Couple gifting earthen retirement home to parents

POMONA LAKE—Keith Fouts is an electrician, born and raised in the Ottawa area. He was the first of his family to go to college out of state. He grew fond of traveling, and in his growing worldliness, began to take a different view of his craft.

“I’ve dreamed of building a natural building project, friendlier for the environment, more durable than your conventional house,” Fouts said. “I’ve been studying natural building projects, but have never worked on one.”

The only problem is, Keith has no intention of settling down anywhere, anytime soon.

Enter Keith’s parents, Leroy and Pam Fouts.

“My parents are retiring sooner than I expected,” Fouts said. “They needed to downsize. I was going to go ahead and build this natural building project I’ve been talking about.”

Leroy and Pam recently sold their home of 37 years, a four-bedroom, two-bath home in Ottawa.

“It was great growing up,” Fouts said. “But it’s too big for them, and for a retirement budget.”

Keith was ready to dig in, rent an excavator and start digging the basement, when he decided to step back and get some hands-on experience before beginning work on his parents’ home.

“We went to an eight-day workshop in Ashville, N.C.,” Fouts said. “We got a lot more experience there, and a lot of knowledge from the books.”

Keith made his annual pilgrimage home to Kansas last summer, a trip that usually lasts about a week. This year, he settled in for the long haul.

“We started last July,” Fouts said. “I knew the project. I knew construction. My skills working as an electrician were really valuable. I knew this project was going to cost more than estimated, and take longer, and sure enough on both counts.”

The initial goal was for the home to be completed, at least the exterior, by winter. They ended up stopping just before winter.

“We worked up until November, then the temperatures changed really fast,” Fouts said.

The Foutses came to the Pomona Lake area by way of Ottawa and St. Marys, his mother’s hometown. Keith’s family moved to the home in Ottawa when he was one month old.

“In 1964, when Lake Pomona was built, my grandparents bought a quarter acre lot at the lake,” Fouts said. “Fifteen years ago, my parents bought the next quarter acre lot.”

Keith purchased the adjacent 7.5 acres of woodland when it became available in recent years.

“The wooded section I played in as a kid,” Fouts said. “I jumped on it.”

Keith began building on the property with a 12-foot storage shed.

“I put solar panels on the roof, almost 600 watts, and a 1,000-gallon rain collection barrel,” Fouts said.

When he began construction of the house, they trenched around 1,000 feet to bring rural water and tap into the grid. He still intends for the home to be as sustainable as possible.

“I plan for all of the lighting inside to be 12 watt LED,” Fouts said. “We are tied into the water system, but there’s a 3,000 gallon rainwater system that’s built into the house. We’ll be using the rain catcher to fill that. We should be able to fill that about eight times a year.”

He plans to add additional solar power to the home after its completion.

“I’ll have it designed where we could defect from the grid, but it’s better for everyone around, we may as well share it with the neighbors,” Fouts said.

He hopes Kansas will eventually expand to allow residential homes to sell excess electricity.

“In other states, the power company will buy back that surplus electricity,” he said.

Keith and his wife, Lily, plan to return to full time construction this summer, with plans to complete the home this year.

“Probably mid-July to early August,” Fouts said. We haven’t done a whole lot of work on the inside.”

Lily tracks the progress of the home on her blog, located at lilyannfouts.com.

“Many of my friends and readers who followed our earth bag house build last summer have asked, ‘So, how much did you get done before winter?’” she blogged on her site. “The short answer is ‘Lots, but not as much as we’d hoped.’”

The page shows the construction of earth bags, which are then covered with a combination of newspaper and concrete, called papercrete, a lightweight covering that protects the polypropylene bags. The bags are filled with earth and stacked to create the 12 to 18-inch thick walls of the home.

The Foutses completed the utility room and cistern, which will store rain water for the home.

“We were able to put in the infrastructure for the utilities, finish the rainwater cistern, nearly finish the walls of the utility room and put a roof over it, and build the rest of the walls of the house up to about four feet,” Lily said. “We’re working on finding someone to put in a septic tank as soon as possible. We plan to return to the project in July and have the house finished enough to move in to by October.”

Keith has plans for additions in the future as well.

“We’ll probably build a garage on there sometime in the future,” he said. “I have plans to make a sun room. We also have an RV shelter half-built. It would be finished by now, but the need for my parents’ house came up, and our priorities shifted.”

The unique home has grown from a point of contention to one of pride for the couple that plans to retire in it.

“My parents, my dad especially, weren’t too keen on the idea of an earth bag house at first,” Fouts said. “My dad likes to brag about it. He’s really excited that when it’s done there’s this natural project he can show off.”

Keith says they’re considering an open house once the home is completed, and is also excited about the idea of their sustainable home attracting others to employ similar methods.

“That would be great,” Fouts said. “Having a house that uses so much less materials than your average house, it’s kind of a win-win all around.”

And a third win for Keith, whose dream of building a natural home is being fulfilled, without having to commit to being tied down anywhere. His plans to travel to work and spend his free time roaming the planet, continue with plans to visit the one continent he hasn’t visited, Asia, in the coming years. He’s already traveled to work in Antarctica.

Of course, Keith hasn’t completely put off the idea of eventually building an earthen home for himself.

“It would probably be in Equador,” he said. “We just love it down there. We might build a home base in the future. Someplace to return to when we’re in between travels.”

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