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Wednesday, November 10, 2010 // The Statement5B
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A STRAW HOUSE, A SOLAR PANEL AND
A QUEST FOR ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
RASS LAKE, MICH. - Joe Trumpey, a pro-
fessor in the School of Art & Design and the
School of Natural Resources and the Envi-
ronment, stands in front of his two-story adobe
house on a crisp fall afternoon, the wind whipping
across 40 acres of forests and pastures hiding cat-
tle, a flock of sheep and a 25-foot solar panel.
Trumpey and his family live in this home com-
pletely off the grid. They use the solar panel to
gather energy from the sun, which is then stored
in 35 golf cart batteries located in the roof of a util-
ity shack on the property. When full, the batteries
could-power his home for four full days without
needingto be recharged. -
What's more, Trumpey built the home with his
own two hands. Using straw bales as the base and
a homemade adobe mixture as an outer coating,
Trumpey has been constructing the 3,000 square
foot residence for the past two-and-a-half years
with help from his wife, two daughters and the
occasional volunteer group from the University.
"This isn't normal?" Trumpey jokes, surveying
It's a home of striking appearance, a stark com-
bination of functional beauty and spartan rugged-
ness. Seeing the home for the first time, it's hard to
believe that the basic building material is hay.
Trumpey gestures to the adobe coating on the
outside of the home. He says the adobe acts as atype
of paste, strengthening the structure and protect-
ing it fromthe elements at the same time. The adobe
also allows the straw bales - taken from a straw
harvest across the street - to breath. in addition to
the adobe, the straw is protected and elevated off of
the ground by a stone base, made up of stones taken
from Trumpey's property. He and his wife collect-
ed the stones and built the base by themselves, and
his wife's artistic touches can be seen underneath
some of the windowsills, where she has the kids'
names spelled out along with other designs.
With big sweeping windows facing the southern
exposure, the house also acts as its own air con-
ditioner and heating system. After all, in an eco-
friendly house completely off the power grid and
dependent on solar power, central air-conditioning
would greatly detract from the goal of energy con-
Instead, Trumpey and his wife intentionally
placed heavy stone and woodwork in the house,
which retain heat for long periods of time. They
also installed a system of pipes thatrun beneath the
floor, allowing it to be cooled or heated. Combined
with the proper opening and closing of windows,
Trumpey said the temperature in his home is nor-
mally quite comfortable.
"Most days you could stand by an open door and
it felt like air-conditioning was blowing out of the
door," he said of the summer months.
Trumpey added that the ceiling also has a high
insulation level with its coating of bio-based soy
foam, recycled newspaper and cellulose insulation,
helping further regulate the home's climate.
With walls constructed entirely from local straw
bales, lumber milled from an invasive species of
wood and stones taken from the area, along with
a sustainable energy system, some may consider
Trumpey's home to be an eco-friendly experiment
- a sortof giant, livable test tube. But for the profes-
sor and his wife and two young daughters this place
is their home.
Walking through the front door, the foyer opens
up into a fully-functional kitchen, complete with
a stove, refrigerator and other modern appliances.
Toward the back of the first floor there's even a
flat-screen television mounted on a turntable in the
wall, allowing the TV to swivel between two sepa-
Trumpey turns toward the front of the house and
points to what he calls a "truth window," a small
opening on the wall revealing its bare structure,
which Trumpey says all straw-bale houses have to
prove that the walls are in fact made of straw.
A further look around the inside of the house
reveals a mixture of home and the outdoors. His
children's artwork fills the adobe walls, cork floor-
ing covers portions of the floor and twigs line the
The other reminder of the surrounding environ-
ment is more obvious, as his wife calls out that one
of the cows has escaped and Trumpey has to run
outside to usher it back inside the fenced-in pasture.
animals," he said in a recent interview at his office
in the School of Art & Design.
Trumpey said he and his wife were also con-
cerned about their home and its effect on the envi-
"That was one of the main efforts, tryingto mini-
mize the energy and be really conscious about what
the materials are and where we got them from," he
Thus began seven years of extensive research,
I was expecting 'OK, this is probably going to be small and
shoddy looking,' but no it looks modern, really well put together.
I mena It's a beautiful house.'"t
Why did Trumpey decide to move from a small,
conventional farmhouse to a self-sufficient adobe
The reason dates back to his time in the Boy
Scouts and evolved throughout his college years, a
time in which Trumpey admitted he didn't live on a
farm or in an eco-friendly house.
As a boy scout, Trumpey said he learned to
appreciate the outdoors and developed a respect
for the environment. Then as he reached college,
he said he carried the same sentiments with him
as he studied abroad in Scotland, which proved to
be a turning point in his life. Trumpey met his wife
there and they both developed an interest in live-
stock and farming techniques.
Fueled by their interest, Trumpey and his wife
created a farm of their own in North Carolina
before transporting all of the animals to a small
farm in Michigan. But their innovation didn't end
"The designer parts of us started to think about a
well-designed homestead that brought together all
of our interests, meshing indoor and outdoor space,
meshing efficiency and an ethical way to keep the
leading to the acquisition of 40 acres of land and,
after two-and-a-half more years of construction, a
When she first went out to work on Trumpey's
home, as part of a volunteer group from the Uni-
versity, Kinsey Brock, a 5th-year senior in LSA and
the School of Art & Design, said she was surprised
by its appearance.
"I was expecting 'OK, this is probably going to
be small and shoddy looking,' but no, it looks mod-
ern, really well put together," Brock said. "I mean
it's a beautiful house."
Working for Trumpey as a student volunteer
two-and-a-half years ago, and again last summer,
Brock said she completed many tasks, including
stacking up straw bales and mixing and apply-
ing coats of adobe to add finishing touches to the
house as it neared completion.
While Brock saw the volunteer opportunity
offered to students in Trumpey's "Technology
and the Environment" class as a way to further
her interest in sustainable design, she said she was
also struck by Trumpey's commitment to the prin-
ciples he taught.
"It was really nice to see a professor who was
practicing what he preached," she said.
Stephanie Starch, an alum of the School of Art &
Design, said she also appreciated Trumpey's com-
mitment to the project, adding that she admired
the amount of time he took out of his day to work
on the house.
"I couldn't believe when I first saw it, that he was
starting this massive project and he's already such a
busyguy," Starch said.
Starch also said she felt many students were
eager to help work on the project.
"That was something that was almost always at
Trumpey's house, somebodyto help," she said.
Through her work on the house, mixing adobe
and cutting boards, Starch said she developed a
passion for sustainable construction.
"I think it's really important to have an environ-
mentally friendly house," she said. "Because we
waste so much energy in traditional housing, that
in a building like this, everything from the materi-
als to the way it functions is easier on the environ-
While the environmental effect of conventional-
ly built housing varies depending on the structure,
Larissa Larsen, associate professor of urban plan-
ning and of landscape architecture, said structures
that are not eco-friendly definitely create a strain
on the environment.
Quoting an estimate from the U.S. Green Build-
ing Council, Larsen said conventional structures
like homes, offices and schools consume 72 percent
of all electricity and 14 percent of portable water
used in the United States, while creating 38 percent
of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and 30 percent of
FROM LEFT: A view from the Trumpey's back-
yard of the family's clothes air drying (MARISSA
MCCLAIN/Daily); an interior wall constructed
out of straw bail hay and plastered ina home- -
made adobe mixture (JED MOCH/Daily); Prof.
Joe Trumpey, who has been building his home
out of straw bail hay for the past two-and-a-half
years (ARIEL BOND/Daily); a row of golf cart
batteries that Trumpey uses to store the energy
collected from the 25-foot solar panel located on
his property (JED MOCH/Daily).
But even with this large toll on the environment
there is still hope, as Larsen explains that she has
seen many buildings and homes opt for LEED cer-
tification, a certificate developed by the U.S. Green
Building Council that measures green-building
practices and energy conservation.
"The number of certifications in the housing
dimension, either in new construction or in renova-
tion, has really been going up significantly," Larsen
This trend is also true on campus, as the Univr-
sity announced in Augustcthat it will require allnew
construction to meet LEED silver certification,.the
third highest in the LEED rating system.
Larsen said this announcement, as well as the
current search committees studying sustainabil-
ity practices on campus, demonstrate the Univer-
sity's commitment to reduce its carbon footprint.
"I think that we're lucky to be in this commu-
nity. There's a real enthusiasm, a general level of
enthusiasm," she said.
She added that as the number of people choos-
ing to build sustainable housing is increasing,
Ann Arbor is also in a position to easily improve
its eco-friendliness through business and supplier
"I think more and morethis is goingto be a com-
mon practice, not an unusual practice," she said.
As Trumpey's tour is interrupted by a runaway
cow, a survey of his property also reveals a farm
stocked with sheep and other various livestock
and a house complete with dogs, chinchillas, birds,
cats, snakes and lizards.
While some of the animals are in residence for
his wife's third grade class or for sale to an area pet
store, others, like the cows and sheep, are a con-
tinuation of Trumpey's sustainable practices.
Self-titled locavores, Trumpey and his family
See OFF THE GRID, Page 88