Prepping for Pensmore, a walk through the Christian County chateau

Eric Olson, SBJ EditorEach month, I meet with our guests for the upcoming 12 People You Need to Know interview breakfast series. Usually, it’s at a coffee shop or restaurant.

Yesterday, we met at a 72,000-square-foot chateau, reportedly the fourth-largest residence in America.

This is no average interview. This is no average project.

There is nothing average about Steve Huff and his Chateau Pensmore in Christian County, just north of the Busiek State Forest.

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At the end of a hilly, windy gravel road, Springfield Business Journal photographer Wes Hamilton and I approached the mansion. Before we got too far, a worker named John greeted me:

“Mr. Huff is ready for you upstairs.”

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We journeyed up a wide, corkscrew staircase that empties into an even wider hallway in the guest house. A common area with a kitchen and entertainment center adjoins two bedrooms.

Huff says the common areas are intended to inspire discussions among visiting scholars; the guest rooms are welcome to author friends who need time and space to complete writing projects.

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Six years into construction, Huff says the project is about 80 percent complete. He’s staying in the 20,000-square-foot guest wing when he visits about once a month.

His workspace is filled with printed construction drawings, supplies and a whiteboard with schematics.

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Adding to the intrigue, Huff is a former CIA agent, founder of Defense contractor Overwatch Systems and investor of TF Concrete Forming Systems, the insulated concrete forms used throughout Pensmore.

Huff’s goals: energy efficiency and disaster resistance. His roles are in the technologies and inventions. For instance, the software entrepreneur says he’s developing a predictive HVAC system that adjusts to the approaching weather patterns.

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He says the main house served as a test site this winter. With no hot air yet pumped through and just relying on the stored heat in the walls, Huff says temperatures didn’t drop below 50 degrees during those cold months, demonstrating the thermal mass properties in the structure.

A fact driving Huff’s project is that 40 percent of energy in the United States is consumed by buildings.

An exhibition of sorts, Huff desires Pensmore to be a model for others, and he says if it works on this scale, the potential exists for hospitals, universities and government buildings. Asked if the work here has led to projects for the TF Forming Systems’ products, Huff says yes, but the clients have asked to remain confidential at this point.

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He didn’t offer to take us through the main house. I was surprised to hear Huff say he didn’t know if it’d be his permanent residence.

But he does expect the home to be standing for hundreds of years, if not a thousand or more. The future of the chateau rests in his Pensmore Foundation.

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Last week, his alma mater dedicated an energy research lab he funded that connects to Pensmore’s systems so students can monitor it and develop similar instrumentation. Professors have visited the site, but no students, yet.

Hilton Garden Inn staff members tell us we can fit 175 people in the room on April 21. We’re quickly approaching that number for this above-average discussion.

The conversation continues next week.

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