Family takes long, winding road to their ‘green’ house

April 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

My husband, Alex, and I used to fantasize about designing our own place, but well, we were busy and it never seemed practical. Then four years ago, we had an “aha” moment. We looked around at our 5,000-square-foot suburban house, complete with seven sofas, and wondered: How did our life get so big?

We decided to start over, completely. We wanted something that was bigger than our first home together — a cozy 1920 bungalow with a front porch swing — but smaller than the one we were then living in. Our quest was a bit like Goldilocks looking for just-right.

That’s not all. As USA TODAY’s energy/environment reporter, I wanted to explore the latest in green technology to see just how affordably we could build an average-size, ultra-efficient home. To further cut our carbon footprint, we sought a neighborhood where we could walk more and drive less.

It wasn’t easy. Although we found an ideal lot in Falls Church, Va., we faced more challenges (and costs) than we expected: finding the right people to do the job; meeting deadlines; parsing the truth about products.

“Your experience is not uncommon,” David Johnston, co-author of Toward A Zero-Energy Home, tells me. He says the Mid-Atlantic is behind many places, notably the West Coast, in green construction so budget-minded consumers there — whether building new or renovating — may have a tougher time.

We had plenty of laugh-or-you’ll-cry moments, but we knew we were fortunate to have the opportunity — especially at a time when many people were losing jobs and places to live. In a story two years ago for Earth Day, I described the first half of our journey. Now that it’s nearly done, here’s what I’ve learned:

Stick to the basics. You don’t have to spend a bundle to build green. The most important part — creating an airtight, well-insulated exterior — is old-fashioned building science.

Few U.S. builders, however, really focus on this. In Germany, many homes are built to a passive-house standard that slashes energy use up to 90%. They have thick walls, simple rectangular designs and methodical air sealing.

We took that approach. We used factory-built exterior wall and roof panels because of their superior insulation, high-performance windows and a centrally located, ultra-efficient, dual-fuel (gas/electric) heating and cooling system. We skipped what many consider the must-haves: geothermal heat pumps (overpriced in our case) solar panels (our lot’s too shady) or a windmill (local wind speeds not high enough).

Still, we did well. Andrea Foss of Washington-based Everyday Green, who has advised us on green certifications, says our house is 54% more efficient than a new, code-built home. She says it’s very well sealed — a credit to our builder, Arjay West of West Homes.

For Americans considering an energy-efficient renovation, technological changes such as cheaper solar panels and more efficient lighting are helpful. There are also more home energy monitoring gadgets, some with smartphone apps, and products with recycled content, such as tiles and countertops.

Hire a qualified team. This was tricky. I interviewed half a dozen architects, but they were either good at aesthetics or sustainability — not both. The first guy we hired was more into the green stuff. His designs were bland, so we turned to Ralph Cunningham of Washington-based Cunningham-Quill Architects.

We also had trouble finding an affordable builder who had done everything we wanted to do. Our first pick, as we learned after a few months, was not experienced enough in green construction. We switched to West, who was more knowledgeable but still hadn’t built a cistern or used the prefabricated SIPS (structural insulated panels.)

Know your stuff. So unless you have a really experienced green team, know your stuff, because others might not. Or they might try to sell you something you don’t need.

One salesman urged me to spend an extra $1,500 to prove that the wood in my no-formaldehyde-added cabinets came from well-managed forests as certified by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council. I called the cabinet maker who told me all his wood comes from the same forests, regardless of documentation. I skipped the expense and the points it would have added to my home’s green rating.

Since other salesmen were ill-informed, I did a lot of research. I looked not only at a product’s price and effectiveness but also where it was made, whether it had recycled content or how much water or energy it used.

We registered our house with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, which rates homes and buildings for eco-friendliness. It offers superb guidance but is expensive and requires extensive documentation. Once finished, we’re likely to earn the top rating, which verifies our work.

I often got the best advice from other homeowners. For example, we wanted to use a cistern that captures rainwater from the roof to irrigate the yard and flush the toilets. City officials said they had no policy on rainwater. Clever neighbors showed us how to plumb the house to flush toilets with water from either the city or the sky.

Expect speed bumps. After nine months of painstaking design with the second architect, we submitted building plans in January 2010. We waited more than five months for a permit. We waited several more for the SIPS because of a factory backlog.

All that pushed construction into the winter, which meant working around snow and freezing temepratures. Even after we moved into the home, in May 2011, we spent a lot of time fixing problems: a window that leaked water, tall doors that warped and, most difficult, footfall noise between the main level and the basement.

Enjoy the ride. Frankly, I didn’t do this enough. I got so caught up in the details, especially since I was trying to stay on budget, that I wore myself out.

One Saturday when I was back at the tile store, I had another epiphany. I overhead a woman agonizing over her selections and couldn’t help but think: Is this really how we should spend our weekend? Shouldn’t I be biking instead with Alex or the girls?

In the course of our journey, our daughters changed all too quickly, and I fear I missed moments. Grace grew from a 7-year-old playing with Barbies to a tween nearly my height, and Mary, from an 11-year-old playing chess to a teen eager to drive. This week, as soon as she’s eligible, we’ll be at DMV getting her driver’s permit.

To finance our project, we sold the big house in December 2008, moved into rentals and kept many items packed in boxes. Truth is, we didn’t miss that stuff, and we had just as many laughs in the rentals as we’re likely to have anywhere.

Savor the new. Still, with only a few repairs left and Alex’s zero-grass garden coming along, we’re relieved our new home is almost finished. It’s everything we like: a light-filled blending of the outside with the inside. The girls walk to their friends’ houses, and we walk to restaurants, the farmers market and the library. Or hop on the bike trail.

Fairly modern, the home is atypical for the neighborhood so passers-by often stop and look. We’ve received all kinds of comments, some positive and others not-so-much.

“Your house is unusual,” one woman told Alex while he was gardening. “You’re right; it’s not a colonial,” he responded. She chuckled but continued, “You don’t have a garage, and that will make resale harder.” His reply: “Good thing we don’t plan to sell.”

The other day, a well-attired couple stopped their car in front of our house and asked Alex, gardening in muddy jeans, whether “he lived there.” What followed was the ultimate compliment. “We like your garden and want to do something like it. Did you use a landscape architect?” (He designed it himself.)

Grace recently wondered why we give home tours to strangers. She was thinking of the motley passel that arrived last October for the area’s annual solar-home tour. They came in corduroy vests, floppy hats, granola-y shoes and a Scottish kilt.

I told her we needed to give back, since they were part of an environmental community that had helped us in our project. “So, Mom,” she asked, “if these are our peeps, why was that man wearing a red skirt?”

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