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The exterior of two buildings. Both buildings are painted white. In the foreground is a lawn covered in frost and snow.

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‘Energy-efficient design can be simple’

An Indiana couple builds their eco-friendly dream house on 8.5 acres

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.

The homeowners, a man and woman, stand outside their front door. The front door is glass and they are both standing at the top of concrete stairs.
The Johnstons outside their home near Muncie, Indiana.

“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.

A living area with white walls and hardwood floors. There is a gray area rug and a dark gray couch. There is a white arm chair and a wooden coffee table. A mirror hangs on the far wall over a small table with two stools.
In the living room, a Kittles sofa with pillows from Loom Goods sits atop a Rejuvenation rug. The credenza and gray chairs are from Ikea. The walls throughout most of the home are painted Dunn Edwards Droplets.
Brett Bulthuis
A dining area with a large wooden table that is flanked by multiple black chairs. The floor is hardwood and the walls are painted white. There is a large staircase to the side of the dining area leading upstairs.
A Ventura dining table in white oak and Windsor dining chairs in white oak with charcoal dye from Hedge House Furniture sit under a Mobile light from Stuff by Andrew Neyer. The floors are 7-inch-wide engineered-white-oak planks from Timeless Designs.
A bathroom. The wall is white with a black cross pattern. There is a wooden mirror, a sink, and a towel holder holding a blue and white patterned hand towel.
A vintage mirror in the powder room hangs above a Rejuvenation sink and Kohler sink fixture. To the right hangs a Ferm Living towel holder.

“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.

A kitchen. The walls and cabinetry are white. There is a kitchen island with chairs, a sink, countertops, shelves with kitchen supplies, an oven, and stove. The window above the sink overlooks a large yard with a white building in the distance.
Johnston and her husband designed the kitchen themselves. The cabinets and hardware are from Ikea, and the cabinet fronts are Semihandmade. Rejuvenation pendants and sconces hang above the island and around the stove hood.
The exterior of a house. The house is white. There is a green lawn in the foreground.
The exterior is clad in James Hardie board-cement siding and painted with Sherwin Williams Snowbound.

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.

The exterior of the front of a house. The house is painted white and there is one large window with multiple smaller windows. The house structure resembles a barn.
The vernacular architecture of Indiana barns influenced the simple forms of the Johnston’s new home. But, the couple wanted the structure to be energy efficient; one of the main sustainably-minded features was the monumental window slider on the south side of the home.
An aerial image of two white buildings. There is a path leading to the buildings. The path and buildings are surrounded by an expansive green lawn. In the distance on the edge of the property is a line of trees.
An aerial view of the Johnstons’ eight and a half acres.

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.

A bedroom. There is a bedside table which has wooden legs and a white top. The wall is white with a light blue watercolor pattern. There is a bed with white and grey bed linens and multiple pillows. The bed frame is wood.
One of two bedside tables from Target. The lights are designs of the Johnstons.
A hallway. The floor is hardwood and there is an area rug with a striped pattern. There are multiple framed works of art hanging on the wall which is painted white. The other wall has floor to ceiling windows that go up two stories high. The windowed wall
A McGee & Co rug lines the upstairs hallway, beside a custom metal balustrade by Centerline Studio.
A bedroom. The walls are painted light grey. There is a large bed with light grey bed linens and multiple assorted pillows. There are two wooden bedside tables. On one of the walls is a window.
A Windsor bed in white oak by Hedge House Furniture holds court in the master bedroom. Bedding includes a quilt by Louise Gray and sheets and duvet by Parachute Home. The walls are painted in Dunn Edwards Faded Gray.

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.”

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