Green Oak Farm and Water Part I

This past week, Janet and I each found ourselves at the usually peaceful Green Oak Farm watching a Bobcat and several dump trucks hard at work digging two large holes at the northern edge of our property. The topsoil was first removed and piled in the area which will become our orchard. The dense clay was removed and hauled away to be used as fill material. The areas were then filled in with a special mixture of soil, humus, and sand. These will become two of four planned rain gardens. These features are essential to Green Oak Farm’s water management plan.



Water management is very important under the LEED for Homes standard. The source, efficient use, and conservation of water are essential to any LEED for Homes project, and Green Oak Farm is no exception.

One of the principal concerns in any construction project is managing surface water. Nevertheless, given the soil structure in Northeast Indiana, which generally consists of a modest layer of topsoil and underlying layer of dense clay, our ground is almost as impermeable as asphalt. The topography is relatively flat, as is most of our region. Most of the surface water tends to drain into a large swale which meanders along the southern edge of the property, curving along the Western edge to the Northwest corner. In addition, the back of the property tends to drain towards the Northeast corner, although the elevation change is slight.

We have to be careful in managing the rainwater that hits any hard surfaces because the soil is relatively impermeable. A pervious driveway is essential. Our driveway will be 500 feet long or perhaps even more. It will remain a permeable gravel driveway to allow rainwater to be absorbed naturally.

LEED requires that we minimize water draining into the storm sewers. The idea is that the water should be managed on site. If the soil is able to absorb the rainfall, then it should be able to manage pollutants in the rainfall and its roof runoff. LEED requires that at least 90% of annual rainfall be managed on site. With this in mind, Earth Source, our landscape architecture firm, has designed the property to have several rain gardens. These are specially designed and built areas within the property of appropriate location and size with soil and plants designed it to manage excessive flows of water, even from a prolonged heavy rainfall.

In addition, we need to manage the water coming from the roofs at Green Oak Farm as well. The roofing materials are, most likely, going to be steel roofing, with a 100 year lifespan and which adds no toxic chemicals to the water flowing from its surface. These will drain into protected gutters and then through downspouts. In a conventionally constructed home, the downspouts would either dump the water out onto the surrounding lawn or into a dry well. However, given our dense clay subsoil, water dissipates so slowly that dry wells are impractical. Rainwater is, however, a gift. It is free, necessary, and irregular. Our solution is to run a series of PVC pipes along the outer edge of the footers of the foundation and collect the roof drainage and store it is a large cistern, likely to be located on the North side of our property. It can then be used to water our gardens and orchards.

Returning to our site this weekend, the quiet, peaceful sounds of the wind rustling the still attached brown pin oak leaves, the scurrying squirrels had returned. But is very obvious that SOMETHING is happening here.

Next step: Deconstruction versus demolition.


Fall Firewood

Friday night I found myself on the concrete pad of the driveway at the existing house in 40° and drizzling rain while I assembled two 10 foot long Woodhaven firewood racks which I purchased through They're a bit pricey, but seem to be incredibly well made and very sturdy. Despite the cold, they actually went together very easily. They only required two 7/16"  wrenches. It took me about an hour to assemble both racks.

The next day was Saturday. It was a beautiful 48°, clear and sunny when we stepped out of the car onto the leaf covered grounds at GreenOak Farm. There was definitely a nip of fall in the air. The remaining 2 Ash trees, which we have elected to treat for emerald ash borer, flamed magnificent shades of yellow, gold and scarlet red. The low angle of the sun in the morning made them glow. I had to snap a photograph with my iPhone.

Previously, Tom had come and cut down most of the trees around the existing house and left the trunks near the residual stumps. We have two large ash trunks, two maple trunks, and a pin oak trunk which we will attempt to preserve over the winter so that they can be moved to a local sawmill and turned into lumber for our new home. The branches and leaves have been chipped, shredded, and hauled to the back. They now sit in a pile to be composted. They will eventually form the brown matter in the soil that will become our orchard.

Our friend Barb was there with a chainsaw and a log splitter We began the hard work of cutting up the trees and splitting them with the hydraulic splitter. I tried to be especially careful, given that I earn my living with my hands, and a gasoline powered hydraulic log splitter would be unforgiving. Fortunately, we had no injuries all day. Janet, running the wheelbarrow, managed to keep up with me and cart the split logs over to the southern edge of the property, stacking them neatly in the racks which I assembled on Friday evening.

We had planned on 3 to 4 hours of hard work. We ended up spending 5. At the end of the day, we had filled both racks, and had enough probably for two more racks. That is for another day. Nevertheless, it was a labor well worth it. We actually have the better part of 2 chords of wood all neatly stacked to be seasoned so that it can be burned in the fireplace or in a fire pit to be constructed behind the house.


The Journey Begins in Earnest

Having gone through Kubler-Ross's first four stages of grieving, we have reached acceptance. Our large home in a suburban development has been vacated, fixed up, and sold. Most of our possessions were put into storage, and we are now settled into a nearby rental property. This move allows us a great deal of flexibility in our finances and our timing as we move forward.  We have met with our friends & financial advisors at Galecki Financial Management and have our financial house in order.  We are now methodically and soberly proceeding with our dream.

From the sale of our home, we had sufficient funds in the bank that we were able to pay off the mortgage on the property on which we will be building Green Oak Farm. We did this because without a lien on the property, we would eliminate the monthly mortgage interest and could do as we wished with the site.

We talked with our builder, Larry Crane, and decided that it made sense to go ahead and prepare the site for construction.  By taking the house down now, we can save more money over the next 12-18 months by eliminating insurance payments and minimizing our property taxes.  In addition it makes the timeline of the construction of the new house more predictable.

The first phase of site preparatory work on the grounds has been completed.  The initial killing of the lawn in June was successful.  Heartland Restoration walked the grounds this past week and we are ready to do the next round of broad-leaf weed control this fall.  More details about the prairie preparation will be forthcoming in a future blog post.

Electricity and gas to the existing house have been disconnected. The gas line on the site will be severed from the main line in the coming week to prevent any potential accidents during deconstruction or construction.  We still need to cut the water line to the house from the well, and cap it off.  

Two years ago, our architect, Tim Gray, introduced us to Dan Chase and Brook Linton of Solid State LLC.  Dan is a local architect who studied with Tim at Ball State.  Solid State LLC is a small company based in Muncie, Indiana that specializes in deconstruction of wood framed structures and material repurposing. Many of the houses they deconstruct are older and have valuable architectural salvage materials such as wood molding or hardwood flooring.  Our 1970’s ranch house is well built, but has no special architectural features.  Our plan is to deconstruct the house to keep what goes to the landfill to an absolute minimum.  We will recycle the asphalt shingles, give the kitchen cabinets to a friend and donate whatever possible to the local Habitat for Humanity Restore.  The wood frame of the home will be taken apart piece by piece and we will store the wood.   As we near the completion of the new house, we will use this wood to construct several structures on the site: a large storage shed for gardening supplies, a firewood shelter, a shelter for bicycles and recycling bins near the road and a couple of dog houses.  These structure will be very useful for us and reuse these building materials well.

Prior to deconstruction, we needed to remove some trees from around the house.  Some were old and sick and some were beautiful and healthy, but unfortunately in a location that would interfere with the construction of the new home.  We hired Tom Myers of Myers Plant Health Care LLC to manage all of our trees on the site.  Tom is an experienced and knowledgeable arborist who embraces our vision of sustainability for the property.  He will be working with us over the coming years to prudently trim and treat the trees on the site and to selectively plant new ones.  

The trees that came down will largely be cut, split, and stacked for future use as firewood.  One oak tree, several dying ash trees, and a maple will be evaluated for potential use as decorative and functional elements in the house. We will be talking to a local sawmill this week so see if these are suitable. We hope to use them for the mantle over the fireplace and perhaps elsewhere as a visible reminder of what was lost to make what will be.

The effect of this activity has been to affirm our excitement about Green Oak Farm, and to rejuvenate our enthusiasm.

The Existing House Before Tree Removal.....

And After!


The Path Forward

Our posts in May were written with such optimism.  Some might say with the naïveté of someone who has never built a home before, especially a “green” home, and especially in Indiana.


The appraisal process that typically takes two weeks for a standard subdivision home took nearly two months for us.  When we finally did meet with our team at Tower Bank, the news wasn’t good.  The two appraisals both came back significantly lower than we were hoping, low enough that we couldn’t break ground this summer.


Our initial reactions were tears and despair for the possibility that all our dreams and all our planning may have been for naught.  Our second reactions were anger and frustration at the short sighted and narrow-minded way our project had been appraised.  Our third reactions were determination and resolve - to save our pennies and proceed with our dream on our own terms.


When we received the news that we could not break ground this summer, it caused us to step back and question the fundamental reasons why we wanted to build Green Oak Farm in the first place.  We are both currently 53 years old.  We are settled here with stable employment and significant ties to the community. However, if we are going to live here for the remainder of our working lives and beyond, we feel strongly about being in a home where we can live a life consistent with our values.  We had already devoted so much time, energy and money into this project that the prospect of walking away was very troubling.  We debated the pros and cons of moving to a more environmentally conscious community or significantly cutting back the size & scope of the project.  Starting over at age 53 is not something to be considered lightly and if we made Green Oak Farm smaller, would it really suit our needs? Would the appraisal come back even lower?  There were no easy answers.


Regarding the appraisals, we knew from the start that this would be a challenge.  We have been working with our team at Tower Bank for two years and had warned them that the design of our house was going to be “outside the box”.  The house does not look weird, but its fundamental design and many of its features make it very unique.  Tower Bank told us that they asked two of the area’s most experienced appraisers to evaluate our project, but neither had any experience in assessing the value of “green” homes.   The comparable homes that they chose were huge, fancy, standard construction homes with lots of fireplaces and bathrooms and no attempt at sustainability.  In all fairness, there are NO other comparable LEED certified homes in our area, which is exactly the reason we want to build one.  The appraisers concluded that since there are NO “green” homes in our area, therefore the “green” features of our project have NO value in this market.   We were astonished that on the appraisal form on a line item listed as “Energy Efficient Items”, our project was listed as “standard” and the mansions they used for comps listed swimming pools and tennis courts under that line item. 


Needless to say we plan to appeal the appraisal.  At the end of the day, it may not change the bottom line of the construction loan very much, but at least we can educate and inform some folks along the way that ICF construction, solar panels, geothermal heating/cooling, really good windows, etc. DO ADD VALUE to a home in Indiana.


So once we stopped being angry, we started crunching numbers….lots of them….all directed at figuring out how long it would take us to save enough money that we could afford to break ground…..and would the delay in the project mess up our savings for retirement.   Our financial circumstances have changed a lot over the past year.  We have sold our “subdivision” home, and moved into a rental townhouse, with many of our things in storage.   Our children have in all practicality moved away so our living expenses are largely those of “empty nesters”.  After a couple of weeks of compiling spreadsheets and trying to look at them from all the angles, we have concluded that we should be able to break ground late summer of 2013 or as a last resort, in the early spring of 2014.


It’s not the path we had hoped for, but it in the long run, it may actually work out for the best.  The smaller the construction loan now, the smaller the mortgage in the future, a sustainable concept looking toward retirement.  The wait now is difficult, but the anticipation of living on Green Oak Farm is sweet.


Green Oak Farm

Green Oak Farm

We recently had a meeting with Larry Crane and Craig Burgess of Crane Construction and have just toasted being on the cusp of finally starting the construction of our home. The “numbers” were enough that we were comfortable taking the project to Tower Bank for appraisal. That process should come to a conclusion soon. Deconstruction and groundbreaking should follow.

 A bit about the house design. We live in Indiana. The topology is quite flat. Indiana sits on the transition from the Eastern forests and the central prairie. The Hoosier State is know for its family farms. We wanted to combine these concepts with our own personal environmental and aesthetic vision.

We began to search for inspiration. One of my greatest weaknesses is my tendency to become fixated on a specific topic and totally immerse myself in it. I read Toward a Zero Energy Home: A Complete Guide to Energy Self-Sufficiency at Home  and Green from the Ground Up: Sustainable, Healthy, and Energy-Efficient Home Construction  each book  by David Johnston, and Scott Gibson, and I listened to the Green Architect’s Lounge podcast ( Finally, I read Susan Susanka’s The Not so Big House.

I knew we were on to something. Janet and I poured over dozens and dozens of home magazines and books. We found and met Tim Gray. He listened to us, looked at many of the photographs of houses that we showed to him, and came up to see our site.

I have always enjoyed gardening. Janet has joked that I will be a farmer in my next life! Through our son, Jamie, we learned about Urban Agriculture. Ultimately, we came up with the idea of our home as a farm. The resulting project has been named Green Oak Farm, in part because of the beautiful pin oaks on the property. These are rare in this part of Indiana, evidently.

Often, farm buildings are built at different times, as they are needed. Our home has been envisioned to appear as a series of individual buildings joined at their corners. They surround a central courtyard on the East. Within the courtyard are a raised bed vegetable garden, and herb and flower gardens. The courtyard should be aesthetically pleasing, it focuses the inhabitants attention on the gardens, and it creates a sheltered microclimate for our gardens. A small orchard is next to the gardens and, in the future, a small greenhouse could be added to overwinter tender plants and grow vegetables to extend our harvest.

On the front of the house, on its western side are gardens designed to encourage visits by birds with a small area of “no mow” grass. A living “green wall” will adorn the southern exposure of the garage. The garage is designed to echo a barn in its design. The landscape around these areas transitions to tall-grass prairie. The goal is to create a balance between the human environment, “the farm”, and the surrounding natural world.

Yes, this did initially start out to be a “not so big” house. We freely admit that the size of this house is probably the least sustainable aspect of this project. However, the idea was to create a home in which we could age in place, in touch with the environment, yet large enough to use to entertain and teach. We wanted to assist in creating an environmentally conscious construction infrastructure in Northeast Indiana. If those in our tax bracket don’t embrace these practices, then they won’t be available for the average home.