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Living off the sun: Alum builds solar-powered house

Paul Gustafson, ’09, enjoys reading, climbing trees, working on his truck and most importantly, learning how computers and electronics work. Since graduating, he has moved to Vermont, started a renewable energy business and built a home. But, not just any home. Gustafson and his family designed and constructed a home that is completely off the grid, running entirely on solar power.

The blueprint
While growing up, Gustafson was raised with a non-consumerist philosophy: if his family could make or do something themselves instead of paying for it, they would. When he was 10 years old, they installed a small photovoltaic system, which is a system that uses one or more solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. After the panels were up and running, Gustafson and his father turned off everything in the house and went outside to watch the meter turn backwards. He claims this was his first step into the solar industry.

Gustafson continued nurturing his intrigue for science and technology at Messiah College, where he majored in engineering with a double concentration in electrical and computer. Additionally, he was a member of the Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research and leader of the transportation group for a year, which was a branch of Collaboratory born from the Genesis solar car projects. The group designs and creates vehicles that use resources wisely and educate the public about uses of alternative energy.

Building the house
Preparation to build a house that runs entirely off of solar power takes a lot of time and meticulous planning. The initial plans began around 2000, and in 2001, his family started making the commute to the land allotted for this house—which happened to be land from Gustafson’s grandparents. They cleared all of the trees and milled them into timbers so they had supplies for the frame of the house.

Once the Gustafsons had enough wood to build a frame, the walls came up with the help of a crane. Next, they inserted structural insulated panels—with four inches of insulation—and cut out holes where they wanted windows to be placed. For water supply, they dug wells uphill and ran tubing down into their house so that the water is gravity fed and does not require any pumps. Finally, the Gustafsons added three solar panels to power their house using the energy the sun emits.

Beyond his front door
When Gustafson reflects on the impact of solar energy in our modern world, he believes that many countries are trying to capitalize on this source of renewable energy, and businesses are catering to their customers in hopes of positively showing their concern for the environment. For individuals, solar power can wear many different hats.

Gustafson claims,  “Some people like the feeling of contributing their own electricity and using less that they have to buy from the electric company; some people get it for the “green” aspect, trying to use less energy from potentially environmentally destructive sources; and some people get it just to save a little money on their electric bill.”

Gustafson also recognizes that like any source of energy, solar power has its advantages and drawbacks. Although the sun can provide essentially free energy with very low maintenance and a long life, it only works when the sun shines. In areas where clear skies and sun pervade the sky every day, this is not an issue; however, in places that it does not, something else will be needed to provide power when the sun is behind the clouds.

“For most of the country solar would be great as a complement to other forms of power, but due to its very nature it can’t be the single source of power on a large scale,” Gustafson states.

There is still work to be done on the Gustafson’s  house.  They still have to hang siding and build the porch in between the house and the garage.

However, close to 12 years later, the Gustafsons are getting close to completing a project that deserves admiration for both conserving energy and stewarding the Lord’s natural resources.

Story by Emily Mohler `13. Photos courtesy of Paul Gustafson `09.

Detailed house specs
We cut down trees, milled timbers, and cut joinery for several years until we had enough to put up the frame. The frame was big enough that we had to hire a crane to pick up the bents to put them up – much safer than the old method of ropes and poles! Then the walls went up, which were something called structural insulated panels – basically drywall on the inside, 4 inches of insulation, and then plywood on the outside. They come in big sheets like plywood only longer, and we just stood them up and screwed them into the frame with big 7 inch screws. To put windows in we just took a chainsaw and chopped holes in them wherever we wanted windows, and then put a frame of 2x4s in to mount the window to. For the roof we used standing seam metal, with PEX tubing underneath for supplemental hot water. We have a couple shallow wells up the hill that we dug and ran tubing down to our house, so our water is gravity fed – no pumps required. We were fortunate to be able to get our water this way, as wells are expensive and well pumps take a lot of power to run.

Photos of the construction process are available at

One Response to “Living off the sun: Alum builds solar-powered house”

  1. Heidi Winter Says:

    This is a very interesting article and I am excited that Messiah is producing graduates that are interested in innovative sustainable energy. I believe that this is good stewardship of the beautiful world God has given us, and wonderful way to live out Jesus command to “occupy till I come” Luke 19:13