Living in the Nauhaus: An efficiency success story

Our Nauhaus experience began in a grocery store. Back in April 2011, we were living with Maggie, our 45-pound mutt, in a dark, bunker-like apartment in the Brucemont Circle neighborhood of West Asheville. What the place lacked in light it made up for in cheapness of rent and proximity to Haywood Road’s many amenities.

It was a chance meeting in a local supermarket with Jeff and Jeannine Buscher, the owners of the Nauhaus (Jeff was also the engineer during construction), that put the ball in motion for us to consider moving. We had not only watched the house rise from its foundation, we also had solid connections with many of the folks who had a hand, along with some blood, sweat and tears, in pulling it all together. We’re friends with Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan, the founders of The Nauhaus Institute, along with folks like Lisa Mandle and Jennifer Bennett, who created the original layout and architectural drawings for the house, respectively. And so, after learning that Jeff and Jeannine were moving up to Weaverville to tend to their thriving kombucha business, Buchi, and were looking for responsible renters for the house, we enthusiastically raised our hands: Pick us, pick us!

Thankfully, they did, and we moved in about the middle of June 2011. That means, as we write this, we have lived in the Nauhaus for more than 15 months — a period of time where we’ve had the chance to experience each season at least once.

Full disclosure: We are not builders or engineers. (Darren is a freelance writer, and Stephanie is an urban planner.) That means our perspective on what it’s like living in the Nauhaus is largely limited to what we see, feel and hear. Yes, we have been told all the wonders of hempcrete, R-values and the insulating properties of krypton-gas-infused windows (nothing to see here, Superman!). All great stuff, no doubt, but much of it flies over our heads. What we do understand is that the house’s passive-solar design provides an amazingly light-filled atmosphere that is both airy or cozy, depending on what we want it to be.

Whether it’s the cooling touch of the earthen blocks that make up the living room floor under our bare feet or the birdsong that wafts in through the dual sets of French doors that open up to the outside (which also recently served as a great spot to snap a picture of a bear snacking on our bird feeders), the Nauhaus is full of pleasing sensory experiences.

If the weather isn’t great outside, say too hot or cold for open windows, the combination of 16-inch walls and the fresh-air-circulation system does an efficient job of keeping the house comfortable. Jeff Buscher says of his time living in the house, “We turned the heat pump off in February and passive solar heat alone kept the house between 68 and 78. There was no overheating, and on a less-than-20-degree winter day without sun, the house only loses a degree or two in a day.” There is also the hint of lime (the mineral not the fruit) in the plaster on the walls that freshens things up.

Because the sun shines directly inside the house during the winter, and deflects above the roof line during the summer, we can restrict our use of the four electric mini-split heat pumps that are spread throughout the house. When we do turn them on, those wall-mounted heating and cooling units are not only great at warming up a room in mere minutes, you can also engage them in dehumidifier mode to decrease lingering humidity you might run into during the middle of summer.

The home is prewired for solar electric panels, but those have not been installed yet, so we pay two utility bills each month: one for the electricity used in the house and the other to power the well that the builders installed when the water department told them the water line was too small to accommodate another house.

We consistently pay about $20 a month to power the well (the water from which is delicious after it’s been processed through a non-chemical filter). When it comes to powering the house, our monthly electric bill averages $57, with a high of $93 last January. Again, we’re no experts, but based on the reactions most folks give us when we share that statistic, we’re guessing that’s pretty good.

We’re also able to shave a few kilowatts here and there by drying all of our clothes, washed in a high-efficiency washing machine, year-round, on the home’s rear deck, which gets ample sun most of the day. Buscher also noted, “The experimental waste-water heat-recovery system that is hooked to the incoming ‘cold’ line of the shower supply has performed well. The cold-water supply line gets warm to the touch when someone is taking a shower.”

One of our favorite aspects about the design of the Nauhaus is how it maximizes the use of outdoor space, where we get to enjoy covered areas on both sides of the house — including an enclosed outdoor dining room in the front. We’ve had many great mornings sipping coffee and doing our New York Times crossword puzzles, along with evenings spent entertaining our friends and family regardless of what Mother Nature was up to.

When lounging outdoors, we also have enjoyed the countless walkers and drivers-by who can’t help but pause as they pass the house, because they’re drawn in by the green roof that shields the front porch and gobbles up gallons of rainwater. Covered in flowering succulents, the “groof” shows off its range of colors from spring through fall.

The yard itself, which is a narrow one-quarter-acre plot that runs downhill from Talmadge Street down to Rhododendron Creek, is also a point of pride for us, as we personally have helped shape it along the sustainable lines drawn by the permaculture team, led by Sara Brinker. You’ll find flowering edible treats like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, to go along with apple trees, Brussels sprouts and sweet potato vines, all growing in a series of beds that adorn the home’s perimeter. There’s even a bridge that’s part of a path connecting us to our neighbors living in the Gaia Community across the creek.

As far as nitpicks go, there’s our sense of longing for an old-fashioned fireplace — something the German Passive House standard frowns upon, since it creates a hole in a home’s envelope.

When you add everything up, though, we’ve truly come to love the place we live in — that is also why we puff up with pride when we play host to the growing number of people who come to visit the house from all over the world — everyone from former interns who helped build the house to a minister in the Canadian government who wants to tap into the demand for hemp-based building materials.

We don’t entirely know what the future holds for us when it comes to our life in the Nauhaus. What’s clear is that the time the team spent thinking differently about how to build a house paid off in ways beyond creating something that’s green, carbon-neutral and energy-efficient. It’s a great place to live, period.

Designer: The Nauhaus Institute Asheville,
Construction: Red Shed Woodworks, Asheville.
Special thanks to: the many who contributed to the success of the Nauhaus

The Nauhaus was featured in the 2010 Green Building Directory, the year it was completed.

Darren Dahl writes for publications such as Inc. magazine and the New York Times. Stephanie Monson Dahl is an urban planner and the riverfront development coordinator for the city of Asheville.