Living green

Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 09:08
Eagle River house a model of sustainability
Cindee Karns shows off the worms she has in the basement of her Eagle River home Nov. 29. Kitchen scraps and waste are composted in Karns’ worm farm to create fertilizer for her garden. Cindee and Curt Karns’ Eagle River home is the only bioshelter in Alaska. It was built in 1987 from environmentally friendly materials.

There’s going green — and then there’s the Karns family.

Curt and Cindee Karns’ Eagle River home epitomizes sustainable living. Located just two miles from the Eagle River Nature Center, their house not only limits waste, it turns waste into a resource.

The south-facing front of the house contains a large solarium complete with wetlands, a koi pond, a brook and small waterfall. Its 24 large pane glass windows allow the sun to naturally warm the solarium.

Sunlight heats the gravel base of the pool and the water, which then heats the room. The solarium’s temperature never dips below 35 degrees, Cindee said.

In the summer, it doesn’t get above 70, she said, because the solarium is positioned so the sun only shines directly into the room in October and March.

“That is blooming time,” Cindee said.

The solarium also brings nature inside the house.

“Of course, it gives us beauty,” Cindee said.

The koi exist to ensure the water is free of toxins, Cindee said. Their urine, which contains nitrogen, is also used to water potted plants and apple trees inside the house.

The Karns’ home is heated via a masonry oven.

Burning just two armfuls of wood twice a day keeps their home at 60 degrees all winter, Cindee said.

“This house will never freeze,” she said.

Its location is a major factor, as the home is buried in the Chugach Mountains and its basement and first floor are underground.

“We’re basically in a cave,” Cindee said.


Unique toilet

One aspect of the Karns’ bathroom — the toilet — is unlike the average home.

It’s a composting toilet that Cindee and Curt use to dispose of — besides the obvious — food scraps, cardboard, etc. All the discarded material drops into one of two 55-gallon drums in the basement.

Each barrel contains 1,000 worms that break down all the garbage and in two years it can be used as fertilizer, Cindee said.

Not everything that enters the toilet is fed to the worms. A urine diverter directs urine into a separate container because it’s harmful to the worms, Cindee said.


Water filtration

Along with the worm farm, the basement contains a water filtration system. Collected rainwater and/or snow melt travels into the first of three barrels where live bacteria feed on potential contaminants.

Next, it enters a settling tank before floating into the third barrel that contains a furnace filter.

The water then circulates between the second and third barrel. When the third barrel is full, the water travels into the fish pond in the solarium where the koi eat the bacteria.

“We never have to feed the fish,” Cindee said. “It’s a closed system.”

Though no one has to take care of their koi when the Karns leave town, the bacteria in the basement must be maintained.

“It’s pretty funny. We don’t have to feed our fish, but we have to feed our bacteria,” Cindee quipped.

Once the water reaches the pond, it trickles through the gravel. Ultraviolet light kills any remaining bacteria before it enters the cistern.

If passing through sediment and carbon filters weren’t enough, the water passes through one final filter on the kitchen sink before it touches Cindee or Curt’s lips.


25 years old

Environmental engineer Bob Crosby began building the Karns’ home in 1985 originally as a research and development facility. In 1987 he finished construction, and the U.S. Department of Energy honored Crosby with its Energy Innovation Award.

Though the Karns have owned their home since 2008, Cindee said Crosby is always available should they have a question.

“Still, Bob is on call,” she said.

Cindee and Curt moved to Eagle River from Fairbanks. Landing their dream house wasn’t easy.

After Googling “green homes for sale in Anchorage,” Cindee found her future residence. There was just one huge problem — the $700,000 price tag.

But after two potential buyers backed out and Cindee wrote to 13 legislators, the Karns were approved for a loan and purchased the house a week before it was foreclosed on — for half the asking price.


History teacher

Cindee’s goal to live more environmentally friendly stemmed from her years as a history teacher at North Pole Middle School.

Each year, Cindee asked her students to come up with a project that could change the world. As the years went on, more and more students were focusing on living greener.

So when it came time to move south, Cindee and Curt sought a home that reduced their carbon footprint.

Though retired, Cindee hasn’t stopped educating. She teaches permaculture classes and conducts tours of her home.


‘One of a kind’

Cindee describes her home as the only bioshelter in Alaska.

A bioshelter is “a home that uses nature as a model,” she said.

“It’s one of a kind,” Cindee said. “It’s never been duplicated.”

States without an abundance of water, like Arizona and Nevada, should use her home as blueprints for future dwellings, Cindee said.

With plenty of water to spare, Alaska is in a great position to further study how to live more eco-friendly, she said.

“We have the opportunity to be a world role model,” Cindee said. “We have water to play with.”

Cindee said she and Curt know how lucky they are to live in such a unique house.

“We totally love it every day,” she said. “You can’t take it for granted.”

Every person who enters her home leaves with a blue marble, Cindee said. It serves as a reminder that we only have one Earth, she said.

“Think of me as Mrs. Captain Planet.”


Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or [email protected]

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