Living Lightly

photo: Gail Baker
photo: Gail Baker

Neighbors were curious to say the least last year when Clay Gautier and Gail Baker decided to demolish a single-story house on 32nd Street in southeast Eugene and custom-build a net-zero home in its place. A net-zero home produces as much or more energy than it uses, and the homeowners were happy to answer the questions of inquisitive passersby. “Everybody has always been welcome to come take a look and walk around,” Baker says.

Barely a year after hosting a Sunday neighborhood potluck when the foundation was first laid last August, the now-completed net-zero energy house will be featured in this year’s BRING Home and Garden Tour Sunday, Sept. 14.

Shirley West of BRING Recycling says that this year, as in years past, the 11 different home, garden and commercial sites are all about living lightly on the land. “The idea is to see an example in the community of how people are living more sustainably. For this year’s tour that means getting to zero, or ‘how low can you go,’” West says. “People learn the most by seeing things firsthand and by experiencing them. That’s what we try to provide.”

Although they had been considering sustainable design for ages, Gautier and Baker say that after seeing Alan and Sue Dickman’s small, efficient home on the 2012 BRING tour, the gears were finally set in motion. It was also at the tour site that they met James McDonald of Eco Collaborative of Oregon (ECO), who had worked with the Dickmans on their project, and he later built Gautier and Baker’s net-zero home.

“All of those things really fell into place at the same time,” Baker says. “Both the resources that we needed to do it and seeing that someone else had already done it.”

The net-zero home has a photovoltaic system that provides more than enough electricity to power the house, with the surplus sold to EWEB. The homeowners wanted open, light spaces punctuated by artistic details: wood and metal balusters, handmade kitchen tiles and a view of both Skinner and Spencer Butte from the same second-floor spot.

The next stage is landscaping. Gautier and Baker are plant ecologists who plan on putting in native perennials and shrubs, including a natural bioswale, at the rear of the property. To start, they’ve planted a small field of crimson clover as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop. The house is site number eight on the tour.


Another ECO project on the tour is an extensive cottage remodel, site number five. Win Swafford of ECO says that his organization exemplifies a two-pronged approach to sustainable living: building a sustainable home or renovating one to achieve a similar effect. Either way, Swafford says, the embodied energy, or the energy expended by construction and the materials that go into the house, and operational energy, day-to-day energy consumption, are key elements to pay attention to.

By using the wrong materials in a house, “You can dig yourself into a very deep hole with embodied energy that you almost can’t get yourself back out of even over 30 years with the operational energy,” Swafford says. “Then the building really has trouble being a net gain for the environment.”

The renovated cottage in the Fairmount neighborhood is just 750 square feet and features solar panels. Swafford says that a key component to achieving less energy use for the cottage is the foam and exterior insulation that breaks thermal bridging occurring in traditional wood frames.

“The strategy at this site was to work with these existing structures and bring them up to efficient levels through renovation rather than simple remodel; to go for energy efficiency as well,” Swafford says.

A Homegrown Approach

In contrast to the linear construction methods of the net-zero home and Fairmount cottage is site number six, a home remodel and urban garden that is three years in the making.

“Our site is on the rustic, working-garden side,” homeowner David Stucky says. “It’s not exactly what I would call a ‘show garden.’ It’s really just a very robust neighborhood garden, almost like a working urban farm.”

Although the house is a beautiful work-in-progress, the focus will be on the garden just off the corner of 26th and Harris, earmarked by a large clump of black-eyed Susans. Stucky and Kristin Koons have been turning their half-acre into an abundant permaculture site, and they’ve hosted tours from the UO’s Urban Farm program. In preparation for the tour, Koons began listing the different plants in the garden and came up with 150 species altogether.

“It’s going so slow because it’s kind of an art project; we’re not doing things just to get them done,” Stucky says of the house and garden. “We’re trying to have fun and enjoy the process as well. Even before we started building, probably for about two years we started collecting materials from around town.”

The attention to detail shines at the site, from the apple and kiwi arbors to Stucky’s recently completed handmade wooden bench. Keep an eye out for the rambunctious squash plant that climbed a tree and now is sprouting pumpkins near the power lines.

In addition to the homeowners, GloryBee will be at the site to talk about the honeybee hives and backyard beekeeping — Stucky and Koons helped start 20 to 30 hives in the neighborhood.

Small spaces and low-impact living

Other sites on the tour include imaginative uses of small garden spaces yielding big results, which West describes as “funky and whimsical,” as well as mixed-use commercial and residential buildings in the Friendly neighborhood, the Watershed Building and the Westwood area.

This year’s tour will also include its first commercial building at WildCraft Cider Works, site number 11. West says tour goers and homeowners are encouraged to go there for a fun after-hours gathering place. There will also be workshops from 1 to 3 pm at EWEB. Tickets are $9 in advance, available online and at BRING Recycling, Lane Forest Products and Down to Earth. They are also available the day of tour at each site for $12. For more information go to