What I Do: An Interview with David Bearg

David Bearg

I met with David Bearg the other day in his home to talk about what he's done with his home to make it more sustainable. Quite a bit as you'll find out below.

Why did you get interested in conservation? 

I guess a lot has to do with that fact that I consider myself an environmentalist and have been since at least the first Earth Day, when I participated in marches and demonstrations.  Contributing to this is my educational background in both chemical engineering and environmental health.  I also try and figure out how people will need to live in the future and start living that way now.  Having been at this for a number of years, I've managed to take steps that let me live more simply on this planet. So that means my house is very easy to heat. Last year I spent less than $600.00 to heat this 2,800 sq. ft. house. Part of that is that the house is very well insulated and very well suited for capturing passive solar energy for warmth, so on sunny days I don’t need to add heat. Also I have a wood stove, and a small wood lot, so if you don't count my time and energy, my wood is free. 

In terms of heating the home, when you start thinking about how heat is lost, a lot of heat is lost out of the windows. Even though your windows might be only 10% of the wall area, 50% or half the heat, can be going out the windows. So one thing I'm doing is try to figure out different ways to reduce the heat loss out the windows when the room’s not being used or at night, when there's no view to look at anyway.  One of my projects is therefore building or buying different insulated window treatments.

Another thing I try to do is grow a little bit more of my food each year.  My motivation here is that the next time energy costs hit a bump in the road, I suspect that food costs will be getting a triple whammy. Fuel costs for tractor use and distribution costs will of course increase. A lot of traditional food sources also rely on fossil fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Although, by trying to go organic there's less pesticide and herbicide use.  One way to grow more of my own food is to extend the growing season.  I have an attached greenhouse, which has the ability to store heat in rocks, and has an automatic gray water irrigation system, and so helps me get an early start on my plants.  When I took my shower this morning, that water automatically got reused in the soil bed.

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. I also built a little growing chamber so I could start seeds on the 6th of January and some of them were up on the 8th because there's this little insulated chamber with a hot pad and moisture so it makes it very easy to start the seedlings so I can get a jump on the growing season. I also have two cold frames outside so I can see how well they work with the greenhouse and I work on the greenhouse in my spare time.

How were you able to figure out how to do all these things? Do you think it had something to do with your education?

Yes, clearly that helped, with degrees in both engineers and environmental health, but I think there's also this psychological thing. When I was a teenager, I spent two summers at a camp called Buck’s Rock, and the basic premise of this camp was to immerse kids in a very creative environment and let them decide what they want to do. So, as a teen I was instilled with the motivation to do projects, to try and create something. Those who know me, also know that I'm not happy unless I have at least one project. Something to occupy my creative design urges.

We have a shared community access to White Pond. And I thought it'd be a nicer place if there was a raft. So I got it in my head to build a raft. We have a fledgling email discussion group in the neighborhood, so I said, if people pledge enough money, I'll go ahead and make it happen. So people agreed and pledged enough money to do this. Here's this great deal on the internet. This is the last one and it's not complete. I said, well half a raft is more use to me than no raft, so send me what you have. Then I had to figure out how to do the rest and there were some interesting design challenges, but I came out with a really nice raft. I really enjoyed that process. When it was time to take it out of the water, people were amazed when they saw that the seemingly solid deck came apart into two pieces, which made it very easy to store for the winter.

I bought this place 35 years ago, and started with a 700 sq. ft. cottage, then just started doing things. I have a friend in the community, Mark Ward, who tries to prevent greenhouse materials from being bulldozed into the ground. So, with his help, I built a greenhouse on the south side of the house. Since I have been influenced by New Alchemy Institute, a place on the Cape near Falmouth, trying to build a green house with a rock storage heat system. I thought that was great, so I built one for my greenhouse.  And there are plants growing!

Technically my work is in achieving healthy indoor environments in buildings, mostly those with mechanical ventilation systems. This carries over to my avocation, which is to create healthy, easy to heat homes.

As the projects went on, I felt each project would go a lot easier if I bought a particular tool. So over the years, I've acquired quite a lot of tools and I've gained more confidence in my abilities and the scope of the projects got bigger and bigger. In fact, the part of the house we're sitting in, some friends of mine and I built. If you look at the walls, they're over a foot thick and there's 10.5 inches of fiberglass in that wall, which makes it very easy to heat. When it came time to actually lift the walls, in the true tradition of the old barn raisings, they just came by and I gave them doughnuts and coffee and we lifted the wall. For the rafters, many people would have just hired a crane, but no, no. I got my friends, many of whom are sailors, and we rigged up a pulley and a mast system and hoisted the rafters into place.  Like I said, I’ve been trying to make the house easy to heat for many years now. This addition was built before our first son was born and he's almost 25 years old now. 

Clearly this has been a labor of love for you. You've put a lot of thought into the design, which shows.

Yes, even that window over there, there's four pieces of glass. It's hard to get quad pane, but I did have two double pane units. But knowing a little about chemical engineering, psychometrics and dew point, there is a little vent at the bottom that goes to the outside. That means when it's cold and dry outside, any moisture that had gotten in there in the summer, automatically goes to the outside. But I'm trying to capture warm air. It's a little like a hot air balloon, that even though it's open at the bottom, I'm not losing heat. Over 25 years it's remained remarkably clear. A lot of times, I think something should work and it doesn't. So I've played the fool and I've learned something. You have to take a certain amount of risk to try things, and I've made mistakes along the way, but I've learned things.

I've been in touch with Jan Asceti, lending out a non-contact thermometer, to find out where the air is leaking in. Well the air is leaking in because somewhere the air is leaking out. Why don't you also get a wizard stick fog generator, which is a way to show you where the air is leaking out. With that warm air, not only do you have to continually reheat that air, but it can also cause icicles and ice dams because warm air rises and warms the underside of the roof. Then the snow melts and refreezes and causes a dam. To me, it's a problem in the insulation, a problem that should be corrected. 

What are the biggest differences, someone could make in their home? What would be a good thing for them to look at?

Leaks: doing a better job of finding the leaks and sealing them up. Start by borrowing the Wizard Stick or they could spend the money on a blower door and infrared camera study to identify where the heat is being lost.  Maybe someday, Concord would figure out a way to reduce the cost of having this important work done.  As I travel around the Town, I see a lot homes where the snow seems to be melting too quickly, indicating excessive heat loss. It also might be worthwhile for people to hire a consultant, such as Mark Garvey. He provides that service and could make recommendations for reducing heat loss in buildings.

Another idea is to buy movable insulation for windows: close the windows off that you don't need, when you're in a space that you're not using. At night, seal up the whole window.  I have windows where I can pull a shutter across the windows.  This makes a big difference at night as this is the coldest part of the house. Another material I've used is rigid foam, technically, it's flammable, in commercial installations, it needs to be covered with non-flammable material. I also use a recycled denim material that has a Class A Fire Rating and so doesn’t need to be covered.  The bedroom for my 21 year son has several window shutters made from this material.

In addition to the greenhouse, other things I do to grow more of my own food include a germination box, with a heating mat to warm the sprouting seeds from below and maintain high humidity levels.  I’ve already started arugula, spinach, lettuce, tatsoi, and a variety of Chinese Cabbage.

The greenhouse has a rock storage system to capture heat when the sun shines, and help to keep the roots warm when it doesn’t.  When the greenhouse gets warm, a simple thermostat has a fan come on.  I’ve recently added a second fan as part of a new soil bed I’m building in the greenhouse.  Once again, a new project appears to help satisfy my need to create.  When I have a project to do, it’s a little bit like I’m back at summer camp.

I also have a woodshop that helps with the projects.  This also reinforces my bond with the summer camp, as I spent a lot of time in the woodshop at camp.

This need for projects has also resulted in the house growing from the 700 square feet when I started to the 2,800 square feet it is now.

I also have a garden on some land we own across the street from our house.  It gets a fair amount of sun in the summer, so I’m enlarging the number of raised beds there.  For some of them, I’ve merely taken an area that has grass, put down cardboard, put down the 4’ by 8’ frame, added wood chips around the outside, put in Town compost on the inside, and I've got a growing area.  I didn't have to go to the trouble of digging it up.

Sometimes we get so much food that we end up giving it away.  We have a lot of energy in the beginning of the season.  We also patronize some of the local the farmer’s markets. A friend of mine has a CSA in Lincoln, which he feels is a great route to go if you don't have the land to garden.

What would you recommend to people wanting to expand on their houses?

I would say to use that as an opportunity to improve the thermal effectiveness of the building. People might say, that their house is so poorly insulated, why do anything special. Well, the answer to that is if you properly insulate your house you won't have to make your heating system any bigger, or increase your heating load that much.

If you can't afford to replace all of your windows, you might consider an insulated removable shutter, as I've done in this house.  It might be more affordable.

The cost can range quite a bit.   I believe the Window Quilt product goes for about 20.00/sq. foot.  Recycled denim has cost me $4.00/sq. ft., while insulated rigid foam goes for about $0.60/sq. foot. I sometimes also use a white board, costing about $0.50/sq. foot.  If you're at all handy, it's not that expensive. I think just as we're more involved in growing our own food, people are relying more on self-sufficiency. I'm a strong supporter of Minuteman HS because that helps foster a lot of self-sufficiency skills that we're going to need. Unless we have a significant reduction in the population of the people on this planet, which could happen, the demand for energy is going to continue to outpace the supply, which means the cost is continually going to go up. So we're going to need to do more things for ourselves, or do more things as a community.

We have this shared community access to the pond. Wanted to get the community involved in the next iteration of the raft. People got an increased sense of ownership when this happened. Community org. had been dormant, now coming back to life. Now we see our neighbors, and when you go down there you see someone.

Finally, what is your next project?

I'm currently doing projects with coldframes. Not everyone wants to build a greenhouse, so cold frames are a lot easier to build and maintain.  Hoop houses are one approach - but can be difficult to get in. I use window panes for the frames and different materials that suit people's homes. I am trying to figure out ways to help people start plants earlier in the season so they have a longer growing season and ultimately, more success.

There's an organization in Concord called Gardening for Life, which is just starting out and trying to get people organized. Some people don't know how hard it is to grow from seeds, and it can be very frustrating. A farmer I know burns off the weeds just before the carrots come up. But you have to be organized and you have to have the right tools for the job.

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