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Eco-friendly Sparks Glencoe barn features recycled, local materials

North County News

Who says it's not easy being green? Local contractor Polly Bart would say that not only is it easy, but the results are beautiful using local sustainable materials and helping to save the environment.

Bart has put her professional know-how to use by building a barn on her property in the Sparks Glencoe area, where she lives. Her barn is constructed with natural materials, using salvaged trees, dirt and straw and making it a living laboratory that she proudly shows off.

In the '90s Bart had a construction company that built low-cost housing in Baltimore. She said she was disturbed by the impact that both residential and commercial construction were having on the local environment, which led to a turning point for her.

"I had moved into the country and I was very concerned watching trees, one species after another, getting sick, frogs disappearing," Bart said. "I could see invasive (species) coming in; I could see the changes happening fast."

Bart took some time and meditated on what she personally could do. "I wanted to do my part, I believe in 'think locally, act locally.'"

So in in 2004 Bart rebranded herself by creating Greenbuilders Inc., her eco-, green-friendly company that uses recycled and locally sourced materials for both commercial and residential construction.

Her barn, which took about a year to build, is an ongoing project, and showcases the materials that that have been used in its construction. "This building is a demonstration and a laboratory for me," Bart said.

Some conventional materials, such as steel, have been used for structural support, and unpeeled logs that have not been milled have also been employed. A white oak tree that someone was cutting down was repurposed as Bart's barn deck. Most materials have been found within five miles of her home.

"This is a hybrid building," she said.

The first thing that draws the eye when approaching the barn is the thatched roof that dominates the front half of the structure. Made from phragmites, a common reed, thatch is a natural insulator. The thatch is 13 inches thick and is waterproof (the capillary action in the reeds makes them waterproof). Bart points out that her thatch is from Turkey. Phragmites are considered an invasive species and grow here in the Cheasapeake Bay; they can be harvested for use. Thatched roofs are growing in popularity, especially with celebrities; Brad Pitt has one. Bart explained that it is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

"A thatched roof is a luxury," she said.

David Gallery, a professional thatcher who lives in Ireland, helped Bart with hers and has been building thatched roofs for about 20 years.

"While it is very practical, the beauty of a thatched roof can never be overlooked," Gallery said. "And it always brings a 'wow' to everyone's lips.

Bart said her mission is to let people know that going green and eco-friendly doesn't have to be a luxury, especially in residential construction. Using local materials such as soapstone, quarried in Schyler, Va., and cambria for countertops, instead of granite, which Bart said a lot of which actually comes from Bangladesh, China, and the rainforests.

A green roof, also known as a living roof and already popular in Europe, is another feature of Bart's barn. The roof uses dirt from a local site with some locally expanded shale. Sedem, a green succulent, grows on top of it. Requiring almost no maintenance, the roof absorbs water, thereby not contributing to water runoff and reducing air-conditioning and heating costs, Bart explained.

"A blacktop (roof) in the city will be 150 degrees," Bart said. "That's the point, the air on the roof will be the same temperature as the rooftop — it works really well for residential."

Bart has also let people interested in going green come to help while learning techniques. Melanie Berry, a Baltimore resident, was researching ways to be eco-responsible for an upcoming project to renovate an old house she and her partner bought. They hired Bart as a consultant.

"I was interested in building a straw-bale house," Berry said. "I came three or four times stacking bales (of hay) and doing several coats of plaster."

Used for insulation, Bart's straw for her walls comes from a local farmer. A mixture of lime, water and sand is used to coat the bales. Bart said that fire is not a worry nor are mice because the straw bale walls are too thick. "It would be like trying to burn a telephone book," she said.

Another material she favors for insulation is sheep's wool, which only gets better over time and is water resistant.

"You never see a soggy sheep," Bart said with a laugh.

One last touch she wants to add to her barn is a packed-earth floor. While it may seem counterintuitive, Bart says this type of flooring is easy to keep clean and is finished with a layer of beeswax and linseed oil to make it waterproof.

Like thatched roofs, packed-earth floors are becoming more popular for inside and outside use, Bart said.

And like everything else, old is new, and using locally sourced materials is good for the environment while making financial sense for businesses and homeowners.

"My contribution is to bring green, eco-friendly construction to residential, especially remodeling," Bart said. "I'll talk to anyone."

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