Mother Earth Living

The Passive Solar Home that Survived the Sugarloaf Mountain Fire

Devastation gives way to healing for survivors of Colorado’s Sugarloaf Mountain fire.
By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
November/December 1999
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A firefighter works to contain blazes as they descend on Bill and Deann’s home on Sugarloaf Mountain.
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After several days of triple-digit temperatures, the thermometer had again soared to 100 degrees in Boulder, Colorado, on July 9, 1989, and stiff, dry winds blew up out of Black Tiger Gulch. No relief was in sight from the month of rainless days as neighbors on Sugarloaf Mountain prepared to gather for a Sunday picnic sponsored by the volunteer fire department. Up on Lost Angel Road, Susan and Tom sat on their patio planning their honeymoon in Italy. Bill puttered around in his greenhouse while his wife, Deann, ran errands in town. Betty decided it was too hot and windy to weed her garden and instead sat on the front porch, watching the tree swallows and the wrens feed their families in the bird­houses and talking to Dirty Face, the squirrel who nested in the front wall of her cabin.

Betty’s partner, Rolland, a Colorado native, had been talking all summer about the ripe conditions for a forest fire, so Betty wasn’t all that surprised to look out and see a column of smoke stretching across the sky due south of the cabin. A neighbor who had a better view of the fire making its way up Black Tiger Gulch called and advised Betty to leave. Meanwhile, another neighbor called Tom and Susan to enlist their help in saving a home that was threatened by the fledgling inferno. As they headed toward the house, they were stopped by a volunteer firefighter, who told them to get long pants and shovels to help build a fire line. By the time Tom and Susan had changed their clothes, the blaze had chimneyed to the top of Pisgah Mountain and was crashing in waves down the other side toward their own home. The sun had become an otherworldly red disk in the black, smoky sky, and an intense gust singed Tom’s eyebrows. “Get your toothbrush,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be sleeping here tonight.”

Deann had seen the smoke on the mountain from town and rushed back up just before officials closed the road. She found Bill in a panic, pounding the hose against the driveway. He couldn’t get the nozzle off, and he wanted to spray down their shake roof. In two hours, the fire had blazed a three-mile path and had reached the ridge just above their home. Helicopters buzzed overhead; B-52 bombers dropped red clouds of fire retardant. In this war-zone atmosphere, Bill and Deann put their cats in pillowcases and made some quick decisions about what items they couldn’t live without. They loaded some clay pots, Navajo rugs, and their espresso maker into the car. On the way out the door, Bill grabbed their teenage daughter Molly’s report card, which had been magneted to the refrigerator. They thought they would never again see the home they had built with their own hands.

The Black Tiger Gulch fire, which officials believe was started by a carelessly tossed cigarette, destroyed 44 houses and other structures within six hours of its ignition. By the time it was completely extinguished four days later, more than 2,000 acres had burned. The fire’s tentacles reached within 3 feet of Bill and Deann’s concrete block and stucco home and caused some roof damage, but firefighters managed to save the structure.

Susan and Tom crept back into their charred, lifeless neighborhood, which residents describe as everything from “lunar” to “Hiroshima,” expecting the worst. They ­didn’t recognize their own driveway until they saw a glint of moonlight from one of their windows. Cool, sweet air wafted from inside their concrete-block house. Fire officials later told Tom and Susan that their house was probably saved by the fact that it was built into the earth, depriving the fire of the oxygen it needs to move inside a structure.

Betty and Rolland weren’t so lucky. Their cabin, tipi, and several other buildings on their property were reduced to six inches of ash. All that remained were the stone shop where Rolland made and repaired clocks, an underground cellar, and a birdhouse in the midst of the charred garden. Betty burst into tears when she realized the baby tree swallows and wrens had burned to death in the other birdhouses. She moved through her garden touching the burned vegetables and flowers, crying for them all. But overnight, bean plants popped up through the fried earth. By evening, Rolland had the photovoltaic pump working and had filled the cistern. The couple began watering their garden and hatching plans for rebuilding.

Aggressively Passive: A couple of closet architects build themselves an efficient passive solar home using cost-effective concrete blocks.

“It would have been so ugly,” says Deann of her 2,200-square-foot concrete-block and stucco home that miraculously survived the Sugarloaf Mountain fire ten years ago. “It wouldn’t have burned down; it would have just sort of melted, become this ruin.”

Deann and her husband, Bill, are filmmakers, but they call themselves “closet architects.” (Bill actually completed a semester of architecture school but turned to fine arts when he faced the daunting task of trigono­metry, calculus, and physics.) Back in the late 1970s, the couple attended workshops on sustainable design in Maine and returned to Colorado to search for the perfect site for a passive solar home. “It was the seventies; there was no oil—for awhile,” Deann says of their decision to build a home that could be heated by the sun. The couple was—and still is—drawn to the idea of sustainable living. “We were the Whole Earth Catalog generation,” Bill explains.

Bill and Deann found four and one-half acres on Lost Angel Road with a perfect south-facing spot to build a house low and into a hill. They built a model, calculated glass-to-mass ratios that would allow for just the right solar gain, argued about which rooms should go where, worked out their differences, and began building—themselves.

“It isn’t conventional building but just about anyone in the world can stack up blocks.”

“We fantasized about adobe, but it would have been very expensive, and the local building codes weren’t written to accommodate it,” Bill says.

The couple’s limited budget called for a simple design and a relatively inexpensive building material. They chose a method they call “pseudobe,” using 8-inch-thick concrete blocks filled with cement and earth. With the help of two hired hands and ­occasionally some friends, Bill and Deann dry-stacked the blocks and finished them with a surface-bonding mortar called Q-Bond that also serves as a texturally interesting interior finish. Outside, they covered the blocks with 6 inches of rigid foam insulation and stucco.

“We took our plans to a builder friend,” Deann laughs, “and he said, ‘Where are you going to get the Egyptians to build this?” ’

“It isn’t conventional building,” Bill admits. “But concrete blocks were the most inexpensive, solid material you can find. Just about anyone in the world can stack up blocks.”

The couple began constructing the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in July, stacking blocks by day and making films at night. By March they were able to move in, although the exterior wasn’t finished for some time. “People have asked how our marriage survived that,” Deann says. “By the end of the day, we were too exhausted to argue.”

The home’s north end is tucked snugly into the hillside—its back side ranges from 4 feet to 9 feet underground—while 60 linear feet of windows let the sunshine in on the south side. Brick floors capture the warmth of the sunlight, which in winter streams in at a 30-degree angle and stretches almost completely across the living room and dining room. At night, Warm Window™ covers keep that heat from leaking back out. Bedrooms in the back of the house are warmed by sun from angled clerestory ­windows.

The solar heat is enough to keep the house warm about 80 percent of the time; on very cold days, Bill and Deann supplement with a fire in the wood stove near the kitchen. Each year they burn about a cord and a half of wood, all from an endless supply of trees on their property that were charred during the fire. Their gas and electric bill averages about $50 per month.

Even when the couple is on the road and no one is feeding the wood stove, the house temperature has never dipped below 55 degrees. All that mass, insulation rated R-45 in the roof and R-30 in the walls, and the berming on the north side also serve the home well in summer. Logs are placed on a canopy over the south-facing patio during the hotter months to block intense rays from the living area. The home’s temperature has never risen above 75 degrees.

Bill and Deann’s passive solar home has provided a comfort for twenty years, and even though oil is plentiful again, they wouldn’t go back to conventional heating. “You kind of have to interact with this house—more than a house where you can just turn on the heat,” Deann says. “You adjust your lifestyle to the house.”

Earthen Embrace: Wrapped in earth but welcoming the sun, this solar home is functional, funky, and thoroughly inviting.

Heavy winds come off the Continental Divide, and this house never shudders. It feels really tucked in.”

The Sugarloaf Mountain fire destroyed some 1,000 trees, a turn-of-the-century log cabin, and an old caboose on Susan and Tom’s 5-acre property, but it spared their 3,200-square-foot concrete-block solar home. After the fire, officials told the couple that the home’s siting—in a natural depression with the north side snuggled up against 15 feet of earth—is probably what saved it.

That careful siting provides more than just fire protection; it is part of a solar design that allows for cozy winter comfort and a cool, cavelike summer retreat. The home’s three bedrooms are 15 feet underground, while 4 feet of earth cover the roof in the very back of the house. Huge skylights bathe the bedrooms in friendly, warming light. “The nice thing about underground rooms is that you really feel snuggled in,” Susan says. “There are often heavy winds coming off the Continental Divide, and the house never shudders. It feels really tucked in.”

In contrast to all that earth, the home’s entire south side opens up with a grand sweep of floor-to-ceiling paned windows made of glass salvaged from an old greenhouse. Sunshine pours into those windows from dawn to dusk in winter and makes an entire rotation around the living area. That sunlight not only warms the house but also provides a psychological boost, Susan says. “You don’t go immediately to the thermostat and crank it up.”

Susan and Tom’s home is equipped with heat-collecting panels on the south-facing roof, and a fan blows the hot air down to storage in 4 feet of river rock under a 6-inch-thick concrete floor. This system, with a little boost now and then from a super-efficient gas propane stove in the kitchen and a huge river rock Russian-style fireplace in the living area, keeps Susan and Tom and their two children toasty all winter long. They spend only about $800 in propane and electricity each year for a 3200 square-foot home.

The cornerstone of the home is the huge brick silo that acts as its structural basis; 8-inch by 8-inch beams made of beetle-killed pine radiate from its center like the spokes of a huge umbrella. Built of slightly pie-shaped recycled bricks from old grain silos, the structure also serves as the nerve center for ducts and chimneys, providing vent space for the kitchen’s propane stove, the fireplace, and heat collected from the solar panels.

In the bathroom, a Japanese soaking tub made of Alaska white cedar lined with copper was salvaged from a friend’s garage, where it was acting as a storage bin for old tires.

With two children and two careers to look after, Tom and Susan love that their home requires so little maintenance. Brick and tile floors ask only for a quick sweep and ­perhaps a coat of linseed oil now and then, and stucco walls never require repainting. “These materials absorb the wear and tear of life in a graceful way and look better with age,” Susan says.

The interiors are elegant without being pretentious, and many of the furnishings were chosen with children in mind. Susan found two side chairs with curved arms at the Sugarloaf Volunteer Fire Department’s annual garage sale for $5. “They’re exceedingly funky, but they have incredible personality,” she says. “And something about the curve of them is just right for the curve of that room.” The maple coffee table was another $5 garage sale find; the sofa and oversized armchair were advertised in the newspaper. Susan also found her 1930s kitchen stove through the classifieds; it doesn’t use a pilot, so saves that extra energy and eliminates the outgassing effects.

In the bathroom, a Japanese soaking tub made of Alaska white cedar lined with copper was salvaged from a friend’s garage, where it was acting as a storage bin for old tires. The wood and copper keep bath water hot for long periods, and the tub’s high sides keep bathers warm even when the tub isn’t filled to the top. Susan and Tom’s young children love to bathe under streams of sunlight from the skylights overhead during the day; Susan and Tom enjoy stargazing from the tub at night.

The home and its contents exude a welcoming, nurturing aura. Visitors are likely to linger, and the homeowners count their blessings. “It’s a wonderful house to live in,” Susan says. “You wake up in the morning, and things are delighting the eye in every direction—the warm wood, the stove—it harkens back to old European buildings. It feels like it’s going to be here for centuries. It has a nice, rooted feeling.”

Simply Solar

A couple applies the lessons they learned about living off the grid as they rebuild a cabin and outbuildings destroyed in the fire.

“We’re not sending any garbage to Central America; we’re not buying power generated in California. All our impact is right here on this site.”

When the Red Cross came around and asked Betty and Rolland what they needed after the Sugarloaf fire leveled their cabin and several outbuildings, they requested compost. Dirty Face, the tree squirrel who had lived in the cabin’s front wall, had been badly burned and kept returning to the site where the compost pile once stood, looking for food. A few days later, he died.

The loss of the animals and the trees that had made Betty and Rolland’s piece of the mountain a paradise were the most devastating to the couple. “That was the real hard part,” says Rolland. “The tree swallows were all looking around, saying, ‘Hey, man, what happened?’ Those birds are our spirits. They’re very much a part of what we are.”

The animals and birds have slowly returned to Sugarloaf Mountain as Betty and Rolland have rebuilt their two-room cabin, rolfing studio, shower house, outhouse, and machine shop— better than they were before—living out Betty’s belief that “every supposed tragedy is a gift.”

“When something bad like that happens, it’s all about how you make it into a positive influence,” Rolland says. “It was a force that was good for us. As much as we didn’t like it, we could replay this thing, only this time we could do it better. We considered the period before the fire our research. The fire was a way to take what we learned from that research and put it back into action. A lot of things we did exactly the same, but some things we really improved.”

The couple had no insurance and eschewed loans offered by the Small Business Administration to fire victims because they didn’t want the paperwork or the debt. “We didn’t want someone else rebuilding our reality,” Rolland says.

Rolland and Betty have had the freedom to create a testament to self-sustainable living, a compound powered completely by solar energy collected on the site. The fire deteriorated their solar panels to the point that they are able to collect only about 100 watts of power, but that’s enough to serve their 24-volt DC system and to run their photovoltaic well pump. Rolland, a former research engineer with the Laboratory of Atmosphere and Space Physics, made all the electrical connections and boxes and wired all the buildings himself. “I don’t want my electricity to be scary,” he says. “This is petting electricity. You can touch it.”

Three battery packs in the underground cellar collect and store up to three months worth of electricity. When Betty or Rolland hear gurgling from a battery, they know it is fully charged and move a wire to fill the next one. The system supplies more than enough power to meet the couple’s needs, and they insist they don’t take a conservative attitude toward using it. Rolland does admit that not everyone would be able to live with the available current at his place, however. “A lot of times people are just not making good choices about the appliances they buy,” he says. “Sometimes they have an addiction to a computer or a TV.”

Rolland and Betty’s washing machine is a 1930s ringer with a 24-volt motor, and they use water left over after baths to wash clothes. “I’m always shopping the beginning of the century” for appliances, Rolland says, but he does make AC available for Betty’s typewriter, blender, and vacuum cleaner.

While Rolland does happen to be a rocket scientist, he says it doesn’t take one to invent your own technology. “It’s buried inside all of us,” he says. “All you have to do is leave yourself room to find it. I think most of us don’t realize it because we’re barricaded from it by regulation and fear.”

His personal building code—no plywood, no plastic, and nothing that smells bad when it burns—is the only creed Rolland adheres to. The new cabin is built from trees that were charred in the fire, milled at a local sawmill that opened its doors to fire victims without insurance. The trim and the windows are made from old barrels used to treat ore during the gold-mining era and barrels from a New Jersey brewery. The roof is made of clay tiles that Rolland found at a yard sale; the handmade scalloping on the peak took two years to finish.

Rolland admits that having several small buildings rather than one large structure does create a bigger footprint on the land. “But you’re not seeing the whole footprint of any residence because you don’t see off-site impacts,” he says. “We’re not sending any garbage to Central America; we’re not buying power generated in California. All our impact is right here on this site.”

“Every supposed tragedy is a gift.”


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