In 2016, Kelsey Johnston and her husband Tyler had committed to leaving their home state of Indiana for California. Both Hoosier natives who had attended college in-state and continued to work in the Indianapolis area, they were looking for a change. Johnston, a trained engineer, had left her job and was considering switching to a career in product design.
But, the same week they were due to scout out what life in Los Angeles might look like, Tyler got a job offer they couldn’t refuse in a small city on the Ohio border, and Johnston’s old company in Indianapolis came calling for her to come back in a new role.
“All the stars [were] aligning and telling me to stay here,” she says of that time. The couple took the hint.
There was just one logistical issue: It would take each of them over two hours, one way, to commute. So they needed to find middle ground—literally. The couple started looking for a home in a very specific location, near Muncie, Indiana, but they were discouraged by the housing stock. “It was nearly impossible to find that right mix of location, land, and size,” says Johnston.
Eventually, they began looking at lots for sale rather than for a home, and stumbled upon the one that would ultimately become theirs. “We actually ended up putting an offer on it and it was declined,” Johnston explains of the eight and a half acres. “That was on a Friday, and we got a call back on Monday; the seller had reconsidered.” Ahead of buying the lot, the couple weighed their options: should they build a new home or buy and renovate an existing one? Even on the day they officially purchased the land, Johnston says she wondered if they were making the right decision. “There was absolutely no infrastructure...when we got started,” says Johnston. Their home in Indianapolis sold in a mere seven hours, so they were forced to commit, and quick.
While they rented a studio apartment for their design and build phase, they began considering architects and started researching passive houses. This led them to Dan Porzel of Cedar Street Builders, who had built the only certified passive house in Indiana, and Porzel introduced them to their architect, David Rausch.
“It was a really collaborative builder, architect, and homeowner relationship,” Johnston says.
Johnston shares that she and her husband had strong opinions about what the structure would be like—but were also on a budget. Originally, Johnston wanted a one-story, L-shaped house with a deck that connected everything. “That was one of the first things Rausch nixed because he said ‘you just doubled your cost for the roof and foundation for no reason,’” she says. This focus on energy efficiency guided the rest of the project.
The marker of an energy-efficient home is “how airtight [it is], how much air leaks out,” Johnston explains. Pozel performed a significant amount of energy modeling for different scenarios, ultimately determining that the best route would be to build with 2-by-6 wall framing, instead of 2-by-4, and use blow-in insulation, a method in which insulation is blown or sprayed into wall cavities, attics, and floors.
The most efficient thing, Rausch told them, was to build a box and then figure out the floorplan that would take shape in that box. He took the lead on the home’s exterior design, which was influenced by structures on surrounding farmland.
Rausch noticed traditional Indiana barns on his first drive to the site, and suggested they take cues from the region’s vernacular architecture.
This design direction inspired the monumental sliding window on the south side of the home. “That’s the optimal orientation to maximize our solar efficiency,” Johnston explains. “We [also] needed a way to, in July and August, close that slider [and cover the window], and it instantly cools the home.” The ipe-wood sunshade is one of Porzel’s favorite features of the home. He explains that it offers the ability to shade the large southern windows when closed, and allows the sun to pass by and reach deep into the dining room and kitchen when open. “It is a real testament to how energy-efficient design can be simple, [just by] really paying attention to how the sun’s heat can be harvested and controlled,” he says.
While, at the time, it wasn’t cost effective for them to build a certified fully passive house, the couple made decisions that would leave them with that option down the road, whether it was with wind, solar, or some other renewable energy source: They used aluminum-clad wood Pella windows, bought a ventless dryer, and went with an induction cooktop instead of installing gas in the home. “We could still compensate for every single energy source in the home,” Johnston says.
Their furnace runs on a heat pump that goes down to zero degrees Fahrenheit , which pumps cooler air through the home and is much more efficient than standard furnaces, which generally only reach freezing. She adds that they also have an energy recovery ventilation (ERB) system installed, which “takes fresh air from outside and pumps it in and takes stale air and pumps it back out. It is constantly circulating fresh air throughout the home.”
When it came to the interiors, Rausch helped the couple envision how the rest of the 1,800-square-foot home would accommodate their desired open layout. Beyond that, Johnston took things into her own hands, with a palette of white paint and light wood with accents of black in mind. The couple has slowly furnished the home since they moved in. “We slept on the floor for a good eight months before we even ordered a bed frame,” she says, laughing.
Not only are the sustainability features of the home imperative in the long run for both the couple and the environment, but Johnston also notes that it was important to her and Tyler to show that building an affordable, design-forward home from the ground up in a rural area of the Midwest is possible.
“So many people have a vision of what life in Indiana looks like,” she says. “It’s possible to create a home [here] that has a lot of those [designed] aspects. I wanted it to feel approachable for others, regardless of where they live.”