Builders downsize square footage and learn from their mistakes
Since the 1970s, Jim and Mark Picton have been building houses for wealthy clients in Washington Depot, CT. “Five thousand square feet was the basic size of the houses we built,” says Mark. “The biggest one was around 14,000 square feet.”
In recent years the brothers have felt a vague yet growing discomfort about the money and resources used for their projects. “I became very aware of the waste stream,” says Jim. “And I watched all of the materials that went into the Dumpsters because someone happened to change their mind about something that was just built.”
The brothers had some success persuading their customers to build smarter. When one customer decided to re-side a 1900 building on his estate, they talked him into insulating the building as part of the job. “We’d push energy efficiency,” says Jim, “but for some of our customers, who had not just second but third and fourth homes, it was a hard sell.”
In 2007, Picton Brothers LLC made a conscious decision to change the way they built houses and started planning a 1,700-square-foot structure on some land they owned. They planned to build the house to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes guidelines and shoot for the highest possible rating.
Picton Brothers had always been quality builders and Jim and Mark were pleased that lots of their carpentry processes were within LEED guidelines.
When word of their new project got out, some of their former clients were intrigued. One donated cedar from a 1970s Lindal Cedar Homes house that was being razed. The material that would have otherwise gone into a Dumpster was reused for a deck on the new house.
The brothers agree that they learned a lot from their first green house, and there are some things they will do differently next time. They’ve always tried to impress upon their clients the importance of nailing down all the details before a project begins, but for their first green project, they didn’t heed their own advice. For instance, after the foundation was well under way, they decided to increase the house’s insulation by sheathing the exterior with rigid foam. That decision added to the exterior wall’s thicknesses and changed door and window jambs as well as thresholds.
On their next project they will spend time with the subcontractor discussing the house and getting technical assistance before beginning. LEED awards points for staging a design charette with participants from all the trades before construction starts. “We finished the design and then called in the subs,” Mark says. “If we’d been thinking more about the house as a system, we would have gotten everyone involved sooner.”
Other difficulties came from getting qualified materials for the project. They found that many of their suppliers didn’t know the source of the materials they carried. The brothers ended up buying drywall from Pennsylvania—several states away—because they could verify the percentage of recycled material in it.
Jim and Mark couldn’t be happier with their green-built home, and they hope that in the future their company can go all green. But at the same time, they are being realistic about market demands. “We’ve got our crews to keep busy,” Mark says. “They have families to feed.”
In September an Energy Star rater used a blower door to test the house for air leaks. “He said Capes like ours often have air leaks equivalent to an opening the size of a couple of double-hung windows,” says Jim. “Ours has the equivalent of a small postcard.”
The Pictons got their platinum LEED rating in October. Next will be marketing the house and it’s 13 acres, and holding open-house tours, for which they can get additional LEED points. Knowing the proclivities of the area’s wealthy clientele, Jim suspects someone will buy it to use as a guesthouse for a larger building on the property, which, fingers crossed, they want to build green too. Mark has hopes that they’ll find a buyer who will understand that 1,700 square feet is the perfect size. “What people have to realize is that a big part of going green is going lean,” he says.
A GBA case study of this house provides more construction details.