(855) 321-7473

M-F 9am-4pm Eastern

Doug and Ruth Header Image

A Farmer and an Engineer Build Their Forever Home

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Apr 14, 2020

When Doug Riedweg and Ruth Burris married 20 years ago, he made a deal with her. If Burris would agree to live, for several years, in a "fairly crude" old house on the farm Riedweg's grandfather purchased in 1919, the couple could build a new home when the time was right. She agreed. 

Meanwhile, the couple began doing their research and attending numerous solar-home and sustainable-home tours in Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding area. "We both wanted to build an energy-efficient home with a highly insulated building envelope," says Riedweg. One of the first systems that drew their attention was heat pumps

While on a tour one day, Riedweg walked Burris into the home's garage to examine the mechanicals operating the heat-pump system. As they faced the equipment, Burris recalls, "Doug was explaining each piece to me and how it worked. Suddenly, we turned around, and there were 20 people behind us. One guy says, 'Can you go through that again?' We started laughing. We had no idea we were giving a lecture-demonstration." 

During another tour, Riedweg recalls, "We listened to an architect talk about creating a passive solar home. He mentioned how 80 percent of heating and cooling with a passive solar design has to do with proper siting on the property, and having the right overhangs in place, and using the proper insulation." 

By 2004, Riedweg had started sketching out ideas for the couple's new 1,950-square-foot home on the farm, which is near Cornelius in Washington County. "We used ideas we got from our research and house tours, and gleaning out what was right for us," he says. "Our first goal was to create a highly insulated home to reduce the amount of energy the house would consume for heating and cooling."  

The couple used their savings to design and build the home. "We say I'm the farmer, and Ruth's the engineer," Riedweg says. "Ruth has the state's codebook and understands everything in it." In fact, several times, when the state challenged the couple on their decisions, Burris was able to point out in the codebook how they'd followed state regulations. "They didn't challenge us after that," Riedweg says. Moreover, the energy efficiency of the couple's new home was actually 25 percent better than state requirements

Rastra Block Structure Taking Shape
Rastra Block Structure Taking Shape. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

Rastra Block, an ICF

The couple chose Rastra block, an insulated concrete form (ICF) made from recycled foam plastics as the form of construction. Also known as RASTRA Compound Insulated Concrete Forms (ICCF), rastra blocks are modular units. They are dry-stacked (no mortar) and locked together like Lego® bricks. Contractors add reinforcing steel (rebar) before pouring concrete into the cavities, which gives the home's walls strength similar to that of bridges and high-rise buildings made of concrete.

Rastra Block Interior With Metal Studs
Rastra Block Interior With Metal Studs. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

The walls provide thermal and acoustic insulation. The blocks include space to run electrical conduit and plumbing. The wall material on either side easily accommodates electrical and plumbing installations. Burris and Riedweg's home, he says, incorporated 7,000 feet of rebar. They used rastra block on the main level, and wood on the second level.

Roof Insulation
Roof Insulation. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

"The rastra block itself is R32," Riedweg says. The couple installed six inches of closed-cell spray foam insulation in the upper walls and roof, as well as foam at the ends of the trusses, to reach R50. Mineral or rock wool insulates the walls between bedrooms and bathrooms.

Concrete Floor Pour and Radiant Heating
Concrete Floor Pour and Radiant Heating. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

The house also has a significant crawlspace. The rastra block sits on a footing insulated with three inches of rigid Styrofoam, with two inches of concrete "on top to keep rodents out," Riedweg says. The return air ducting for the furnace is the crawlspace, as well as other piping and ductwork for the radiant heat floor.

Heat Pumps at Last 

Two ground-source or geothermal heat pumps provide heating and cooling in the home. "The guy who did the design, GeoGerry, is a great person and passionately believes in what he's doing," says Riedweg. "He says we could save America if everyone went with geothermal heat pumps."

Because the couple has acreage, GeoGerry laid out the geothermal well field horizontally. "We dug trenches for two loops, 800 feet long, five-and-a-half feet deep into the ground, buried 10 feet apart," says Riedweg. One heat pump manages water for the radiant heat floor; the other controls the forced air heat and the air conditioning.

Proper Siting and Overhangs

The couple sited their home on a long axis east-west, with bedrooms on the northeast corner of the house, the laundry room on the south side, and open kitchen, dining and living space on the west side. "We wanted to keep direct sun off of the bedrooms to keep them cool," says Burris.

Concrete Floors Stained and Waxed
Concrete Floors Stained and Waxed. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

Overhangs bring in abundant sun in winter and shade the interior in summer. The concrete floor also works as a thermal mass, heating up with the winter sun than radiating the warmth back during the night, "just like a battery," says Burris. Operable windows allow for breezes and ventilating hot air out of the cupolas.

Bamboo Flooring During Installation
Bamboo Flooring During Installation. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

Finishing Touches 

The couple selected bamboo flooring for the loft, letting it acclimate to the house for several weeks before installation. Made of shred bamboo that's glued and pressed back together into a tongue and grooved plank, the flooring can be sanded and refinished. A local cabinet maker harvested, cured, cut, and crafted the alder-wood kitchen cabinetry.

ClimateMaster Furnace and HRV
ClimateMaster Furnace and HRV. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris
Newly Installed Wood Stove
Newly Installed Wood Stove. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

The home includes LED lights, bathroom fans with timers, a ClimateMaster furnace with humidity control, and a heat-recovery ventilator. A wood-burning stove with a masonry chimney provides ambiance and serves as a back-up heat source.

Stucco and Exterior in Process
Stucco and Exterior in Process. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

On the exterior of the home, the couple sprayed on cement stucco "made old-school style," says Riedweg, "with Portland cement, lime, sand, and dye for color. We made 300 pounds at a time, and got roughly 10 to 15 feet of wall done a day." They installed juniper trim around the doors and windows. 

Finished Exterior
Finished Exterior. Photo Credit: Ruth Burris

Home on Tour 

Having found - and shared - so many great ideas about sustainable home construction while taking home tours, the couple is also thrilled to "showcase our building concepts," says Burris. "We did a lot of tours and got ideas from those. Now, we're happy to talk with other people about what we learned and did."

"I work for a local electric utility," says Burris. "I can see electricity getting more expensive. It takes time to build a home, so why not super insulate the structure, so you don't have to spend money every year heating it. It pays to put money into the front end, so you're not subject to fluctuating costs over the lifetime of the house." 

The couple is also looking into the future in other ways. A carport instead of the garage means if one of them ends up needing a wheelchair, they can quickly move from the car to the house. All of the doors are 36 inches wide, to accommodate a wheelchair, and have easy open handles. The walk-in shower is another strategy for aging in place. They're also considering solar panels in the future to power an electric vehicle.

"Our goal was to design and build a house that would be here for 100 years, that would last, and that in our retirement wouldn't cost a lot to maintain."

Burris says. "For us, it's a forever home. We're not going anywhere else."

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-09-09T14:12:21+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.