Homecoming: Discovering a Sustainable Future in the Historical Past
by Phyllis Speidell/Photos by John H. Sheally II~
Add architecturally appealing, energy efficient and cost effective, and forensic mason Jimmy Price has the answer. Inspired by a stay in a 300-year-old cottage in Edinburgh, Scotland owned by poet Robert Burns’ mother, Price developed a low tech approach to modern housing that he believes could become the standard for new homes in the future.
“If I’m wrong, everyone will know it,” Price tells a crowd of nearly 100 spectators assembled behind Virginia Limeworks, his family business in Madison Heights, Virginia. Price sets out to offer proof via a staged demonstration on a small, French-style cottage that he built using lime masonry construction.
At first glance, the cottage featuring arched window and door openings, a mansard type roof and detailed masonry cornice appears to be more charming than green. But green it is with attributes such as non-toxic, permeable walls that, Price explains, insulate the house and allow it to breathe. Even in the 90+-degree July heat, the 16 inch-thick cottage walls remain cool to the touch.
“There are no oils, plastics or polymers used,” Price says. “You could demolish this cottage and spread it over a field and the grass would grow greener.”
All eyes are on Price as he tosses a cup of gasoline on the cottage wall, then steps back as his son-in-law, plant manager Mike Tyree, turns a blow torch on the doused wall. Flames ignited by the gas leap up with dramatic ferocity, then die within minutes, leaving only a scorch mark on the undamaged masonry wall.
“From a fire fighting standpoint, this is just about as fire resistant as you can get,” says Rick Hunter, Fire Chief of the Monelison Volunteer Fire Department.
Price signals to a few of the local firefighters, standing by with a fire hose in case the demonstration went horribly wrong. On cue, they flood the cottage with four feet of water. The spectators watch as the water absorbs into the lime masonry walls and floor. “The water will eventually dry, and with no mold contamination,” Price explains. “A fresh coat of lime paint and perhaps some wood trim repair, and the cottage will be livable again – and with unsurpassed indoor air quality.”
At a construction price of $85 per square foot lime masonry compares favorably with the cost of traditional wood-frame houses. “Imagine the blessing that would have been when Hurricane Katrina floods inundated New Orleans,” he adds.
“Keep in mind, too, that the construction is free of Portland cement and VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and absorbs significant amounts of CO2,” Jeff Price, Price’s son and company spokesman, tells us.
For years Jimmy Price built conventional houses and industrial structures. But when he evolved into restoring historic buildings such as Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Madison’s Montpelier and the Jesuit Chapel in Historic St. Mary’s, Maryland, he picked up the handle “forensic mason” as he re-discovered traditional building techniques and materials from centuries ago.
Early masons burned limestone or oyster shells to create lime that, mixed with sand and water, became the mortar that went into cottages and cathedrals that have withstood the test of time.
“I saw what works in buildings still standing there, neutral and doing their job 200 to 300 years after they were built,” Price says. “And I wondered, what are we missing here?”
He built a kiln on his farm and experimented, slaking tons of oyster shells while developing the skills of the long-ago kilnsmen who relied on the sound of the kiln’s air flow and the glow of the stone to guide their lime making process. Price’s modern version of the traditional materials includes lime building blocks, mortars, grout, stuccos, paints and plasters, all part of what he calls the Enviro-Ment Building System, a system that Price hopes will revolutionize the home construction business by setting it back centuries.
Ellen Petttyjohn, 53, might be among the first to buy one of Price’s Eco-Cottages. The Monroe, Virginia, resident suffers from a severe reactive airway disorder, life threatening asthma-like attacks triggered by chlorine and other common chemicals including the formaldehyde used in countertops and home insulation. Air and water filters in her nearby wood framed, vinyl sided house are expensive and not totally effective to block radiant heat that produces air blowing with dust mites.
The Eco-Cottage could be her salvation, she says. “And, it’s charming. I’m ready for it tomorrow.”
The next chapter in the Price dream is an eco-village of larger cottages, handicapped accessible, sustainable and built with locally manufactured materials. He’s aiming the village toward senior citizens and military veterans who could benefit most from affordable, healthy and sustainable housing that, even if exposed to flames or floods, can withstand the test of time.
Writer Phyllis Speidell and photographer John Sheally are Virginia based story tellers who have worked together for years as professional journalists covering news and features for newspapers and magazines. Their signature style, a cohesive blending of words and photos, invites the reader into stories on a range of subjects – the Hunley Civil War submarine, the SR-71 Blackbird surveillance aircraft and the award winning Edison II ulatralight car. They’ve shared stories on fine cuisine, antiques and serious music as well as NASCAR, pop culture and Southern Rock, travel, architecture and environmental concerns – always searching for the human side of the story in whatever they do.