Interview with Sage Mountain Center, A Leader in Sustainable Building Education
As quoted from their website, “Sage Mountain Center (SMC) is an Education and Demonstration Facility in Whitehall, Montana, with the vision of promoting sustainable and holistic well being.” While researching alternative home building, I had the opportunity to interview director and co-founder Christopher Borton to learn more about this interesting green place. Here’s that interview:
Q: What aspect of green building are you involved in?
A: As an education center our focus is to promote all sustainable building principles and techniques. Through our Workshops, Tours, and Consultation services we show others what is possible and how to do it. We have done all of the research and construction of our facility ourselves and continue to explore new ways to advance the technologies. Sage Mountain Center is a harmonization of old-tech and hi-tech.
Q: What exactly does Sage Mountain Center do?
A: Sage Mountain Center is an education and demonstration facility dedicated to promoting inner growth, physical health, and sustainable living through education, experimentation, and creative innovation. Our courses have included Straw Bale and Cordwood Construction, Solar Electricity, Wind Generation, Vegetarian Cuisine, Hatha Yoga, Edible and Medicinal Herbs, Meditation, and more.
Q: How long have you been with the company and what led to creating it?
A: 16 years, since it’s inception. It was started by the desire to not want to repeat the mistakes of others and to want to nurture a different perception of ourselves and our relationship to the environment. Along with that change of perception –more like a realization-- came the momentum to initiate action.
Q: What changes have you seen in the field since getting started in it?
A: From 16 years ago we have seen major growth in the books and research that are available, as well as classes and curriculum in universities. Also, there has finally been an acknowledgement that green building designs are viable solutions to the dilemmas of resource shortages and rising costs.
Q: What trends in green building are of the most interest to you?
Anything that lowers ones consumption of fossil fuel. For example, more insulation equals less gas, coal, or nuclear energy to heat the house. Advanced foundation designs equals less Portland Cement in the concrete; (Portland Cement is one of the most energy intense materials to manufacture). Using natural or recycled content materials is always better than conventional ones, in terms of minimizing fossil fuel based resources.
Q: What steps have you taken in your professional and/or personal life that are related to alternative home building?
A: Alternative building is about alternative living. So the choices that we make by buying organic food, driving a Prius, supporting environmental organizations are all part of the “alternative” lifestyle. We really don’t like the term “alternative” because it connotes something unproven, weird, strange, something to cause suspicion. The fact is that alternative buildings (in the way that we are addressing them) are very well proven and very sound in their approach and technology. In other words, the basic principles of southern orientation, passive solar design, super insulation, zero-energy systems, and thermal mass are intelligent design elements that are different choices , rather than some unusual “alternative”.
Q: How do you get information and connect with others about green building?
A: We have our regular open-house tours and give talks around Montana. Advertising is mostly word-of-mouth.Our primary sources of news are Home Energy Magazine, Home Power Magazine, and renewableenergyaccess.com. Other leaders in this industry to look to for news and ideas include Union for Concerned Scientists, Vegetarian Resource Group, and Energy Star (Government Program).
Q: Why do you consider green building to be so important?
A: It provides a solution to a shortage of conventional building materials (which are often heavily dependent on fossil fuels for there manufacturing) and it offers proven ideas which can take us out of sterile rectilinear boxes into flowing “soft” spaces that are more conducive to mimicking the shapes and forms of natural materials, like irregular rocks and natural unrefined wood. We believe that these shapes and forms are part of our human psychology and imbedded on a cellular level. The concept of a “healthy” home is one which should nurtures our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Q: Do you feel that alternative home building is cost-efficient?
Many alternative homes are built with the hands-on involvement of the homeowner. This equates to lower building costs by saving in hired labor. But alternative homes can cost the same or more depending on the materials used and the experience of the builder. And this is where the similarities end. Unlike conventional homes, alternative homes (green homes) are usually designed to SAVE money for decades, in fuel and heating costs as well as provide a comfortable, natural shelter. If they are built applying basic sound and proven construction and engineering guidelines then they are just as good or better than homes built in more conventional ways.
Q: What are the biggest benefits of alternative home building?
2. Personal satisfaction.
But the two usually go together.
Q: What are the biggest drawbacks of alternative home building?
If you are hiring out the construction, then finding a builder who is knowledgeable and affordable is definitely the hardest part. Finding natural materials is getting easier than it was in the past.
Q: What warnings or advice can you offer to individuals who are interested in buying or building an alternative home but who are just getting started in the process?
A lot of it depends on location. In small rural towns a shortage of materials and skilled labor will be a challenge. Also, be ready to deal with “resistance” from local plumbers, electricians, contractors, city officials, and so on. The future alternative homeowner needs to believe in his own vision and idea and be willing to educate those who are not familiar with alternative ideas. Which leads to another question: Are you willing to spend your extra energy educating/explaining/justifying why you are doing what you want to do? For many, this is harder than physically building the house yourself!If you live in a big city or populated suburb chances are you will have an easier time finding someone who is familiar with alternative techniques.
Q: What additional information would you like readers to know regarding your work about SMC?
Sage Mountain Center (SMC) is off grid and powered by solar energy. SMC uses 1/5 of the energy normally used for this size of a building, and that 1/5 comes entirely from a hybrid solar/wind electric system. Our solar array and wind generator produce on average 14 kWh of power per day. SMC uses compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), light emitting diode (LED) lighting, and solar light tubes while the southern orientation of the house provides passive lighting and heating.
Appliances are the most efficient we could find and include a microwave, dishwasher, electric refrigerator, front-loading clothes washer and dryer, and so on. Our glowbar-free oven/stove and instantaneous on-demand hot water heater are propane.
There are 4 pre-heating water systems at SMC implemented to reduce the use of propane. First, hot water lines run through a greywater warming tank. This preheats water. When we build a fire, hot water lines in the firebox heat water. When our batteries from our solar electric system are full, excess energy is sent to a DC electric water heating element. And finally, our solar thermal panels on the roof provide 60% of our hot water year around. Our Guest House, which also has these systems is completely propane-free. Compared in square footage to a conventional house our main education center uses about $10 of propane per month. This propane is for space heating via an in-floor heating system, for water heating via an instantaneous water heater, and for cooking on our gas stove. A solar oven is also in use to offset propane used for cooking.
SMC is a Cordwood and Straw Bale building designed to passively garner the light and heat of the sun. With R-values of 28-48 the building stays cool in summer so that no cooling methods are needed other than closing south facing blinds for a couple weeks in the fall.
Water consumption at SMC averages 70 gallons per day by using low flow shower heads, low flow toilets, composting toilets. We also have a greywater system which directs water to a wetlands area as well as a roof gutter system which directs water into the wetlands and landscape. SMC recycles the water it does use to promote the growth of native trees, shrubs, and plants that house and feed communities of birds and animals. In this way, our waste becomes food for other living organisms. (All detergents used at SMC are phosphate free and biodegradable.)