Living off the grid and outside the box

A visionary Fairbanks home proves that it can be easy being green

Story by Mara Severin • Photos by Arctic Edge Photography

Building designers
Karl Kassel; Thorsten Chlupp, REINA LLC
Energy Modeling with Passive Haus software PHPP07
Thorsten Chlupp
General contractor
Energy Star lighting fixtures
Tesco Total Electric; installed by A & K Electric
Stone masonry
Stone Castle Masonry
Custom birch, built by Dreamworks Cabinetry; installed by REINA, LLC
R65 REMOTE wall and framing
Blown cellulose, Superior Insulation
Custom scissor trusses
Fairbanks Truss Co.
Solar Thermal collection
4 - 4x10 flat plate collectors, Heliodyne exchanger; installed by ABS Alaskan Inc.
Solar PV collection
12 Kyocera 135 watt (1650 watt total); installed by ABS Alaskan Inc.
Wind turbine
Southwest Windpower Whisper 500 (3kw); installed by ABS Alaskan Inc.
Masonry heater with hydronic loop
Designed by Karl Kassel; built by Stone Castle Masonry
Annual heat storage and integrate renewable energy system
REINA, LLC; Mountain High Plumbing; and Karl Kassel
Integral passive heating design
Karl Kassel
Bamboo flooring
Teragren Studio vertical grain, Florcraft Carpet One; installed by Professional Laminate Floor Installations
Cork flooring
Ipocork Cork Flooring, Florcraft Carpet One; installed by Professional Laminate Floor Installations
Stained concrete floors
Rady Concrete Construction
Marmoleum low-VOC sheet flooring
Florcraft Carpet One; installed by H&R Flooring
Energy star appliances
Bosch washer and dryer, Sears; Bosch Integra dishwasher, Plumbing Showcase
Mountain silhouette backsplash
Designed by Karl Kassel; installed by Dreamworks Cabinetry LLC
Cabinet door pulls and outside stone work
Karl Kassel
Island, benches and planters stone work
Stone Castle Masonry
Dual-flush toilets and all plumbing fixtures
Plumbing Showcase
Custom triple pane argon filled with insulated fiberglass frames windows
Great Land Window

Karl and Billie Kassel of Fairbanks like to keep their home above 68 degrees – year round. They like to walk around barefoot – even in February. What they don't like to do is burn fossil fuel – so they don't. The Kassels live in one of the greenest homes in Alaska. A marvel of efficiency, their home is completely off the grid – relying on wind, solar and passive heat retention to stay warm and comfortable in one of Alaska's most punishing climates.

Karl first dreamt of building such a home during the energy crisis of the 1970s when gasoline was being strictly rationed. "I remember it distinctly," he says. "The lines were really long and I was baking in the sun waiting to get gas." Considering the country's reliance on petroleum, Karl concluded: "There has to be a better way." He began planning a zero energy house over three decades ago, and didn't stop planning until he built it.

Karl was patient. "I had to wait for technology to catch up," he says. But perhaps it's just as well – because his ideal piece of land was waiting for him: a hilltop lot that he saw first in 1975 while bird hunting. "It was a beautiful spot. I just sat down and enjoyed the view," he says. "There was something special about this place. It felt like I belonged here."

Stepping into uncharted territory

Secure in his vision, and having secured the perfect piece of land, Karl set out to secure the next essential element for the project: a building partner who could help him realize his vision. He found this in Thorsten Chlupp of REINA LLC, a contractor who specializes in highly energy-efficient homes. "We were a good combination," says Karl. "He had been waiting to do a project like this. When I approached him his eyes really lit up. He finally met someone to work with."

"We were going into uncharted territory," says Thorsten. "Projects like this had been done in Europe, but not in extreme cold climate. A lot of the things we did were experimental. Karl's home was an important stepping stone – a key project to move everything in the right direction."

Harnessing the sun

The technologies used in the home are not new, says Thorsten. "The unique part of this is that we're marrying together these different individual renewable energy systems. Together, they create one system that meets all the needs for the house."

The home utilizes a wind turbine and both solar thermal and solar PV (photovoltaic) collection systems. Heavily insulated walls and roofing (R65 and R90 values respectively) and a carefully designed passive heating design maximize the home's ability to gather, store and utilize the sun's energy. The rock planters and benches that encircle the home's interior – 16 tons of rock plus a ton of dirt -- are functional as well as beautiful. "They are for thermal mass to help retain the heat," explains Karl.

A masonry firebox with a hydronic loop provides warmth and heats the domestic water supply. "Stainless steel coils are built into the firebox," explains Thorsten, "So every time you build a fire, you provide heat for the water supply." That the home's rock soaking tub is located on the backside of the heat box is a clever and very luxurious detail. The water stays hot and encourages marathon soaking sessions.

'Just let the heat in…'

The results exceeded their expectations and the expectations of the sophisticated computer models that they used before building. "Even I'm shocked," says Karl. "And I designed it and that was the intention." The Kassels went for seven months – from early March into the middle of October – without using one BTU of heat, he says. "The house stayed between 68 and 73 degrees for seven months using no energy. We didn't use any mechanical system whatsoever. It was totally free. We just let the heat in."

Over the winter, the couple used only two cords of firewood to keep the house warm and to provide two-thirds of their domestic hot water.

Karl wants to dispel the notion that green design means sacrificing comfort. "I'm not into being a Spartan," he says. "I want to be comfortable and this is the most comfortable home I've ever been in." He's changing that notion one guest at a time. "People come here knowing they're coming to a green house and they put on an extra jacket," he says with a laugh. "Then they're peeling their layers off when they get here."

A river runs through it

The home is a celebration of Alaska's natural beauty and the couple's love for it. The rocks that make up the benches, planters, earth and even the rock drawer-pulls, hand-made by Karl, represent decades of collecting. "This house is our rock collection," he says.

Perhaps the most personal décor element in the home is the meandering river that is stained into the concrete flooring. Karl and Billie, who love to canoe, wanted a natural, organic delineation between the living spaces in the home. The "river" – complete with "rapids" made from stone – creates breaks between the living room, dining room and kitchen.

The ebb and flow of the river is a theme that runs throughout the home. "We love the outdoors," says Karl. "We don't like living in a box." Indeed, the house is a love letter to the asymmetry and gentle curves of an Alaska landscape. From the dramatic octagonal shape of the structure itself, to the curves of the rock planters and benches that envelop the house, to the kitchen island. Even the masonry firebox was given the curved and asymmetrical treatment. Dan Givens of Stone Castle Masonry was so pleased with the results that he entered it into a design contest by the Masonry Heater Association of North America and took second place. "Nature erodes things and makes them rounded," says Karl. "There are no squares in nature."

And while the home is protected against the harshness of the Alaska environment, it is exposed to the beauty of it. Expansive windows (6' by 17' wide) frame amazing views – including Denali on a clear day. "We call the place 'Sunset Roost' because of the fantastic evening displays outside our living room window," says Karl.

Talking a leap of faith

Thorsten considers Karl a pioneer. "When we first started talking about these systems in Europe and how they could work here too, there were no guarantees," he says. "It took a tremendous leap of faith." But for Karl, says Thorsten, "the house is all about the principle. He wants to show what is possible." The home, he says, "is about waking people up."