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Utility-free House Accommodates Modern Lifestyle


Think about living totally off the grid – no utility company, no carbon footprint.

Now picture doing it in a suburban neighborhood in a modern house that includes all of the electronics involved in today’s lifestyle.

One family of four is building just such a home, in Harwood, Md., a few miles south of Annapolis.

Built by Hugh Lofting Timber Framing, the Spirt house uses cutting-edge technology to provide a thoroughly modern lifestyle.

“It’s not like it’s out in Montana – it’s a mainstream kind of place,” says Amy Cornelius, general manager for Hugh Lofting Timber Framing, the company that built the Topel House in Kennett Square. “This family lives a normal life and they’re going to be off the grid.”

The journey away from traditional energy begins with careful planning.

“The house is sited to maximize passive solar gain in the winter but is designed to be shaded from too much sun in the summer,” says company president Hugh Lofting.

Solar panels provide heat and hot water, but when solar alone isn’t enough, a geothermal system will kick in to heat or cool the home.

“It’s either sun or earth,” says Cornelius.

When the temperature shifts from cold to hot, the radiant flooring can be reversed to take the heat out of the house, which features three levels of radiant tubing. Even the geothermal system uses a smaller-than-normal pump, which it is able to do because of the upgraded insulation under the basement floor and in the walls. The south-facing walls use a different insulation to allow heat from the sun to enter the home. A large chimney creates a thermal mass inside the house on the south wall and radiates the heat back in the evening when it’s cooler.

That chimney also provides flues for wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

“The systems are very flexible in operation,” Cornelius says. “You can use solar and a wood stove for example, or you can just let the house operate with solar.”

While conventional heating and cooling systems for a similar house would run about $70,000, the costs for this house totaled $120,000. A similar conventional home would probably cost about $700,000 and this house will cost around $950,000.

“The family has had this dream for a long time,” Cornelius says. “They want to be peaceful and respectful of the earth.”

The family can also expect to recoup much of the cost difference in energy savings. Hugh Lofting Timber built the Topel house in Kennett Square, which was built using recycled materials, such as the wood from local barns, and landscaped with native plant life. Due to the home’s green construction and energy efficiency, the Topel house was awarded LEED for Homes certification. Cornelius notes that the electric bills for the Topel residence are routinely about a thousand less per month than neighboring homes.

The process of getting all the necessary permits and approvals from Maryland’s Anne Arundel County did hit a few snags.

“The powers that be don’t want to know you’re out there without some assurance that you”ll be OK,” Cornelius explains. “The county said, ‘What if you run out of water? What if your solar pump breaks?”  To satisfy the county, a large water storage tank was added to the basement, and a propane tank was installed.

What excites the builder is how quickly the technology is coming, and the promise that soon this won’t be a pricey, unusual way to build a home. Cornelius cites the example of low-flow toilets. “It was a big deal three years ago to get a 1.6-gallon toilet, and now it’s nothing, now we’re down to 1.28.”

“The technology is coming quickly,” Cornelius adds. “The upfront costs are what’s killing people, but they’ll come down quickly.”

Alexander Van Horn contributed to this story.