The House That Green Built

Image by Ellis Calvin

photo by by Ellis Calvin

What comes next for an ex-competitive triathlete with a love for all things Russian and an expertise in carpentry? Building Chicago’s most sustainable house, apparently.

Tim Heppner, a native of Iowa whose roots ultimately lead back to Chicago, thought about buying a plot of land in the country and building an eco-friendly abode in the shade of the forest. But the more he thought about it, the more it just seemed like a practice in hypocrisy–why use new resources to build on an untouched plot of land when you can improve what has already been built? The opportunity to invest in the latter idea presented itself when an acquaintance put her house on the market. Heppner and his brother Charles, although unsure of their plans, decided to buy the property in 2005 and let it sit while they formulated their next steps.

And formulate they did. What began as a project to build a more efficient house spiraled quickly into an all-encompassing mission of extremes; literally every inch of the property has been scrutinized for its environmental impact, from the furthest blades of glass on the lawn to the lumber in the walls. Even the location of the house–on South Marquette Avenue, in the neighborhood of South Chicago–has been determined a good fit for environmentally friendly living, as it falls within walking distance of bike paths, the Metra, and several bus stops.

While the building is not projected to be completed until  the beginning of June, much of the structure is already in place and in use. Currently lacking siding but cloaked in pink insulation, the house is already habitable for Heppner, who occasionally sleeps there when the sun goes down and he doesn’t feel like walking to the Metra. The insulation alone has reduced the building’s energy use by 70 percent, meaning his incomplete, unheated house is comparable to the already built and heated house next door. “This place has better climate control than my brother’s apartment,” he says.

But before Heppner even began his construction on the house–which, in addition to the new insulation, included gutting the inside and reversing the floor plan–he waited and watched how it interacted with the natural elements. He mapped out the elevation changes in his lawn and measured the angles at which the sun hit the windows in the summer and winter months. He researched roughly the amount of rain that falls on his property annually (200,000 gallons) and, from that amount, how much flows into the sewer system (100,000 gallons). It was partially the simple and ancient habit of watching and understanding the Earth’s processes that inspired so many of Heppner’s construction methods.

“It became an academic exercise for me,” he explains, gesturing toward the piles of books lining the shelves in his combination bedroom and workspace. “The questions were, ‘How can we reduce our long-term costs?’ and then ‘How can it be environmentally friendly?’” The reference books on the subject seem to be targeted toward the bourgeois environmentalists–those who want only organic lavender in their linen water. “All of the houses I was looking at were in the 3 to 3.5 million dollar range,” Heppner says of the homes in his books. “I was sure there must be a way to do it less expensively.”

Some of the ways in which Heppner built sustainably actually went hand-in-hand with saving money. After he gutted the inside of the house, he didn’t go looking for the most eco-friendly new lumber available; instead, he saved the high-quality, old-growth lumber that he removed from the house and planted it right back inside as wall planks and wood floors–in his design. Heppner’s leftover material sits in his garage, waiting for a little creativity and a new project. Patting the dirty pile of lumber, he explains jokingly, “We call it biomass. We don’t call it firewood, like normal people.”

While some of the infrastructure, particularly the energy-saving appliances, has proven more costly, much of the alteration and construction has just been a game of working with the weather patterns. After calculating the angles of the sun’s rays in alternating seasons, Heppner repositioned the windows so that the maximum amount of sunlight would enter the house in the winter and the minimum would come through in the summer. Adding in solar panels between the windows will further increase the heat available from the sun in the winter.

After learning the rain averages and mapping out the lawn’s terrain, Heppner built a rain garden at the lowest level in the yard, where the rain drains. The garden, dug five inches deeper in to the ground, is capable of holding 900 gallons of water–filled in with wood chips, it can support local, semi-aquatic plants such as red milkweed, sweet black-eyed Susan, and ironweed. Once the rain drains into the garden, it eventually replenishes the local aquifer. Other rain traps on the property include several rain barrels which collect run-off from the roof (to later be distributed throughout the lawn), a vegetable garden (from which kale from last summer is already springing up), and a butterfly garden. In addition, the garage will have a vegetative roof.

The municipal water supply will prove unusually useful in heating the Heppner household as well–by keeping an 80-gallon water storage tank and running the water through a thermal solar panel, Heppner will be able to heat the water without a gas-powered water heater. He will also run a series of pipes with the water, called a “sub-slab earth loop,” under the house to provide heat in the winter and cooling conditions in the summer.

While Tim Heppner has been the major designer of their new eco-dwelling, his brother Charles has been instrumental in providing the funds. An artist whose works have been displayed in Pilsen, Charles is also a vegan with a fervent interest in the vegetable garden.

One of Charles’ major concerns has been the eradication of extraneous costs, which is something his brother makes sure to emphasize as well: “It’s about freedom–imagine not having a utility bill.” Some may scoff at the Heppners’ efforts, perceiving a need to gain eco-cred, but the practical side of the issue can hardly be dismissed. “I’m a cheap bastard,” Tim Heppner explains.

For now, the “homeless” life is a comfortable and familiarly unorthodox situation for Heppner, whose established residence is still in Iowa City and who, as the fourth of nine children, can always find a bed to crash on in the city. When he prefers not to leave the house, he rolls out a sleeping mat–an arrangement he plans to continue even after the house is finished–and spends the night in his unfinished eco-abode. Some might find the instability of the situation intimidating, but Heppner shrugs it off, explaining, “That’s the way my life is.” An autodidact at heart, Heppner’s carpentry experience has been independent and largely self-taught, while his degrees–a major in Health, Leisure, and Sports Studies and a minor in Russian Studies–came later in life. Following the standard path to success has never been Heppner’s style.

As far as the future is concerned, his new passion has opened up a wealth of opportunities–from a potential position as an adjunct professor in a local college to the possibility of building modular homes in Russia. In addition, with President Obama expounding on the virtues of weatherization on every news network available, Heppner has found himself the unlikely expert in a suddenly relevant field. As the stimulus money rolls into Chicago, Heppner may end up with a much bigger role than anticipated. But for now, installing dual flush toilets and rolling out the Japanese bed mat will do.

To hear more extensive plans for Tim Heppner’s eco-house and talk to him in person, sign up for the University of Chicago Divinity School’s luncheon for April 14; $5 at the door, $4 with a student ID. E-mail to sign up or for more information.