The undercover earthship

| 27 Oct 2017 | 12:25

“I was stalking it,” said Chris Bell, of the house that would eventually become his. “From the first time I came to a party here, I was looking in the basement like, ‘Where’s the UFO? What’s going on here?’”

From the outside, this house looks pretty typical: cedar siding, shingle roof, stone patio, expanse of well manicured lawn, porch where the winter’s woodpile is socked away. The most obvious sign that something’s different are the yucca trees, native to the Southwest, that reach up to the second story balcony of the glass sunroom – an exotic sight in Chester, NY.

The palm-like yuccas have clearly survived many a winter here. That’s because this is one of the earliest examples of a modern passive solar house, whose combination of super-insulated walls, glass southern exposure, and 800 water-filled plastic gallon bottles, allows the house to stay well above freezing even when its owners are on vacation in the dead of winter.

As we come in through the garage, Bell stands back so I can open the door into the foyer myself. I have to give it a good push, and then there’s a sucking sound, as the house’ super-insulated envelope is broken. The walls of this house are twice as thick as required by New York State code. Every beam is heavy and substantial – when Bell tried to replace one, he had to pay $2,000 and wait six weeks for the Douglas fir to ship from Canada.

“Everything is so overbuilt, it’s insane,” said Bell. There are no comparables on the market, obviously, but Bell’s insurance company told him it would cost $1.5 million to replace.

Bell, who first came to this house following a messy divorce, was attracted to the waste-not ethos and the outside-the-box thinking.

“You don’t always have to do what they tell you,” said Bell, and the original builder-owner of this house “is a great example of someone who thought that way. The rest of us are pumping oil through these houses and paying the man.”

But it was something else, too, something intangible, that sealed the deal on this a little-bit-odd house. “The whole vibe is peaceful and grounding,” Bell said. It’s whimsical: it has a sauna, steps leading up to the bathtub, many fireplaces. “I don’t know, it just makes me smile.”

Bell checked with his friend, retired architect Harvey Berg, who lives nearby, to get a second opinion. “Chris, nobody knows it, but if you buy that house, you and I will have the two coolest houses in Orange County,” Berg told him.

When Bell walks us out onto the sunroom balcony on a late summer morning, it’s 130 degrees. Sweat dampens my lower back immediately. This room is the “heat incubator.” During the day, hot air rises to twin vents on either side of the sunroom. When the thermometer hits 96 degrees, it triggers fans that pull the hot air to the lowest point -- down all the way into a shaft in the basement. There, the 800 gallon bottles of water, along with a monolithic central chimney, absorb the heat, releasing it over time to radiantly heat the house.

The story of the guy who built this place gets exaggerated, Bell told me, and proceeded to exaggerate the story. When I get Michael Pass on the phone, I can see why.

Pass, now 71, lives in another passive house he built (a better one, he claims) in Vermont. He spent his career as a New York City schoolteacher – partly because it kept him out of Vietnam -- but his passion was working with his hands. A lifetime NRA member, he used to breed game birds and German short-haired pointers on this property, inviting up to 30 guys from the city for the hunting parties and game dinners that would become the stuff of legend.

Politically conservative, he is not, he repeats not, an “environmentalist,” but a “conservationist.” Building a house that didn’t burn fossil fuels was not a political statement, he said. “For me, it was just common sense.”

Pass started building this house in 1980 after reading about a similar one in New Hampshire. He called the architect of that other house, “and we came up with a design based on what I wanted. It seemed pretty straightforward,” he said. “This design seemed like it would work fine -- and it did.” Sure he had to figure everything out for himself; he recalls looking in the yellow pages for a bottle manufacturer to get ahold of those 800 one-gallon jugs. But for Pass, whose current house has a “full-fledged observatory,” whose eclectic attainments include a Master’s in acoustic phonetics and hearing sciences, problem solving seems to be part of the thrill.

Fun fact: Pass used to keep his stepdaughter’s four-foot-long pet iguana in the sunroom here, taking it inside on cold winter nights. Two or three times he forgot, and had to blow-dry the iguana back to life in the morning. The iguana, which ended up living 30 years, just recently died.

There were a couple owners in between Pass and Bell, but Pass’ handwritten owner’s manual has been handed down with care. It includes instructions on how to adjust the louvres, three times a year, to maximize solar gain to the hot water pipes that run along the ceiling of the sunroom.

Bell had sensed from the first that his house was special. He knew that MIT had at some point come in and studied it. At his son’s boarding school, at parents’ weekend, Bell was sitting in a physics class while the teacher explained how radiant heat works. “He literally drew a basic diagram of our house,” Bell said. The teacher ended up coming over to Bells’ house, taking pictures to show to his classes.

But how special was it? In 2009, Bell took a trip to New Mexico with his son, who was considering studying at a college that specialized in earthships – the radically sustainable, passive solar houses that are made of natural and upcycled materials like glass bottles and old tires.

“They are cool,” acknowledged Bell. But the climate in New Mexico lends itself to passive solar construction, he said. Although most people don’t think of the Hudson Valley as a place of extreme temperatures, Bell’s greenhouse gets to 130 degrees at noon and drops to 40 that same night. “That is like Death Valley variation,” he said. His house did everything that these newer, flashier models did, he concluded -- and more.

“I was dying to see if my house was cooler than the earthships,” said Bell. “And it is.”