Coming Home: Building a Green Dream Home

Natural Home & Garden publisher Linda Ligon and her husband settle into their dream home.


Linda loves cooking in the bright, beautiful kitchen. A small LG Energy Star-qualified refrigerator easily holds enough food for the couple. The kitchen also features a Viking stove and an Asko energy-efficient dishwasher. The dark island countertop is slate; the sink and dishwasher countertops are made from maple butcher block.

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When Natural Home & Garden president Linda Ligon and her husband, Thomas, envisioned building a new home, they imagined using “the really fine, sustainable materials and methods that we write about all the time in this magazine,” Linda says. Having lived for thirty-five years in their previous house—where they raised three kids, buried beloved pets in the backyard, made myriad green improvements, and planted beautiful trees—they also wondered how long it would take to call this new place “home.”

For their new home, Thomas and Linda chose a 1.5-acre site near a lake, bordered on two sides by a wildlife preserve. Their bare, treeless lot differed starkly from their old home with its scores of majestic trees and mature landscaping. Fortunately, architect David Barrett knew their old house had lots of history and soul, and he challenged himself to create a new home that would shelter and nurture this vibrant, visionary couple. He envisioned the home and workspaces as a small collection of farm buildings grouped together on the open prairie.

Speaking the same language

The Ligons are both doers and makers. Linda is founder and creative director of Interweave Press, a successful magazine and book publishing company, and Thomas owns ARC Science Simulations, a company that creates visualizations of planet Earth for museums, the National Weather Service, and other commercial applications.

Barrett asked Thomas and Linda to study A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (Oxford University Press, 1977). The book enabled the three of them to construct an idiom for planning and building their home from 253 patterns (building concepts) such as window place, workspace, sleeping to the east, and entrance transition. Barrett also designed the house using some intersecting “L” and “T” shapes (for their initials), with an eye to connecting, yet separating, public, semi-private and private spaces.

“There is a continuity of spaces in the house,” says Linda, “and a lot of opportunity for being by yourself or with others.” And nature is always nearby. “It’s easy to feel connected to the outside from anywhere in the house.”

Maximizing solar gain

One of the couple’s major concerns was reducing energy demands. The three-bedroom, two-bath home is 2,960 square feet, and Thomas’s workshop, the greenhouse, and the garage add an additional 1,460 square feet of useable interior space. Barrett maximized solar gain by stretching out the long arm of the “L”-shaped house on an east-west axis and by utilizing passive solar principles—including smart room layout and intentional placement of large, south-facing, low-E windows—in the home’s design wherever possible.

Inside, room layout follows the sun’s daily path and the Ligons’ daily patterns. In the morning Linda watches the sunrise from a small, east-facing deck off the sleeping area while Thomas heads to the garden room in the south to read the morning paper with a glass of orange juice. The kitchen, which faces south, is full of light and warmth all day. Thomas and Linda come together in the evenings to share meals in the dining room and living room, which both face west and frame stunning views of the Rocky Mountains. In the north, the garage buffers the house against cold, northern winter winds. Upstairs, the large open master suite is divided by partial walls that allow Thomas to enjoy nighttime stargazing through his telescope from a north-facing balcony while Linda relaxes and reads in bed.

Beautiful and green

Because even a sustainably built new home disturbs land and uses up resources, Barrett worked with Thomas and Linda to choose a building material that reduces the waste stream. They built the house out of Cempo, an innovative, energy- efficient building system made of portland cement and recycled polystyrene (the white packing material). Cempo contains a high percentage of recycled material and also saves trees by replacing conventional wood framing with a series of structural concrete- and rebar-filled channels that run vertically and horizontally through the Cempo forms, creating a post-and- beam matrix.

The exterior walls of the Ligon home are cement stucco colored with a warm gray pigment. The front door, which Thomas designed, is made of walnut that came from trees on his family’s farm in Oklahoma.

Inside, the thick walls are plastered with gypsum plaster in a soft, light gray color achieved by adding a pigment. The walls help regulate the home’s interior temperature—keeping it warm in winter, cool in summer—and block wind and distracting outside noises. A radiant in-floor heating system is installed beneath the smooth concrete floors and a Real Goods solar collector on the roof preheats water for the system. An energy-efficient fireplace is built into winged, concrete-block walls that add thermal mass. For additional cooling in summer, the couple opens windows for cross ventilation, and a whole-house fan in a cupola on the roof draws warm air up and out.

Thomas and Linda moved into their new home in July 2003—about two and a half years after they began designing it—and it’s felt like home since day one. Even with all its green features, the house fits in with its neighbors and is easy to live in. “It’s a practical home,” Barrett says. “Sustainable design involves using our intelligence to put the materials in the right place. It doesn’t require a completely different way of doing things.”

What makes this home green?

• Siting on east-west axis maximizes utilization of sun for passive solar gain.
• Layout of rooms is based on the sun’s path.
• Cempo building system—made of portland cement and recycled polystyrene—contains a high percentage of recycled materials.
• Hurd double-pane, low-E windows
• Cor-Ten steel-alloy roof—a weathering (rusting), durable, low-maintenance roof
• Four interior doors recycled from the building that houses Interweave Press
• Real Goods solar hot water system
• Radiant in-floor heating system under exposed concrete floor slab, which provides thermal mass for solar heat gain and is the radiant heat source when additional warmth is required
• Natural wool carpeting
• Energy-efficient BIS Ultima fireplace
• LG Energy Star-qualified refrigerator
• Asko energy-efficient dishwasher and laundry appliances
• Rainwater drains from the roof through an underground water pipe to a holding pond that’s becoming a wildlife habitat.
• Rooftop cupola—with whole-house fan, insulated doors, and aerodynamic turning vanes designed by Thomas—draws warm air up and vents it out through the roof.
• No air conditioning
• Thomas’s workshop is heated in winter by the attached solar greenhouse.

A Conversation with the Homeowners