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A Sandy couple create their dream solar home
by Sara Seloheim

Picture this: No house payments for 25 years; comfortable, two-story 2,800 square foot home; and low-cost heating – because the sun provides most of the energy. It’s possible. In fact, Bruce and Winni Allison are living testimonials that it really can happen.

The Sandy area couple’s story starts back in the 1960s when these two Portland city dwellers started dreaming about moving to the country and building a New England saltbox house.

Bruce was born on a dairy farm in Coos Bay and spent summers there. He missed trees and open spaces. Winni grew up in the city. “I loved it,” she says. “I was used to buildings, but I always had wanted to live in the country. We both wanted animals and children.”

In 1969, they bought five wooded acres on contract east of Sandy near Mt. Hood, and Bruce started designing their future home. “When I was young, Mom encouraged me and my brother to draw,” Bruce says. “I started drawing houses in high school. Later, the jobs I had required babysitting machines - sitting and watching them - so I would pick up a clipboard and draw.”

They started the 936 square foot basement to use as a temporary home while they built the rest of the house. They still lived in Portland, so for two years Bruce worked a regular day job, and then traveled 24 miles to their land, worked on construction of the basement and traveled back another 24- miles to Portland. In 1971, they moved to their land. The basement was primitive, but home.

In 1978, the Allisons were ready to order plans for their long-desired Saltbox home when an energy crisis hit Oregon. Long lines at gas stations (and sometimes no gas) as well as higher electrical and oil heating bills – plus a south wind blowing cold air into their basement home - helped the Allisons decide to go solar instead.

Solar heat is not new. Thousands of years ago early Americans used solar heat to warm their dwellings. Today’s passive solar house uses the renewable energy of the sun through the right windows, careful site orientation to the south and energy-collecting building materials to warm and cool the structure. Additional elements such as tile or concrete floors, water bladders and or piping systems add backup heat sources and hot water supplies.

“If constructed properly, a passive solar home can result in heating costs 80 to 95 percent lower than for that of the average home. It also can significantly reduce air conditioning costs,” Bruce says. Bruce and Winni built their house slowly as and when they could afford the materials and labor. They hired out jobs they could not do and friends pitched in to help, too. Over the years, both Bruce and Winni have done everything from insulation to sheet rock to building cabinets - and their two sons helped haul and gather materials as well.

“In 1981, a friend helped me frame the house. Another helped me draw up the plans. We spent three months in here framing,” Bruce explains. When he could not find something he needed to do a job, this creative inventor designed it himself. For instance, after the house was built, he needed to tow firewood and a dumpster filled with heavy debris. Bruce took an old Datsun hood, flipped it upside down and welded straps on it, and then with a truck, towed the newly dubbed “little Mt. Hood” carrier to its official dumping spot.

Because Bruce believes in conservation, the Allison house is full of historical “cast offs,” like the former Salem post office doors dividing the living room from an entry, and a front door originally from a Klamath Falls hotel. He rescued old growth fir beams from a salvage shop. Each 3x14x22” beam weighs about 210 pounds; he used forty-five of them in the house. The 16-foot tall windows in the loft are eight used sliding glass doors which Bruce bought for $15 each.

“I am a user of BSJ – Basic Sound Junk. I was and am concerned about the environment so I decided to use recycled materials as much as I could. It helps reduce stuff going to landfills,” Bruce explains. His wife has a sense of humor about all this.

“Winni was standing on the front porch many years ago making mention of all the different things our place was made out of,” Bruce jokes. She said, ‘Someday all they will know this place by is ALLISON’S FOLLY.’ I liked the idea so much I made a paper poster with that on it and had it on the upper porch for several years. So I guess our style might be ‘Folly.’”

If it is, others don’t mind. “This house almost has taken on a life of its own. It’s beyond a house,” Winni explains. “My dreams for this house were for peace, safety, hospitality. Over the years, lots of people have lived with us and it has been a place of recovery for them.

“We also have noticed that people come along at the right time, when we are needing them.” For instance, when they were ready to lift and put up those heavy old growth beams, the carpenters had planned to do it themselves. But a man came who had a crane and he offered to do it, and even added eight feet more bar to the lift. It took him eight minutes to lift each long and heavy beam into place. The Allisons note that their home is a work of art still in progress.

“All of it was done piecemeal. At the beginning, I decided it was a 30-year project,” he explains.

Bruce Allison offers solar cabin and modular starter home design plans through his independent energy business. For information, write him at Simple Solar Works, PO Box 644, Sandy, OR 97055 and send a self addressed, stamped envelope. Or visit him at or in person at the SolWest Renewable Energy Fair in John Day, Oregon, July 28 and 29, 2001.