The extreme green

How do environmental scientists buy a home? They don't they make one.

At least, that's what John Sagebiel and Mary Cablk did. Sagebiel, an air pollution specialist at the Desert Research Institute with a doctoral degree in environmental chemistry, and his wife Cablk, an ecologist at DRI whose specialty is wildlife, had very definite ideas about the house they wanted.

Nothing in the area suited them until they stumbled upon an empty 1.25-acre parcel in Galena. They decided to build the environmentally responsible home of their dreams, and set out to find the architect to do it.

But it was tougher than they'd expected.

"A couple architects wouldn't give us the time of day. One found out the location and didn't want to touch it," recalls Sagebiel. "Some of them, when we told them we wanted solar energy, said, 'Oh yeah, solar, that was popular in the 70s.' And some had portfolios with 20 pages of pictures that all looked like the same house. I wasn't really encouraged."

Then they stepped into Reno architecture firm Cathexes. The office, with its renewable bamboo flooring, insulated concrete walls, and plenty of day lighting, told them they had come to the right place.

"I was engaged instantly," says Don Clark, Cathexes' principal architect. "Mary said something like, 'Make me Tahoe chalet mixed with Southwestern desert with a Pacific Northwest influence,' and I was like, 'Yeah baby! When do we start?'"

The work began in February of 2002 with a list of random design ideas, including a climbing wall made of native stone and a solar heating system. Most homeowners step back and let the architect take over, but Sagebiel and Cablk were equal partners in the design process.

"We went on this journey together from the start," says Clark. "It was a whole conversation about working with the land, color choices, material choices. We'd bring ideas and test them on each other. Because ultimately this house isn't about me. They have to live in it."

Sagebiel and Cablk moved into "Big Thunder" in November 2003. (The process is documented thoroughly at

The 3,100-square-foot home faces precisely north-south and east-west.

Energy-efficient features include a passive solar system that makes use of existing light and shadow. Large south-facing windows let in light and heat from the low winter sun, warming the house. But a tiny, well-planned overhang conveniently blocks the high sun of summer, keeping things shady and cool.

The stairway sits between a large bank of south-facing windows and a concrete wall. The thermal mass of concrete soaks up winter sun, retaining and radiating heat. Yet in summer, it's shaded, so it keeps the house cool.

Solar panels on the roof heat water which is stored in a 425-gallon tank. Hot water is then pumped through a radiant heating system, a series of pipes in the floors. The heat in the pipes comfortably warms the first floor's stained concrete flooring, as well as baseboard radiators, eliminating the need for a fan-forced heating system.

Photovoltaic panels in the backyard create the electricity that pumps water from their well, and another set feeds energy to the main electrical panel, powering the house, and sending excess to the main Sierra Pacific power grid.

Other features of Big Thunder include 40-foot structural beams made of reclaimed, solid Douglas fir timbers; reclaimed juniper flooring; compact fluorescent lighting; and the first permitted gray water system in Washoe County. Gray water, the water draining out of showers and sinks, irrigates the lawn rather than going right into a septic tank or sewer. And the rock wall made it into the living room.

The home's colors were inspired by its surroundings. Green, yellow, lavender and rust on the exterior represent sage, cheat grass, flax and clay, all native to the area.

Inside visitors find dark greens of the Pacific Northwest and deep Tahoe blues. There are personal touches too, such as a sanctuary for relaxing in the backyard, and a luxurious bathtub for their two dogs.

"There are layers of technology, art and humor here that were the result of all of us working together," says Clark.

While the upfront costs of design may have been more than the typical house, he says, the overall costs weren't. And he enjoyed being able to promote green design. "There's a tremendous amount of misinformation. People who don't want to deal with it may misdirect you and push you away from it. Working through all of these things helps get rid of the fear."


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