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Unconventional abode weathers harsh Montana winter

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By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor
BIG SKY – When nearly a week of arctic temperatures gripped southwest Montana in
early December, most Big Sky residents saw their propane bills skyrocket as heating
systems worked overtime. Not Jeff Saad, the owner of Big Sky’s only Earthship.
Saad’s house is built partially from re-purposed materials like rubber tires,
aluminum cans and glass bottles, and uses the earth’s thermal mass and passive
solar – thanks to a south-facing glass wall – for the majority of its heat. As the
mercury plunged to -25 F, the interior of Saad’s house never dipped below 60 F,
even when the fireplace was cold, he said.
The building crew from the Taos, N.M.-based Earthship Biotecture broke ground May
6, 2013, and the house was completed in time for an Aug. 10 open house. Saad
moved in the following day and has had a number of visitors since then, curious to
see the unconventional home.
“People still drive up to check it out,” he said in mid-January. “During the summer
and fall there were two to three cars a day, and I’ve given several tours since.” Saad
admits the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and during the first six months, he has
experienced some challenges with his Earthship.
The building’s south-facing side is almost entirely occupied by a greenhouse that
heats the house with passive solar, recycles gray water and will eventually grow
“In an otherwise dry climate, the humidity can be felt immediately upon entering
[the house] because of the greenhouse,” he said.
“It is a challenge to manage the humidity and keep it at a comfortable level,” Saad
said. “The house can be a bit chilly when the humidity hovers around 50 percent
and the interior temperature is in the low 60s.” But Earthship Biotecture has given
him ideas to manage it, like timing when gray water moves through the system.
“Earthship Biotecture has been really good with communication,” Saad said. “Any
issues I have [with the house] they’ll walk me through.” He also noted the humidity,
when around 40 percent, is pleasant in the dry Montana climate and prevents his
9-year-old son from getting bloody noses.
Since moving in, Saad hasn’t had to use his backup generator once, and he
estimates he’s only used about 5 percent of the propane in his 250-gallon tank. The
lights are powered by a 24-volt battery system, thanks to solar panels on the south
face. They pick up a fair amount of wattage when it’s cloudy, he said, but when it
snows all day he heads home at lunch to brush off the panels. “At the end of the day, you are the manager. There’s no power company watching
over you,” Saad said. “You have to turn things off like the lights and TV, you’re just
more aware of it.”
He does dishes and laundry during sunny days – when the solar panels are
producing the most electricity – and uses 9-watt LEDs that are as bright as 90-watt
conventional bulbs, but use much less power. While he is managing the utilities for
his creature comforts, Saad never receives a power bill and his Earthship functions
like a living system.
“There are no pipes to freeze,” he said. “If you left for 30 years you would lose
what’s growing in the greenhouse, but other than that, it would just be sitting here
waiting for you to return.”

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