One of the first places Jim Kravitz lived on the ACES property was a former chicken coop. Then he graduated to a yurt and then a straw-bale house. Luckily for his wife and two children, the director of naturalist programs at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) now lives in the caretaker’s house with a state-of-the-art heating system. The structure is one of four employee housing buildings on the property, all of which are unique yet share the common theme of being incredibly energy efficient and “green” in their own right.
Elizabeth Paepcke established ACES in 1969 as a 22-acre environmental center and preserve behind her West-End home. One of the matriarchs of the Aspen Idea, Paepcke believed strongly in meeting the needs of the human spirit, followed closely by caring for the wild things just outside everyone’s back door. In 1975 Jody Cardamone was hired as the first director of ACES along with her husband and co-director, Tom. But even back then, employee housing was a challenge, so the couple lived on the property over an old horse barn that stood where today’s main building is located.
A few years later, in 1980, ACES received an offer it couldn’t pass up — a new property owner in east Aspen wanted to donate the home on his property to make way for a modern residence. The soon-to-be donated home was a 1960s Pan Abode log cabin, similar to many others that dotted the town in those days. However, transporting the home to ACES came with a few challenges.
For starters, after the integral parts of the home had been disassembled and prepared for moving, the former owner arrived on the scene and had a few choice words for the Cardamones. It seemed that although the new owner had generously donated the house, he hadn’t yet closed on the deal and the property wasn’t yet lawfully his. Once that small detail was ironed out, the house made its slow journey through town on a tractor trailer. Unfortunately it got stuck in a wet meadow just outside of the ACES property. The Pan Abode eventually made it to its final resting place, and the Cardamones lived in the home and raised their family there for the next 25 years, finally handing the keys over to the Kravitzes in 2005.
Based on his experience and research, Tom Cardamone has found that it is usually more expensive to move a house than build from scratch. In the case of the Pan Abode, the mission of ACES trumped economics.
“We’ve always been motivated by the idea of recycling — so recycling a house seemed like a great idea,” Cardamone said.
Over the years the house had been expanded and improved upon, to the point where it no longer resembled the log cabin it once was. However, at its core, the structure relied on building technology almost a half-century old. The windows were upgraded to double panes, however the electric baseboard heaters were incredibly inefficient, and the house was still drafty. Jim Kravitz’s wife, Jamie, had even come to call the building “the house of the freezing house.”
These days home energy efficiency is a hot topic. But according to Jim Kravitz, most people tend to miss the most important factor. He goes on to explain:
“The first thing everyone wants to do is put in solar panels. But new insulation is the first thing that you should do.”
He took his own advice in 2009, adding six inches of blown insulation to the attic and sealing the stemwall of the basement. Another key component of improving the home’s efficiency was to create a “controlled space” in the basement — essentially sealing it off — isolating the cold temperatures from underneath the house to prevent energy loss.
It wasn’t until January of this year that the caretaker’s house, the informal name given to the Pan Abode, achieved the latest coup de gras of energy efficiency. That’s when a $30,000 ground source heat pump was installed — it uses state-of-the-art technology and the magic of physics to convert the 48-degree water from nearby Hallam Lake into warm air. As an added bonus the device also preheats water for the hot water heater.
Similar technology is employed at the ACES main building just footsteps away, with the only difference being radiant heat in the main building versus forced air in the caretaker’s house. The two buildings share an electric meter, and the new technology has resulted in a 50 percent decrease in energy consumption.
Compared to the professor’s house, the caretaker’s house is just a baby. The oldest of the four housing units on the property, the professor’s house dates back to Aspen’s mining days of the 1880s. The house was bought from the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog and shipped via rail to Aspen. In order to maximize shipping efficiency, the walls were kept as thin as possible — two-inches thick with little room for insulation.
ACES acquired the house in 1985 and over the years it has become the residence for visiting professors, hence its moniker. The building was renovated in 1997 with the goal of drastically improving energy efficiency. Cardamone and the ACES’ board thought it was important preserve the historic miner’s cabin. Similar to recycling the Pan Abode, by reusing an existing structure instead of tearing it down and rebuilding, landfill waste was eliminated as was the impact of utilizing new building materials.
“The example here was to make what you have better” Kravitz said.
Once again, insulating the house was key. This included upgrading the windows to double panes, installing new doors, and insulating the roof. During the project, old “insulation” was removed from the attic, comprised of newspapers dating back to the 1800s from St. Louis, written in German.
In the late 1990s Cardamone looked around the ACES property where employees were living in places like yurts, a dilapidated gardener’s shanty and a chicken coop. As he describes it, “We realized we had to get a little more civilized.”
The nonprofit decided to replace the aforementioned structures with two brand new buildings. Each building would showcase a different green building technique and be highly energy efficient. The project kicked off in 1998 and culminated with the tree house and the straw-bale house.
The tree house is perhaps the most striking building on the ACES property, almost something that Robinson Crusoe would have built. Each of the three levels of the house contains a studio apartment for an ACES educator. The frame of the house is built with structural insulated panels (SIPs). These pre-fabricated composite panels fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, creating a highly energy efficient building. In fact, the building is so tightly constructed that it becomes important to vent humid air from showers and cooking so that mold doesn’t develop.
A prominent exterior feature of the house is the large trees that provide support for the roof. The wood was reclaimed from a section of beetle kill spruce forest near Steamboat Springs that was toppled in a wind storm. All of the wood siding for the home was also salvaged from various sources, which is why no two sides of the building look the same.
In addition to the construction of the house, time was spent planning out small details that all contribute to increased energy efficiency. Radiant heat and hot water for all three apartments is provided by a high-efficiency boiler in the basement. The house faces south with a beautiful view of Aspen Mountain, which creates a passive solar design and allows the sun to naturally heat the apartments via the windows. The toilets even have a two-button flush system for, well, number one or number two.
Because each studio apartment averages 300 square feet, appliances such as the stove and refrigerator were downsized accordingly. Jamie Cundiff has lived in the house for two years and considers it a “very amazing use of space.”
A stone’s throw from the tree house is the straw-bale house, which was built at the same time but utilized a different construction technology. The house is insulated with actual straw bales that provide a much higher R-value, or insulation factor, than traditional fiberglass insulation. According to Kravitz, the challenge with a straw-bale house is not the risk of fire, but the risk of mold. The straw is encased in stucco, and sections in the home that jut out and potentially could be used as a ledge for house plants are encased in a protective coating to help prevent water seepage.
Sarah Schmidt, the education director for ACES, lives in the eastern half of the straw-bale house. When she first moved into the home she couldn’t understand why there were miniature prongs sticking out of the walls in various places. Months later she learned the prongs are used to attach an electric meter that measures the moisture content of the straw behind the walls. Schmidt explains that today’s straw-bale houses have come a long way and now include a central moisture monitoring system.
Although the straw bale house was built as a new structure, much of the wood used on the house was salvaged. Portions of the house can trace their history to the old Fireside Lodge in Aspen as well as a bridge in Glenwood Springs.
The tree house and straw-bale house were built at a time before the word “green” became commonplace at the dinner table. Kravitz said that the well-known LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification didn’t even exist at the time, although he emphasized that the well-known standard is not the end all be all.
“You do the best thing for your site that you can.”