BY ELISABETH DUNHAM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRED & HOLLY STICKLEY
Until recently, Ninian Blackburn and Kat Grammer’s rustic home in the Hood River Valley was as challenging as it was charming. Despite its beautiful recycled Douglas fir interior and pristine views of Mt. Hood, the simple act of spending the weekend in the drafty 40-year-old house in Parkdale had become more and more a labor of love for the married couple.
“We would arrive on a Friday afternoon and it would be 22 degrees,” recalls Blackburn, a professor at the Oregon Health & Science University’s Institute of Environmental Health. “We’d burn fires in both fireplaces and go through half a cord of wood, and by Sunday it would maybe be up to 63 degrees inside.”
A weekend stay also required the couple spend an hour draining the plumbing to ensure that the pipes would not freeze while they were gone. Critters wriggled into the walls and crawl spaces—including a skunk that sprayed next to a guest bathroom. “It took a whole summer to get rid of that scent,” Blackburn says.
Thankfully, the days of roughing it are over. Last year—seven years after they purchased the home—Blackburn and Grammer hired Green Home Construction in Hood River to help them transform the residence into a solidly constructed, energy-efficient home they can enjoy year round. The completed project maintains the house’s original character and status as an early “green” home.
The house was built in the early 1970s by another prominent figure at OHSU, pediatric cardiologist S. Gorham Babson, founder of the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Center. Born in the upper Hood River Valley, Babson grew up in a family that had owned and operated pear and apple orchards in the area since the 1800s. Babson and his wife, Ruth, had five daughters and they intended the Parkdale home as a summer-only getaway
for the clan.
Nondescript from the outside, the 1,400-foot cabin’s interior was something special: huge beams and paneling made of wood recycled from old barns, a narrow wood spiral staircase to a second-story loft and a cathedral window looking out onto Mt. Hood.
The OHSU connection was a lucky coincidence that came to light during the purchase of the home. When a bidding war ensued, Blackburn, a native of Scotland who missed the pastoral setting of his childhood, wrote a letter to Babson’s grown children. He explained that he was a professor at OHSU—as were many of the neighbors in the surrounding cabins—and that he and his wife recognized the value of the beautiful interior design and intended to preserve it.
“The doctor was way ahead of his time in having the idea that reclaimed and vintage wood was something desirable and cool,” Grammer says.
The original construction team for the home used dry, well-preserved wood from high desert barns in Eastern Oregon’s Morrow County to create an interior shell of rich, warm-looking wood.
The Green Home crew stripped the house to the interior cladding. To make the home air tight and energy efficient, they installed extra plywood and insulation in the walls, roof and crawl space beneath the home and added new siding to the exterior. They also installed a new energy-efficient and remotely-controlled “smart” heating system. Inefficient baseboard heaters were replaced with modern electric radiators that the couple can control from Portland via the Internet, cranking up the interior heat to a relatively balmy 62 degrees before they arrive. The home was re-plumbed throughout with pipes that do not freeze—thanks to the new heating system. A 200-square-foot master bedroom and bathroom were also added at the back of the home.
“Because we improved energy efficiency, this once leaky older cabin now feels like a comfortable cottage,” says Tom Reid, owner of Green Home Construction. “Now, it’s a joy to visit.”
One of the more important “green” aspects of the project was maintaining the recycled wood interior, some of which is adorned with century-old cowboy graffiti. Apparently, seasonal workers at the ranches in Morrow County who slept in the barns would burn sticks and etch their names onto the wood. The likes of the “Hay City Posse, “Larry Snortin’ Bull Kenny” and “AJ Peter 1919” left their marks on the walls in odd places throughout the house.
“We knew from the start that the cabin remodel would present a number of challenges stemming from its unconventional construction and our own budget constraints,” Blackburn says. “Green Home Construction was able to rise to these challenges through innovative suggestions on how to meld new materials with the original recycled barn wood. From engineering solutions for (getting rid of) rot, to the placement of ceilings so as to retain elements of the roof trusses, as well as a deep understanding of energy-efficient space, the Green Home team was always ready with practical and cost-effective solutions.”
A bridge between the past and the present, Blackburn and Grammer’s home preserves the character of its rustic roots while providing an updated building shell that adds energy- efficient comfort and improves the longevity of the home.
Through Green Home Construction’s online portal, project managers collaborated with Blackburn and Grammer even when the couple was in Portland.
“Due to the short building season we started into the project with just a rough outline of our intended scope,” says Tom Reid, owner of Green Home Construction in Hood River. “When working on older structures, the building often has to reveal itself before the correct path to improvements will be known.”
• All of the work on the home was completed from the outside, leaving the recycled barn wood interior intact and allowing the homeowners to use the residence during the project.
• The upgrades increase energy efficiency and enhance the structure’s 40-year status as a “green” home.
• The Green Home Construction crew reused existing materials to preserve the home’s original character.
• Recycled newspaper blown into the wall cavities and rigid foam placed on the exterior preserve indoor air quality by allowing any off gassing to occur outside of the building rather than into the home.
• Rain screen installed beneath the exterior siding will prevent future water damage.
• The Hood River crew used sustainably harvested lumber throughout the project and non-toxic American Clay plaster finishes on the interior.