CALVIN and Patricia Harter lost their house to fire one bitter night last February. In a few short hours all that was left were the granite foundation stones. It was ''that quick,'' Cal Harter says, recalling the destruction.
Recently, the Harters' new house here went up almost as speedily as the old one burned down. In one working day the basic weather-tight shell was in place. It was ''that quick,'' Mr. Harter says again, and this time he's all smiles.
In scenes reminiscent of a community barn-raising of bygone years, friends, neighbors, at least one passing stranger, and this reporter erected the walls, weather-tight ceiling, and interior partitions of a superinsulated post-and-beam home in eight hours, including time off for lunch.
A system of energy-efficient home construction, developed by the Rensselaerville Institute and now marketed by a company called Pond Hill Homes, made the speedy erection possible.
In brief, the system combines a centuries-old building concept (post-and-beam framing) with one right out of the past decade (superinsulated sandwich panels), which until recently was confined almost exclusively to high-rise construction. The combination results in a readily erected and therefore less costly home.
The fact that the wall and ceiling panels are made of rigid urethane-foam panels sandwiched between two thin steel sheets (or between steel and exterior-finished wood) also means that the home is highly energy efficient.
The Pond Hill concept began a few years ago on the drawing boards of engineers and designers with the Institute of Science and Man in Rensselaerville , N.Y. The nonprofit organization, also known simply as Rensselaerville Institute, had been asked to develop a building system that would meet the needs of low-income Americans. To this end it had to be readily erected and straightforward enough so that the homeowner with minimal skills and the help of some friends could put up the basic, weather-tight structure on his or her own.
At the same time the building had to be well insulated and tight enough so that heating and cooling costs would remain modest at all times. In addition, the building had to be structurally solid so that it would last a long, long time and maintenance would be minimal.
Given the needs, then, post-and-beam framing was a natural choice because it uses fewer, stronger members to support the structure - about 60 pieces in the average Pond Hill home compared with several hundred in the lighter stick-built house.
The fewer the pieces involved, the simpler the erection process becomes, the engineers reasoned. When each of these members is precision cut and numbered so that there is no confusion as to which beam goes where, the whole process becomes easier still. After the frame goes up, ceiling and wall panels are simply nailed in place and the overlapping flanges screwed together to provide an airtight fit.
All members, whether posts, beams, or panels, can be lifted and fastened in place by two people, although an additional helping hand or two will lighten the load and speed up the process.
Here in New Scotland, the foundation for the Harters' new house was poured by a local contractor to Pond Hill specifications. Then the kit - beams, posts, panels, interior wall sections, doors, and windows - was trucked in ready for the ''house raising.'' This is how it went:
8:30 a.m. The interior wall sections are set in place, followed by the posts and beams of the exterior walls. Finally, the cross beams that tie everything together are fastened home.
11:30 a.m. Now in place, the frame is made perpendicular with the use of a spirit level and some temporary cross bracing that is nailed in place. Because the wood members are precision cut, bringing one side of the house to the perpendicular automatically does the same for the opposite wall. Making sure the walls are perfectly upright is important if the wall and ceiling panels are to go on simply and easily. So, for good measure, the builders check the opposite sides. In this instance, it is an unnecessary procedure.
12:30 p.m. Lunch.
2 p.m. Lunch over, workers begin installing the ceiling panels, followed by the exterior walls.
4 p.m. Polyurethane foam (included in the Pond Hill kit) is sprayed between the ends of each ceiling panel and around the circumference of the entire ceiling to insure a weathertight finish.
4:30 p.m. Work finishes for the day.
Under normal circumstances, the windows and doors would go in next to complete the Pond Hill kit contribution to the house. But the Harters elected to have the windows and doors installed at the end of the construction schedule to lessen any chance of breakage.
The following day, prefabricated roof trusses and the roof sheathing, bought from a local lumberyard, are in place by 2 p.m. Electrical and plumbing work, as well as the interior finishing, is being done by the local contractor who poured the full-basement foundation.
What the Harters got with the Pond Hill kit was the basic weathertight, insulated, 1,l00-square-foot shell, including doors and windows and the air exchanger, necessary with all superinsulated homes. Also included were such options as stud-framed interior walls and certain plumbing fixtures. The kit cost, delivered to the site from the Pond Hill factory in Blairsville, Pa., came to approximately $20,000. By the time the contractor's work is completed the final cost for the Harter home is expected to run between $35,000 and $40,000.
While the Pond Hill system was designed with the owner-builder in mind, many homes using the system are now being erected by professional builders. Their prices, too, are competitive because of the speed with which the home goes up along with the built-in assurance that the home will be energy efficient. Superinsulated stick-built homes are becoming more commonplace, but the attention to detail required to ensure a tight home is invariably time consuming and costly.
One such professionally built Pond Hill home went up in an upper-middle-class section of Narragansett, R.I., recently. The 1,300-square-foot home, with top-of-the-line oak fixtures, doors, and appliances throughout, was selling for
Heating and cooling costs are expected to run as low as $400 a year at current oil prices. Moreover, according to computer estimates, the savings on heating and cooling costs compared with a conventional stick-built home with four inches of fiberglass in the walls and 12 inches in the ceilings over 30 years comes to $58,000, assuming an average 5 percent-a-year increase in energy costs; and $80,000 if the cost increase averages 7 percent a year.
At the less expensive end of the housing market, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company expects to erect 250 completely carpeted Pond Hill homes in 1985, selling them for between $35,000 and $40,000, excluding land.
Maurice Roseby, chief executive officer with AMBS Inc., says: ''We like the built-in insulation that comes with these homes because just as you need to keep the heat in up North, we need to keep it out down here.''