Jim Gagnepain calls it “the little bermed house on the prairie.”
He and his wife, Stephanie, built their retirement home in eastern El Paso County. Jim, who has a background in electrical engineering, acted as general contractor, and he and Stephanie did a lot of the work.
The result? A unique, almost completely self-sufficient bermed earth home.
Jim had long been interested in a zero- energy home, Stephanie says. And after they spent a night in an Earthship in New Mexico, “I woke up and said … ‘We’re going to build one of these.’”
An Earthship, as pioneered by architect Michael Reynolds, is a type of solar-passive, off-the-grid home made from natural and upcycled materials. While the Gagnepains’ home is not an Earthship, it follows many of the same principles. They turned to another Michael — Michael Shealy of Black Forest, an engineer known for his Earthship-style homes — for design help.
The Gagnepains sold their home in Fort Collins and found a plot of land east of Colorado Springs through LandWatch.com. The property was far enough away from town to feel isolated, Stephanie says, but close enough for Jim to head into the Springs to play tennis. (“He’s obsessed with tennis,” she says.)
They started work on the house in April 2011 and were able to move in about nine months later. While the interior wasn’t finished at the time, it was done enough for them to secure an occupancy permit.
To begin, excavators dug into the gently sloped land to make a level surface, with the back of the house nestled into the hillside. Walls then were constructed with tire bales, which are made of compressed tires, weigh about a ton each and can be stacked like bricks — with the help of machinery, of course. The bales were shotcreted (covered with sprayed concrete) and an adobe finish was applied over that. Bales also were used for a retaining wall, and Jim estimates they used about 20,000 tires for the entire project.
The south side of the house is largely glass: 46-inch-by-76-inch angled sections with smaller windows underneath some fixed, some able to be opened. The sun streaming through those windows is what heats the house during the day; at night, the principle of thermal mass — the ability of materials such as the tire bale walls and concrete floors to retain heat — comes into play as that heat is released. “You go to bed and then I’ll wake up and kick the covers off,” Jim says. “I’m hot; it’s like the walls are radiating heat.”
The Gagnepains have a wood-burning stove but rarely use it. They also installed inconspicuous electric wall heaters, but only because Pikes Peak Regional Building does not allow passive solar or wood-burning as a primary heat source.