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Home Tour: An energy-efficient old farmhouse

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-29 09:04:22-05

BUTLERVILLE, Ohio -- Professor Anton Harfmann talks to University of Cincinnati architecture students about his specialties: construction and technology.

At home, he puts them into practice.

Harfmann lives in Butlerville, a tiny town in the southeastern corner of Warren County. It’s farming country mostly, rolling land with a lot of meandering two-lane roads, old barns, ponds, seasonal creeks and an occasional patch of forest.

It’s not the place where you would expect to find a homeowner who drives an electric car, who recently began heating his water with a 27-panel solar energy system and who, for six years, has warmed his house with a gasification boiler system powered by about eight dead or dying trees a year.

“It’s a carbon neutral thing,” said Harfmann, who bought his 170-year-old farmhouse in 1992 and has been working on its energy efficiency ever since – much of the time all by himself. 

‘Simple’ Energy Part of Makeover

Trying to grasp the “simple” maintenance of the energy systems he designed and installed, while understanding the technology behind it all would make most heads spin and is best suited for a scientific article.

This is a story about Harfmann’s house, a place that once perfectly fit the needs of a family of four, three of whom have moved out and on, leaving the professor with a home that’s too big for one person and too far from his work to justify keeping any longer.

Harfmann, who is retrofitting his next old home in Northside, has a few more chores to complete before he plans to put his 7-acre Butlerville property up for sale in the $375,000 range. He and his ex-wife originally paid $180,000 for the house, barn, carriage house and 14 acres of land with a ½-acre pond. More than double that amount of money, plus hundreds of hours of Harfmann’s labor have gone into it since.

Harfmann said the original farmhouse was built around 1840. A barn was added in the late 1880s about the time when the place was a dairy farm. He chose to start our tour of the property in the barn where all the heat is made.

“It should have been torn down,” Harfmann said of what is now a two-bay garage. “The whole thing was listing to one side and it was really sagging. I had to jack it up 8-10 inches and replace the columns.” He fortified many of its posts and beams with splints, or “prosthetic” devices, which married old and new wood. He installed a new standing seam roof, replacing one which had been completely destroyed by wind or fire.

To be able complete the big jobs alone – metal roofing, replacing leaky box gutters, tuck-pointing the brick house, restoring its porches and installing the solar panels – Harfmann built an ingenious scaffolding system that can be moved by one man and one tractor.

With 12-by-18-inch threshing beams spanning its depth, the old barn had bones worth re-setting to last another 125 years, Harfmann said. It had been a great place for his children to play – it’s where they stabled their pygmy goats during their 4-H days – and has worked well as a power station for the house and electrical hook-up for his Chevrolet Volt.

Country Life Near the City

Harfmann is a Syracuse, New York native who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture at SUNY Buffalo. He and his young family lived in the country south of Buffalo near East Aurora before he landed a tenure-track teaching position at UC in 1992.

“The family wanted to live in the country, not downtown, so this was a solution that worked,” he said of the Butlerville location. But to really make it work, he had to do a few things – actually many things.

He doubled the size of the house by adding a laundry room and a large eat-in kitchen with a two-bedroom, full-bathroom wing over it. He built a two-story-high transitional wing between the old and new house, plus a second staircase and master bathroom. He turned attic space into a master bathroom, and he restored/rebuilt two 36-foot-wide porches on the south-facing front of the house.

Harfmann said he had professionals pour the addition’s foundation, hang the drywall and install the furnace. He framed and did the finish work himself, put in a whole new electrical system, did the bulk of the plumbing and assisted with installing new ductwork, among other projects.

The result is a 4-bedroom, 2 1/2-bathroom, 2,500-square-foot green home with central heat and air that pretty much is ready for its next family. Well, maybe not exactly, Harfmann said. There’s a bedroom that needs finishing, and the kitchen could use a makeover, but its size and logical layout would make that task simple, he said.

“We designed (the kitchen) not to be over the top because people have varied tastes,” Harfmann said. “We wanted to do something fairly simple, neutral and inexpensive – to make a nice shell for a makeover.”

Take the House Tour

Visitors enter the house through one of two doors on its east side. The first door leads into a hallway Harfmann remodeled to circle the center of the house, a space that includes a laundry room. The second door leads into the kitchen that’s located on land once occupied by a shed for wood used in the house’s three fireplaces.

The farmhouse’s front door – Harfmann doesn’t use it – leads to side-by-side parlors, which feature 175-year-old, quarter-sawn oak floors that he refinished. Between the rooms is a door Harfmann believes is chestnut and has its original iron latch. The door is held together with a mortise and tenon technique rarely used since the 19th century, he said.

The 6-foot, 6-inch-wide door required a lot less restoration than the parlors themselves.

“When I moved in, there were leaks in the ceiling. Things were just a mess,” Harfmann said. “It has been a constant study, an ongoing attempt to bring (the rooms) back to life.”

The little used original staircase to the two old bedrooms was listing, and “there was no way to fix it without tearing it all off. Building an addition gave us an easier way to get upstairs,” he said. 

Harfmann’s addition features an open, two-story transitional room with two skylights. It is located between the kitchen and the dining room (formerly a kitchen). The skylights, which are part of several passive solar elements Harfmann added to the house, can be opened in the summer to draw heat up and out.

Harfmann built stairs up to a full bathroom and two bedrooms, which were used by his daughters, who were 8 and 10 at the time. The wall between the girls’ rooms slides open to create a shared play area, but it pretty much stayed closed during their teenage years, he said.

A bridge in the transitional space connects the added bedroom wing to a long hallway with 18 feet of closet space. It leads to the master bathroom and bedroom in the old part of the house. Rising heat from the first floor keeps the suite warm, although it is connected to the forced air furnace.

A fourth bedroom upstairs is the only unfinished space in the house. Harfmann said leaky gutters and hot weather caused a great deal of condensation in the room. The impact of the resulting humidity caught him off guard, he said.

“We’re from Buffalo. We had no idea,” he said.

But he had plenty of ideas for making the house energy efficient and is proud to have lowered his utility bill from $120 a month to $20 this past summer when the solar panel system kicked in. And he’s pleased when the system feeds energy back to the municipal grid, essentially turning his meter backward.

There’s nothing like converting an 1840s brick house out in the country into a “zero energy” house that’s fit for the city.