The McParland Mountain Retreat

A lifetime of accumulated skill, a willingness to learn, and persistence enabled this elderly couple to build the mountain retreat that fulfilled their dream of getting back to the land.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
March/April 1983
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The semicircular configuration of the McParlands' mountain retreat takes full advantage of direct sunlight throughout the day.
Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
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Roger and Doris McParland began to plan the home that became their mountain retreat more than 20 years ago, when Doris was a personnel manager for Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Roger was in the Air Force. The couple, who are enthusiastic bargain hunters, started their long-term project by collecting materials — such as a half-dozen French doors bought for $2.00 apiece from Goodwill, bathroom tiles picked up at a church sale, and even handmade hardware that Doris brought back from a visit to relatives in Czechoslovakia. During that same period they also traveled to study buildings that had been designed by the architect whose work most impressed Mrs. McParland: the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright.

Yet today, seven years after breaking ground for the second time, the McParlands still haven't finished their home. And once you know a bit more about their innovative, experimental natures, you're likely to understand why they probably never will.

From Spray Booths to Beach Balls

Roger was discharged from the service in Port Huron, Michigan in 1964, and opened an automobile body shop soon thereafter. Not to be daunted by his own lack of experience, he taught himself the new trade, by reading books and practicing on the family car. In short order, customers were clamoring at the doors, and the fender-unbender business rapidly became a success. However, when a doctor told Roger about the respiratory problems that were beginning to be associated with the auto repair occupation, the health-conscious pair decided to sell the body shop and try again.

Before long, they announced to friends that they intended to start a swimming pool construction business. More than one acquaintance suggested that, given their northern location, they'd taken leave of their financial senses. (At the time, the mid-1960's, few people guessed that Michigan would rank third in the nation in private swimming pool ownership within ten short years.) Indeed, business was little slow at first for Pleasure Pools, Inc. But the combination of good timing and quality work got the firm on its feet, and soon Doris was able to give up her job and devote her time to keeping the office end of the concern under control. Within a decade, Roger and Doris had built the business to the point where the proceeds would allow them to realize their dream: constructing a home in the woods that would permit them be relatively self-sufficient.

The house sketches that Doris had been making — for years! — gradually became more detailed, and the couple located a 40-acre parcel of country property outside Port Huron. When they were satisfied that the sun angles were properly arranged and the floor plan was to their liking, Doris prepared a scale model of the home. Roger began the site preparation work in 1973, and the first of the concrete was poured before the cold weather came. The McParlands were alarmed to discover, however, that their 40-acre retreat was a little less tranquil than they had anticipated. A nearby tavern catered to sometimes raucous motorcyclists in the summer, and come the winter months, the snowmobile crowd took over.

This affront to their peace and quiet—coupled with the considerable discontent that the McParlands had been feeling over the weather and the tax situation in the Great Lake State—caused them to decide to stop construction and look elsewhere for a place to build their home. After checking out the sunbelt from coast to coast, they settled on western North Carolina and purchased 60 acres, set two miles back from the main highway, in Cherokee County. Eventually the Michigan property was sold; the purchaser inherited a partially completed, 105-foot-diameter slab and basement. (Roger chuckles today when he recalls the phone messages he got from the confused new owner, but admits that in the end the fellow did a good job of working with that semicircle of cement.)

The Nine Lives of the Cat

Roger and Doris made the move south in March 1976, renting a house in the nearby town of Andrews while they cut a road in to their building site. Banking on the experience he'd gained doing earthmoving work in Korea, Roger bought an old D-6 Caterpillar bulldozer and improved on an existing logging cut that snaked for two miles up the valley to the south-pointing ridge where they intended to build.

Although the venerable machine (with a little massaging) faithfully scoured out the roadway, when it came time to level the steeply sloping ground for construction, the amateur heavy-equipment operator learned something about the civilian breed of Cat. It seems that the standard models aren't equipped with guides to hold the track in place when "sidehilling" on steep ground. After replacing thrown treads many times, Roger got frustrated enough to call in help from down in the valley.

Then, as a professional chewed away at the hillside with his specialized machine, Roger carefully leveled a building site with his flatland dozer. The dugout ledge, situated on a ridge, was a far cry from the topography that Doris had in mind when she designed their passive solar home, but with one alteration her original plan and orientation worked out perfectly: Since the access to the building would have to be from the west, it made little sense to keep the garage on the east end as Doris had planned. And, by simply flopping the original layout (to put the garage on the west end of the structure), they saved the cost of cutting out another ten feet of dirt bank and of laying out a circuitous driveway.

With most of the necessary earthmoving completed, the McParlands towed their Airstream trailer up the tortuous two-mile path (Roger claims it took only two hours to negotiate the rocky road and its five stream crossings) and set up homesteading. First came the shed, an approximately 40' x 60' pole building with rough-cut siding and a metal roof. There they could store tools and the materials they'd already accumulated, and add quantities of lumber, wallboard, and the like as they found good deals on such items.

As a result of his days in the swimming pool business, Roger says that he usually finds working with concrete to be a cinch, but the task of pouring the footings and slab was complicated somewhat by the fact that no local concrete company was interested in negotiating the McParlands' "driveway." Consequently, the couple had to haul all the raw materials themselves and do the mixing at the site. Instead of relying on the large continuous pours they'd used in Michigan, therefore, Roger divided the slab up like a pie and poured each section separately because he could mix up only a limited amount of concrete at a time. Still, by working steadily, he was able to finish the 4"-thick slab — which isn't insulated underneath but is thermally separated, by polystyrene board, from the 18"-wide, 36"-deep footings —  in short order.

The structural block walls and the stud framing also went smoothly, though the dwelling's circular shape kept Roger on his toes. To fit plates along the circumference, he tried soaking 2 x 4's in a nearby stream, but the waterlogging did little to increase the boards' willingness to conform to either the inner 37 1/2-foot radius or the outer 52 1/2-foot one. Careful cutting on the radial arm saw proved to be the only solution, but the drone of the necessary engine-driven generator did cut sharply into the couple's peaceful hours.

Setting the 26-foot-long trusses that support the cathedral ceiling proved to be one of the most physically demanding portions of the job. Roger shouldered each of the laminated 2 x 8 beams to its perch on the back wall, grunting up a ladder rung by rung. After several creaky journeys to the top, though, the old (but, Roger assured Doris, exceedingly sound) ladder collapsed under the strain, depositing beam, lifter, and splinters on the ground. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but that event, plus — later — Roger's being struck by lightning and burned from his head almost to his waist, left both of them wondering whether wilderness living was really what they wanted.

Searching for Electrons

Once the frame was up and there was a roof over their heads, the couple began to long for a few of the conveniences they'd been doing without and decided to call in the electrical utility to silence that incessant generator. Unfortunately, the nearest existing line was at the bottom of their two-mile road, and the power company announced that it'd be glad to extend service for the price of $1.85 per foot. Worse yet, even if the McParlands had forked over nearly $20,000 for installation, they still would have been expected to pay a monthly user fee above the standard service rates. Needless to say, utility electricity quickly became an unnecessary luxury in the mountain household.

So to quiet the generator's roar, and no doubt as an occasional respite from working on the house, Roger began to experiment with a resource that had long fascinated him: water power. He studied pictures of turbines and began welding up devices that could be run by the flow of their domestic water supply line. One of his earliest designs consisted of a 3"-diameter length of pipe with tablespoons welded around its periphery, but by trial and error (which Roger laughingly claims is the same process that scientists call research and development), he eventually came up with a small turbine that seemed to be "pretty powerful." His attempts at working with automobile alternators weren't successful, however, until he met a fellow named Roy Parkhurst, a retired tinkerer of many trades who rewound a car alternator to do just the job Roger needed done.

The combination of Roger's little turbine, more than 200 feet of fall, Roy's 55-volt-output alternator, a bank of eight 6-volt batteries, and a 5KW Best AC inverter put electricity into the McParland household without noise and without a $20,000 umbilical! And amazingly, the homemade turbine, the alternator Roy had salvaged from a scrap metal yard, the bank of deep-cycle golf cart batteries (bought used for $3.00 each), 1,000 feet of 1 1/2" polyethylene pipe, and 250 feet of No. 10 wire ... all cost less than $700. Compared with that sum, the inverter's price tag of $2,600 (at the time) was considerable, but Roger's enthusiasm for the appliance (after all, without it he'd be forced to burn gasoline in the noisy generator to run his power tools), has since led him to become a distributor for Best Energy Systems products.

An Unfinished Symphony

When MOTHER EARTH NEWS' staff members had the pleasure of visiting the McParlands, they found it difficult to pay attention to the unfinished aspects of the passive solar home — which the couple kept mentioning — because there were so many fascinating completed parts to study. For example, Roger made all of the building's window frames, both to save money over the cost of readymade units and to do more than just let light in. You see, the side-hinged panels have a unique ventilation scheme that Doris developed. The inner layers include ventilation holes, in the bottom and top rails, that can be opened by flipping up pivoting wooden covers. Thus, on sunny days, air can thermo-siphon through the space between the glass sheets and be heated.

At the winter solstice, sun streams through the windows and reaches shoulder height on the rock-covered back wall. In the morning, sunlight parallels the west kitchen wall, but by late afternoon the rays reach into the living room. The home's abundant solar gain is stored, passively, in the framework of the building: The inside surface of the load bearing walls consists of drywall (laid over the insulated, rough-cut frame), a layer of roofing felt, chicken wire, and rock. All interior partitions are framed and drywalled, then paneled with board-and-batten poplar (Roger had it planed at the nearby Tri-County Community College).

Of course, the beautiful floor provides a major storage medium for solar energy. Roger and Doris had their hearts set on using quarry tile until they priced the material locally. Then they were on the verge of abandoning that dream until they located a supplier in Atlanta who would sell shards for $25 per ton. So they rented a dump truck and picked up eight tons of the tiny pieces for a total cost of less than $250 (truck expense included). While they were at it, they also obtained thin-set mortar (which they'd need to bond the tiles to the slab) for $6.00 per bag, as opposed to the local price tag of $24.

Laying all the tile put both of them through weeks of knee-bruising labor; Roger says that was the task that most reminded him of his age. We'd like to suggest, however, that the labor the McParlands have expended, and the feat they've accomplished, would be enough to make most folks, regardless of their age, pretty danged proud!

Though Doris doesn't intend to complete their bookkeeping until the kitchen cupboards, exterior rockwork, and finish work are done, she's guessing that they'll end up spending a little less than $20,000 for their 3,000-square-foot custom home. And of course, the cash that they don't have to pay out each month for a mortgage won't get spent to heat their dwelling or keep the lights burning, either. Through the North Carolina winter, passive solar gain — boosted by a morning warm-up from a fireplace insert Roger built — keep them cozy. And their electricity comes from the rush of water downhill.

The McParlands have derived a lot of satisfaction from designing their own home, building it right, and doing the job for as little money as possible. Yet they modestly claim that anyone who'll take the time, and stick to the task, can do what they've done. Of course, Doris and Roger aren't standing still yet! They've got some new nut trees to plant, a few garden ideas to experiment with, a Jean Pain water-heating compost pile to rebuild, a new solar water heater design to test, and another (larger) hydroplant to construct ... and then there are those kitchen cupboards. Mercifully, though, the backbreaking jobs are mostly done, so if anyone would like to buy a used, but well-maintained, flatland Caterpillar....

EDITOR'S NOTE. Since they "retired" from the swimming pool business, the McParlands have stayed solvent by buying and selling wisely. At their store in Marble, North Carolinacalled Marble Surplusthey pass along some of their ability to spot good deals. Also, in response to numerous requests, Roger (in partnership with Roy Parkhurst) is offering a booklet explaining how his hydroelectric plant was built.


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