More than 25 years ago, Dr. Linda Geronilla starting having memory issues.
“I’m a psychologist and I was forgetting stuff. That’s not cool for a psychologist,” recalls Geronilla, who was only 40 at the time.
After doing research at a medical library, she determined that her memory issues were a symptom of having high levels of aluminum in her bloodstream and that her antiperspirant, make-up and other products were the cause.
It started her on a journey of seeking ways to assure a healthier life, from what she puts in and on her body to cutting out the toxins in both her home and yard.
Her evolution led her to certifications as a master gardener, master naturalist and in permaculture, a sustainable agriculture design philosophy based on simulating pattern in nature.
Mountains to marsh
Fast forward a couple of decades, as she and her husband Dante Geronilla started preparing for their move from the Charleston, W.Va., to the Lowcountry.
Dante’s only prerequisite was having a view of the marsh. Linda’s was a bit more. She wanted an energy-efficient, solar-powered, healthy home with a yard that produced organic, fresh food and provided habitat for pollinators.
“We looked for houses for two years with a really great Realtor and we couldn’t find anything. Finally, she looked at us and said, ‘I think you’ll have to build’,” recalls Geronilla.
Ever the researcher, Geronilla found her way to the Daniel Island-based Insulsteel of South Carolina, formerly known as Amerisips Homes LLC, and owners Steve and Tina Bostic.
On an acre lot on Sonny Boy Lane on Johns Island, the Geronillas and Bostics set out to build a tricked-out eco-home, which this year has earned Insulsteel two impressive honors.
In September, the Department of Energy awarded Insulsteel its second of two ZERO Energy Ready Home’s “Housing Innovation Award.” The DOE also ranks Insulsteel among the top 1 percent of U.S. home builders in energy-saving innovations.
And in October, the Charleston Home Builders Association likewise honored Insulsteel with a Prism Award for the “Most Innovative Housing Project.”
Steve Bostic says the second award was due to the Geronillas “giving us an opportunity” to explore a range of systems.”
The Geronillas spared practically nothing in creating their home, which is nearly 3,700 square feet (they eventually will be joined by Dante’s sister and needed room for the grandchildren of two daughters who live nearby.)
Central to the home is Insulsteel’s “EcoShell” pre-engineered, expanded polystyrene panels that are impressive in multiple ways: the panels minimize construction waste (less than 10 percent, compared to 35 percent); insulation values range from R-33 to R-70+; the tight building envelope adds to energy savings and issues with moisture, mildew and mold; and, finally, strength, rated to withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour.
Between that tight, insulated envelope and solar power, Steve Bostic claims that electrical bills for these relatively large homes are no more than $400. Last month, Geronillas' bill was $53.
The Geronillas have 427 square feet of solar panels on a south-facing roof, tilted at an optimal 22 degrees, that powers a Heliodyne solar hot water system and a battery backup for critical backup circuits.
Their heating, air conditioning and ventilation system is Daikin Altherma inverter system, which is a super-efficient, water source heat pump, and a Unico High Velocity-Airside system.
To avoid the air issues of the tight envelope, fresh outdoor air is brought in by an automatically controlled damper.
The interior also features bamboo flooring, no VOC paint, an induction stove and other energy-efficient appliances, 100 LED lights and fans with efficient DC motors.
While Geronilla and Bostic declined to say how much the house cost to build, Bostic says his homes range in cost from “the mid-$500,000s to $1.6 million.”
Another feature of the home is hidden under the front porch: a 1,335-gallon cistern, which stores rainwater from the house’s roof. The water is then pumped into a drip irrigation system for Linda’s food and flower beds and perennial, fruit-bearing trees and bushes.
Geronilla practices permaculture, which she describes as a “sustainable way of putting peoples, buildings, plants and animals together in a sustainable fashion.”
She was in the first permaculture certification class, taught by Nick Tittle, in South Carolina in early 2015.
Planning for that on Sonny Boy Lane started well before the construction, after she demanded that Bostic’s crews move, not remove top soil, before building. But it wasn’t that fertile anyway.
“My soil report is bad,” says Linda, of the lack of organic loam. “This land was an old rice field, then tomato field, so it was stripped of everything.”
So the process of building it up started with the senior “dumpster diving” to get cardboard. She repurposed it as sheet mulch, which smothers weeds and crabgrass. Next came 200 tons of compost from the Bee’s Ferry landfill, which she later found out was lacking in beneficial microcrobes, and then a more nutrient-rich compost from a Johns Island source.
Finally, 400 tons of wood chips that she took off the hands of local tree services were used as ground cover.
So far, she had planted an array of perennial fruit-bearing trees and bushes, recently installed a large row of strawberries, and has gone through a few cycles of annual vegetable beds.
The construction of the Geronillas' dream retirement home and yard wasn’t without its challenges and delays, compliments of Mother Nature herself.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 25, 2015, the day the home was scheduled to get its certification of occupation and the day before one of the Geronillas' daughters was to be wed, a tornado ripped through Sonny Boy Lane. It damaged nearly 80 homes along a 7-mile-swath of Johns Island and in West Ashley.
And while the Geronillas' home stood up to the tornado’s twisting winds, estimated at 130-plus miles per hour, many of the trees in the neighborhood did not. Three of the 43 storm-rated windows were smashed, allowing debris to be blown inside the house.
Fixing siding and ordering and replacing windows, whose seals were likely compromised, delayed a move in for several months.
“I didn’t even get in here until mid-May, but I’m here now and I love it,” says Geronilla. “It’s wonderful.”
Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.