With great respect for the outdoors, Brian and Trish Curran have created a house that's full of comforts indoors


April 21, 1996|By MELISSA GRACE

When Brian and Trish Curran moved into their two-bedroom, ranch-style house on the Eastern Shore's Choptank River in 1987 they had a plan: to raise their three children in an energy-conscious home that has as little impact as possible on the environment.

They rolled up their sleeves.

In nine years, they've given their Caroline County house a complete make-over -- from basement to rooftop. They've rewired, re-windowed, re-insulated and re-roofed. They've also made aesthetic changes: knocked down walls to open the place up, turned the basement into a TV-family room and workshop, and converted the garage into a bedroom for their daughter, a mudroom and an extra bath.

"Now it's like a little diamond in the rough," said Ms. Curran as she recently looked proudly around her domain. With all the changes the couple have made, they still consider their job undone. They want to make a couple more cosmetic alterations and, more important, to move closer to their goal of having an environmentally correct house.

The Currans have an advantage in do-it-yourself-construction and in energy-wise construction and building materials. Mr. Curran has been in the construction business for 30 years. He's the president of an energy-consulting firm in Baltimore City. His company evaluates energy systems, mostly in commercial buildings, and advises owners on how their energy costs can be reduced. Ms. Curran has been in construction and energy management for 15 years. She began working with her husband when they got married.

Before the Currans moved to the Eastern Shore, they lived in Montana. There, Mr. Curran built homes for a living. His specialty, he said, was home-energy conservation. His company guaranteed energy bills on the homes it built at $100 a year. "I could build a house on the Mohave or the edge of a glacier and keep the bills down," he said.

In his current business, he installs the energy-saving equipment that he advises his commercial customers to buy. Much of it, he first tests on his own house.

The Currans are environmentalists and builders; what they're not, though, is architects. So, a year and a half ago, when they decided to put an addition on their house, they hired a Baltimore architect to design it.

What they wanted were drawings that would make their brick house a part of the landscape. With the architect's plans in hand, they went to work, doing all the remodeling themselves.

The sunspace, as they call their addition, skirts the western-facing length of the house. Walled completely by glass, this face opens the house to the river and dramatically welcomes the outdoors into the Currans' living room.

Inside the sunspace, you feel like you are outside, in a clearing in a forest. You are surrounded by tall trees, grassy slopes and a wide river bend. Flush up against the addition are two sycamore trees. The Currans didn't want to cut them down so they built the space around them.

The wooden beams in the new ceiling jut out from under the roof of the house. Hanging over the glass doors, they breach the divide between woods and house.

"They tie the house to the river," said Trish Curran, walking up the wooded riverbank toward the addition. The water and the woods reflect in the windows of the home.

The Currans' 7 acres sit across the Choptank River from a Nature Conservancy trust. The couple bought here because the land gives them a feeling of being deep in the wilderness. The only other home visible from theirs is an osprey's. It's perched on a pole in the river's bend.

By clearing out the overgrowth of the trees between their house and the river, the Currans created a wonderful view for themselves, and a natural cooling system. "It's a good thing to do because it helps cool off the house in the summer," said Ms. Curran. "Now we get a breeze. Up at the road, [the air] is still."

As environmentalists, the Currans have always wanted to get their house to the point where they could take it off "the grid" -- Caroline County's power supply grid, that is. The house is now at that point. With all the energy-conscious changes the Currans have made, they have greatly reduced their energy needs. But to get their house off the grid, they must generate their own electrical energy. To make this economically feasible, they have to create electricity at a cost comparable to what they would pay the gas and electric company.

Solar is their energy of choice. It is the cleanest to produce, said Mr. Curran. But there's a problem, he added: Solar-powered electricity is not as cheap as oil or gas.

The price is coming down, though, and the Currans are waiting.

They already produce their own heat. They have a wood-burning stove and a backup gas generator (for winter emergency).

To heat the house, the Currans harvest trees from their back yard. They say they need only one tall, hardwood tree for a year's worth of heat. They plan to keep the gas generator even after they get a solar-powered system up and running -- for rainy days.

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