words: Marla Cantrell
images: Jeromy Price
On a Sebastian County road near Greenwood, on some of the prettiest land in Arkansas, stands a rock house built in 1949. It is a lovely building; the rock has been chiseled into even pieces that make it look like the kind of dream house you might have drawn as a child, and there’s a massive tree so tall it blocks the sun, standing like a sentry near the front door.
The land beyond, and the dairy barn that sits idle after years of industry, were part of the reason Aaron and Sara Wirth fell in love with this place. And so they bought it seven years ago and began to remodel. Much of what drew them to the house — the woodwork that covers the ornate archways, the now-vintage light fixtures still in perfect condition, the knotty pine paneling, the oak floors – remains. But the engine of this place has been converted by Aaron, a do-it-yourselfer who has yet to say no to a home improvement project.
It probably helps that Aaron, now thirty-five, was trained as a mechanical engineer, once working at a plant that produced Cesna aircraft. And it’s likely a plus that his day job is with Cobblestone Homes, where he’s a partner. He loves the building process, watching craftspeople start with a cleared piece of land and create a new house fitted with the latest gadgets to make life a little easier. But it was earlier, while he was living in Wichita, that he found the charm of older spaces. There, he remodeled his first place, a 1960s duplex. “My marriage survived,” Aaron says, and then flashes his bright smile. “So, I figured I’d been a success.” That first win is what helped him see the potential of this house, and why he’s working so hard to turn this sixty-five-year-old home into an energy superstar.
While he’s not arrived yet, he is well on his way. He’s switched out the single-pane windows with their steel frames. “Before we replaced them,” Aaron says, “we woke up one morning with icicles on the inside of the panes.” Aaron shakes his head at the memory. “Someday the old windows will end up in my greenhouse, yet to be finished.”
Aaron opens the hatch that leads to the attic, flips on the light so the eaves are in view. Well, not exactly the eaves, those are not visible. Instead, insulation shows, covering the entire ceiling space. “They had a local CV’s grocery in town they were tearing down. I went over there and they gave me a trailer load, literally. So I insulated, with Sara’s help, the entire attic. I insulated all along the roofline, the floor’s covered, all of it.”
The question, of course, was whether this way of covering everything causes excess moisture in the house. Aaron says it most certainly does not. “I put sensors in to make sure that I wasn’t getting too much moisture. I’ve never had a water problem and I’ve never had a moisture problem. ”
Aaron also tackled the heat and air unit, which usually accounts for fifty percent of a homeowner’s energy consumption. He bought a geo-thermal unit, which is an underground system. There is a ground-source heat pump that cycles water through the underground piping loop, and costs about $1 a day to heat or cool a 2,000 square foot house. Aaron installed it in 2012. His Christmas present that year was the use of an excavator. He dug an 800 foot ditch in his backyard, three feet wide, seven feet deep, to contain the piping.
“You walk around the outside of my house and you can’t tell I even have heat and air in here,” he says. “My old, traditional system ran at one speed, about 3,500 watts, the equivalent of 35 light bulbs. This system runs on two speeds and at its low stage, even though it’s the same size unit, it will run at about 1,700 watts, almost half. Even at its high stage, I run about 1,000 watts less than the old unit.”
He’s done other things that aren’t exactly conventional. Like his dryer vent, which he switches in the winter months to blow heated air inside the house. Not something most of us would or should try, since the humidity might overwhelm us. But Aaron’s dryer is downstairs, below ground, where the original cellar used to be. And he has a dehumidifier already in place.
Also downstairs is the master bedroom/bathroom/office. He points to the bedroom floor. “I got down here, and I loved the old concrete floor, so we left it, just stained it. You can see where the old water heater was, and where the cans sat from all the canning.” He walks to the adjoining bathroom, which was undisturbed earth when the remodel began. “I took a saw and made a hole in the farthest wall, and I just started digging. At first it was fun, but it got to be quite a job; I was up to my shoulders in dirt.” Today, the results of his hard work show, in the brand new bathroom that looks like a showplace.
Aaron steps into the wide shower and turns on the body dryer he came up with. “I use this all the time. It heats up and blows heated air. You can get dry this way. The floors are heated with hot water that runs in a loop beneath the floor.”
The space looks like a high-end hotel. The addition added 500 square feet to the 1,500 square foot house, and gave Sara the massive closet she’d been pining for.
As Aaron talks, the excitement builds. He is thrilled to be in this place, where he conjures up ideas and sketches them out. He has high-tech monitors he checks often. They show him his energy consumption, humidity levels, everything he needs to know to show him how his house is operating. His wife Sara is a godsend, he says, always letting him tinker with this, alter that, try out an idea that might seem a little fanciful for those of us with lesser knowledge of how things work.
He tells the story while standing on his new deck. A pizza oven rises behind him, Aaron’s first attempt at brick laying. “Thirty-six pizzas down since the end of last year, and the first five I ruined. I’ve gotten pretty darn good now, but the oven itself did collapse after I first built it, and I had to start over.” Behind him is a crank system that raises a wide screen TV from down below when the Razorbacks are playing.
He rubs his neck, stretches, and then points to a fallow field where twenty-five solar panels, each three feet by five feet, glint in the midday sun. These panels are a joy for Aaron, and he pulls out his electric bill, which averages $25 a month, and hands it over. He points to the grid that shows the months when he actually earned a credit instead of paying for electricity.
“I installed the solar panels myself about four years ago. I spent in the low twenty-thousands, and they’ve even gone down since then, and they’ve become more efficient. I did this when Arkansas was doing its renewable energy program, and that paid me about $12,000, and I got a federal tax credit. I ended up with about $1,000 in it. But that doesn’t count my labor. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoyed it. It probably provides sixty-five to seventy percent of my energy.
“It was hard to put them in just because people would stop every day to talk to me about solar energy. They face the south. And here’s my good old Southern, Walmart engineering. I walked the aisles of Walmart looking for a simple way to convert these from north/south according to the season. And I found these boat jacks and bought them and installed them at the base of the panels. Four times a year I change their position with the jacks, by hand cranking them: summer solstice, the equinoxes, and the winter solstice.”
Beyond the solar section is a grove of 100 newly planted oak trees he plans to place strategically when they grow a bit taller, to block the sunniest parts of the land closest to his house. “Landscaping is one of the easiest ways to bring down your energy bill,” Aaron says.
Already there are some grand trees on this place. Aaron points to scaffolding he’s installed near a towering walnut tree. He’s got a tree house planned, one that will have heat and air and every possible convenience. He smiles so wide his eyes squint from the effort. “When I get that finished you’ll have to come back. Now that will be something to see. The tree house will have a basement, its own septic system, pretty cool stuff.”
Just then his daughter runs by, a streamer in her hand catching the wind, and Aaron turns to her and the smile grows even wider. “Such a great life,” he says, “out here, in the country, on land I can basically do anything I want with.” He stops, looks back toward the house where his wife and other two children wait. “Such a great family.”
The sun is starting to wane and the wind is picking up. Aaron puts his hand on the solar panels, he looks across his land, and he seems lost in thought. Perhaps he’s considering his next project, the next challenge, the next trick he’ll pull from his sleeve that will make this place even more efficient, even closer to his engineering heart.