of Innovation at Happiness Hill
By Taylor McNeely and Ben Graham
At the Happiness Hill homestead in Marshfield, Vermont, there is much to celebrate and be happy for. Through the vision of talented builders and innovators, what began as a humble off-grid 900 square foot home, was transformed into a roughly 2,000 square foot, fully functional state-of-the-art residence that requires very little maintenance.
During the 1990s the original 12-by-12 cabin was erected. It was then moved from its original site to Ennis Hill Rd. in Marshfield, where it underwent the construction of an addition that incorporated the cabin as a detached space connected by the new entry deck.
The second and most transformative addition was built by New Frameworks, which is a worker-owned cooperative committed to kinder and ecologically-minded building practices and comprehensive, full-service systems design. The New Frameworks addition was built to embody the ecological and social responsibility that protects the environment of the home and those that dwell within it. The process of the work at Happiness Hill is a wonderful example of a phased project. It is a place where the inhabitants assumed creative control and affordability by growing their space as their finances would allow.
The addition at Happiness Hill upgraded the existing off-grid 600W solar PV system to a 4kW grid-tied photovoltaic system. The existing house used both a solar hot water collector and an exchange coil coming from the woodstove for domestic hot water supply. This system works well and continues to serve the addition built by New Frameworks. One of the most exciting parts of the addition is that no additional heat load was required to serve the new square footage. Due to the excellent quality of the enclosure, the same amount of energy that heated 900 square feet now heats 2,000 square feet.
Using renewable materials lay at the heart of the addition design. In particular, the use of the “Strawcell” wall. Created with locally-harvested stacked strawbales coupled with densely packed cellulose, Strawcell walls are affordable, easy to construct and have a natural resilient durability. Straw fiber has proven to be a long-lasting quality insulation material when designed and installed properly for the climate.
Using natural, renewable materials reverses the unpredictable hazards of materials that are made from the by-products of fossil fuels. The entire design of the Happiness Hill addition eliminated the use of foam and other petrol-based materials in exchange for renewable, natural, and recycled materials that perform as well, if not better.
High-Performance Renewable Assemblies
The performance of a home can be measured by the quality of its enclosure. A home that can hold in its heat is just as important as producing that heat efficiently. Heat can escape an enclosure most readily at points of air leakage. It was critical to ensure the walls be not only super-insulated but airtight as well.
Strawcell walls are super-insulated, with an R-value of 50 (R-50), and are more airtight than traditional strawbale walls.
New Frameworks developed the assemblage system of the Strawcell wall to work in our cold, wet northern climate. They are made locally, renewably, and the Strawcell wall can compete within the conventional building market. The Strawcell wall system was presented at the 2013 NESEA Building Energy conference in Boston.
Climate Restoring Design
As super-insulated construction becomes more mainstream, the Strawcell wall system will stand out as one that is not only made sustainably, but one that can sink carbon. As the straw grows, it pulls carbon from the air and not only stores it in the soil but also in its stalk. When harvested and installed into a Strawcell wall, the carbon is then stored for the life of the building. The materials in this wall system have shown to last, when properly designed and detailed, for many decades, safely storing the carbon out of the atmosphere where it is a driver of climate change. The life cycle of this style of wall has a very small footprint, as it is able to quickly and fully compost at the end of its useful life within a structure.
Cost and Carbon Savings
Unfortunately, there is currently no incentive for the carbon savings performed by structures such as the Happiness Hill home. There are positive signs that there may be some form of an appraisal metric in the near future that will value this aspect of the real estate market. While Efficiency Vermont does give incentives for new appliances, appraisal values barely reflect energy efficiency. Happiness Hill will be even more fully appreciated if and when this occurs.
Happiness Hill is a legacy project that will benefit more than the current owners. Sustainable durability is a design element that will ensure not only a long life to the home, but one that is high performing and high quality. The beauty of Happiness Hill’s breathtaking setting helps one to feel that the ethic and preservation of this homestead will be a promise that is kept by generations to come. It’s an asset to the dweller, likewise to the larger community as a model of quality and efficient, residential construction.
Climate action in the building industry not only means building new homes with high performance and low environmental impact but also working diligently to innovate ways to upgrade and renovate existing buildings with health and environmental justice in mind. With more holistic intentions such as these, perhaps, we could make any hill with a home just as happy.
Ben Graham is the co-founder and Design Director with New Frameworks, based in Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont.
Taylor McNeely is a woman who likes to sit by a fire and knit. She is also an artist and writer based in Montpelier, Vermont.