and hopefully more sustainable building materials and methods, so we felt very honored to have so many thoughtful and influential planners taking a close look at our project.

Doug explained how the roof is made.  See my post, THE FIRST TEN LAYERS OF OUR SOD ROOF

He told them about how the trusses were made on site (see post THE ROOF FOR UNDERHILL HOUSE IS A MATTER OF  ).

He talked about the research Whole Trees has been doing in partnership with the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory on the strength of the branched timbers.  That has allowed us to

  1. Use what would normally be considered weed trees for the structural supports of our house
  2. Thin the woods, allowing the remaining trees to grow bigger and sequester more carbon while the carbon trapped in our house timbers is held in place, and not released from some slash or burn pile.
  3. Eliminate the many expenditures of fuel needed to transport, mill and further transport the timbers for our house.
  4. Employ local craftsmen to peel, smooth and join the timbers into a sturdy frame.
  5. Last but not least – create the naturally lovely framework of the house that honors the trees and creates a unique living space.

One of the planners asked how we fit the individual pieces together. 

That’s an interesting question to answer because it has been a very organic process from last summer when we walked  our land with our architect, seeking out trees that would have the right dimensions and those standing too close to a neighbor.  Some of the chose ones  were succumbing to one of the many perils trees face, like oak wilt, dutch elm disease or lightning strikes.  We were also looking for trees whose interaction with their environment had given them a lot of character.  Della Hansmann (our architect) and Bryan Dalstrom (our construction manager) had certain kinds of arches and bends in mind.

Once all the trees had their bark peeled last summer while they were still standing, and then felled in the winter and pulled by tractor to the barn yard, Bryan began to study each timber carefully, and we met with Della and him one wintery day when ice crystals had covered everything, to go over how they planned to use the timbers.  That was when I first started to see an image of the house in my mind.

The joining process took a great deal of time and craft.  The three major bents were joined while lying on the ground where they could be moved about on rolling carts.  Many other joints were started before the beams were put in place, but each one took some final carving with angle grinders to make the final smooth, embracing unions.

We talked to the planners about the basic principles of passive solar design that guided the shape, orientation and window placement of Underhill.   The rule of thumb is that you want to have

  1. Most of your glazing on the south wall, and next most on the east wall and incorporate some mass to store the solar heat these windows collect on a winter day.  For summer, these windows need to be shaded from the sun, which rides higher in the sky then.
  2. The north and west walls should have just a few windows because north windows will let in the winter cold, and west windows will amplify the summer heat.

Doug explained about the PEX tubing in the floors and mass wall.  See my post,  CLARK KENT FLOOR TURNS INTO SUPERMAN WHEN IT FLEXES ITS PEX .

We looked at the plumbing and wiring that is being installed to manage the solar in-floor heating by Full Spectrum Solar.  By lucky chance, Andy DeRocher and  Mark O’Neal were working on it that day.

Judging by their questions and attentiveness, the Code Administrators seemed to find what we are doing interesting.  I was so excited by their visit that I almost forgot to give them all a scone that I’d baked early that morning. But in addition to the scones, I hope the tour provided some good food for thought.  The group has  asked for another tour when the house is complete.

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