Down a gravel road that cuts through steep wooded river bluffs along the Spoon River is a passive solar home with international provenance. With input from Mother Earth News, books and friends, the home rose from a footprint positioned in a small clearing to capitalize on views and the transit of the sun across a winter sky. In the middle of summer, the sun does not enter the house at all.
Down a gravel road that cuts through steep wooded river bluffs along the Spoon River is a passive solar home with international provenance.
The home was conceived in the mind of Noel Lane while he was in Vietnam during the war.
It's the only house along a three-mile stretch of road in a setting so peaceful that bald eagles and coyotes are more likely to visit than neighbors. In winter, Lane's wife, Jamie, used to return home from third shift at the hospital where she worked, park on the main road and cross country ski in moonlight the rest of the way home.
"When I was in the Army, I was concerned things wouldn't be here when I got back, so when I got out, I joined the Sierra Club," Lane said.
With input from Mother Earth News, books and friends, the home rose from a footprint positioned in a small clearing to capitalize on views and the transit of the sun across a winter sky. In the middle of summer, the sun does not enter the house at all.
Lane's brother John, a master carpenter/philosopher on Denman Island in British Columbia, spent weeks at a stretch working on the home as it evolved over the years.
In the end, the house is as much about art and environmental philosophy as it is about science and construction engineering. It's an artistic bricolage, from thermal windows purchased at a library fundraiser to 15,000 brick pavers dating back a century from a store in St. Augustine to marble salvaged from a bank renovation in Galesburg.
There's a dangling knotted rope used by the Lanes' sons to climb to the highest loft bedroom and a handcrafted wooden panel on a rolling barn door frame that separates the master bedroom from the rest of the upstairs.
The home challenges conventional thinking about energy requirements and building materials. Even with largely salvaged materials, Lane created a comfortable and richly aesthetic environment.
The connection here between home and environment goes beyond heating or cooling and roots this home in these woodland ravines. The woodwork and furniture were crafted under the inspiration of furniture maker George Nakashima. Lane brought a portable saw to the property and milled planks and timbers from downed oak, walnut, honey locust, ash and elm trees. Rather than squaring the timbers, many still gesture toward long lost limbs.
Even the trusses, beams, doors, stairs, cabinets and tables celebrate the uniqueness of every tree from grains and burls to curves, textures and insect holes.
John Lane, 20, said his father can't sit at the walnut kitchen table without running his hand along the edge to experience yet again the girth and organic proportions of the tree.
The Shaker-style walnut kitchen cabinets are all from one massive tree that grew on the property. The cabinet doors are from one large plank of walnut with perfectly mirrored grain.
Kitchen and bathroom countertops are white marble purchased after a Galesburg bank remodeled and tore out its marble paneling. Even the 18-gauge double stainless steel sink in the kitchen is recycled and purchased not for $600, but for $20.
On a recent morning in mid-February, the home radiated with the warmth of a sunny day. Because of the home's design, heat is retained for days.
"A temperature of 66 degrees inside is comfortable, but 66 degrees in many houses is not comfortable," Noel Lane said. "That's because here, the house is 66 degrees, not the air inside the house."
Thermal mass keeps a passive solar home from overheating on sunny days and stores the heat until needed. Besides massive 12-by-12 inch timbers, thermal mass comes from the floor with the 15,000 salvaged brick pavers Lane purchased for 5 cents each.
He spent 12 hours a day for 30 days installing the bricks on a thick insulated concrete slab. The floor is bordered with slate from blackboards removed from the old Cuba High School.
When the family was gone for a week at Christmas and there was no fire in the stove, interior temperatures never dipped below 42 degrees despite cold temperatures outside.
"The only way this house could freeze would be if a window were broken." Lane said.
In a recent experiment, he let the wood fire burn out and went for 60 hours without relighting it. The outside temperature hit 27 degrees but inside the temperature over that extended period only dropped from 68 degrees to 55 degrees.
Even with supplemental heat from his Jotul stove, which he calls the best wood stove ever built, the family rarely burns more than three cords of wood a year, which Lane cuts himself.
He said key elements that make passive solar effective are orientation, window placement, open floor plan and thermal mass. His utility bill in winter totals less than $85 a month for about 2,000 square feet of living space, as well as powering two deep freezers and a 15-year-old refrigerator.
Noel and Jamie Lane home schooled their sons but bought a house in Macomb so their youngest son could finish high school there. He and his mother live in town during the week.
Lane, now retired from teaching in the Cuba public schools, and his oldest son, John, who just graduated from Knox College, live in the passive solar home.
"I don't want to knock homes that are highly engineered to use the least amount of material, but in this home, big timbers make sense because they provide thermal mass," Lane said. "We have houses in this country designed by some guy in New Jersey who draws up the plans and that house is built all over the country without regard to the environment."
His son, John, said, "On the most basic level, we are just one thread in the fabric. The great fallacy of the modern human condition is we live apart and above everything else. This house is a rejection of that view.
"So much of modern culture is the image of the thing versus the thing itself. Any one of these timbers could be sliced into 50 sheets of veneer, cut and commodified to look the same and function the same. Here, unique pieces of wood are encouraged to talk for themselves."
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.