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Green Building Curmudgeon

Magical Mystery Green Home Tour

Long day on a bus at National Green Building Conference

Reclaimed bark siding on a new home from Chandler Design-Build
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Reclaimed bark siding on a new home from Chandler Design-Build Modest, affordable high-performance home from Cimarron Homes Cimarron's air-sealing details prove that it's easy being green. Sadly, few builders pay this much attention to the important details on high-end homes. M Squared builders used reclaimed concrete slabs, often referred to as "urbanite," to create this patio on their tour house. A little care and the right materials combine to create an excellent sealed crawlspace, helping to make this house efficient and comfortable. Complete renovation to green standards by BuildSense Chandler Design-Build used goat fencing for deck rails. Simple, clean, inexpensive.

NAHB’s National Green Building Conference in Raleigh, N.C., kicked off with a full-day tour of green homes ranging from very affordable small houses to luxury spec and custom projects. Having avoided home tours for many years, I finally took the plunge and signed up for this one. Lots of interesting things to see, particularly in the more modest projects, but boy, was it an ordeal. Long hours sitting on a bus between projects, including several hair-raising wrong turns that required our full-size tour bus to back up onto two-lane rural highways to turn around. And one slow drive up a narrow gravel drive lined with trees with barely enough room for the bus to fit between.

The first stop was an infill development by Builders of Hope, a non-profit that relocates and rebuilds homes as affordable housing for owners earning 60% to 80% of the local median income. Their model is to accept donated houses that are typically stripped to the framing, moved to their sites, and then completed to high-performance specifications. Roofs are removed or cut and laid flat. Two-story houses have the second-floor walls laid down for transport. Builders of Hope claims they retain about 60% of the structure, but it seemed less than that to me. When I asked them about the economy of moving the structures, I learned that the owners of donated homes pay for half the cost of moving, which, combined with the tax deductions they get, provides them with a net financial benefit. This also gives Builders of Hope a very inexpensive structure that they place on a new foundation. The completed homes usually have a HERS Index of about 70, and feature hardwood floors and comprehensive air-sealing packages, some with spray foam rooflines and sealed crawlspaces. Homes have an energy guarantee from Advanced Energy’s System Vision program and are certified as Healthy Built Homes.

Our second stop was at a 100-year-old house, previously chopped up into a boarding house, which had been restored into a single-family home by Studio B Architecture and BuildSense. They jacked the house up and built a new foundation below, retained much of the original siding and exterior trim, and constructed both a sealed crawlspace and attic. Unfortunately, few of the high-performance features were visible, although the house looked good.

Air sealing 101

Cimarron Homes, our third stop, develops high-performance entry-level homes, and we were fortunate to see several houses in various stages from framing to completion. The houses were rather undistinguished from the exterior, featuring vinyl siding and windows, but they appeared to be very well built, with some of the best air-sealing techniques I have seen in production building. They make a compelling case that anyone can build a high-performance home, and reinforce my personal opinion that anything less than green building should be illegal. Anyone who can’t build to these standards just shouldn’t be in the business.

Our midday stop allowed us to have a leisurely box lunch on the back patio and dock of a custom home by M Squared builders. This project was certified gold according to the original NAHB Green Building Guidelines (now superseded by the Green Building Standard), which didn’t emphasize community resources and connectivity—a good thing for this well-built home that is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The features I particularly liked were the patios made of reclaimed concrete slabs, and the rain garden/drainage ditch in the front yard. Like any completed home, it is difficult to see what was done, and proves the point that green homes don’t have to look any different from “regular” ones.

Outrageous? Maybe so

Our next stop was a self-described “outrageously green” home from Chandler Design-Build, built by Michael Chandler (a Green Building Advisor and friend), and designed by Beth Williams (his much better half). This house featured locally harvested bark siding, a radiant heating system powered by evacuated tube solar collectors, ICF foundations, and a combination of spray foam and blown-in fiberglass insulation. The energy-efficient features combined to give this house a HERS index of 58. Fun design features included goat fencing used for deck rails, lots of reclaimed wood on the interior, and a set of clerestory windows around the main living area.

The last house on our tour was a spec home by Eco Building Group. The highlight of this house was the snacks and drinks provided for our weary bodies, which perked us up considerably. With a HERS index of 67, this house was a solid performer with nice features and finishes, including a fun outdoor shower off a bedroom suite. Poking around, I found the crawlspace to be a good example of sealed design, and an exterior mounted tankless heater as a nice way to save the cost of vent pipes while placing the heater close to the plumbing.

Back on the bus, we hightailed it back to the conference center just in time to hear the keynote speech to kick off the conference. Next report: highlights of the conference itself. Stay tuned.

4 Comments

  1. MichaelAnschel | | #1

    Are those scores worth celebrating?
    Sad isn't it. The average code built home in MN has a HERS score of 67 (source:BAM). The Gold certified homes up here all seem to have HERS scores of around 42.

    Did you find out why they fold the walls down? Seems like if you had a good structure you would want to keep mo re of it intact than they are. Was there an efficiency reason (production)?

  2. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #2

    Folding walls & HERS ratings
    Michael - They folded the walls down to minimize the moving costs. They only used buildings that were less than 30' wide and low enough that they didn't need to move any power lines. I agree on the HERS ratings, they could be better, but the south is moving much more slowly towards high performance homes that they frigid north. Overall they probably still use a lot less energy per SF than homes up your way. I wasn't exactly celebrating, just reporting with perhaps less commentary than the projects deserved. On the other hand, studies have shown that HERS ratings are a pretty poor indicator of actual energy use, so perhaps we are relying on them a bit too much.

  3. User avater
    Michael Chandler | | #3

    Sad or inspiring?
    The idea behind the homes we chose and the order we presented them was to show builders a wide range of what is being done in our community as a result of our strong local green building council. We deliberately showed entry-level green to show folks that even a for-profit builder with no subsidies can put a 2,100 sf certified green, water sense, and Energy Star home on the market, with a garage and paved driveway for under $160,000. The non-profits, such as Builders of Hope, are doing some cool stuff but the rubber hits the road when you're not subsidized and are competing against national builders.

    The 100 year old re-hab showed off a business plan more of us need to adopt, taking a beautiful old home and bringing it back while paying attention to energy, water and indoor air quality. The M-squared house gave folks a chance to talk to a builder who came to green through the American Lung Associations "healthy house" program and is really outspoken about indoor air quality and aging-in-place design. I call the house with the bark house siding and the sixty-tube solar radiant floor system outrageous because it's way more luxury than we usually build and posed some questions about green and cost / value that I think we need to be thinking about. Which led to the final house, a really well executed mainstream home in a conventional subdivision competing in the spec market with big, shoddily build McMansions and running into all the appraisal and market perception issues we've been discussing here at GBA.

    The idea behind this tour was to show that green building can be attainable and good business, not just to show off a bunch of super high performance demonstration homes. We have a couple of Energy Value Housing Award houses here and some that near net-zero and we even have a Passive House under construction but the NAHB conference is about bringing it to the mainstream builders who can sell it and make a profit in this marketplace. I think the tour was pretty inspiring as a diverse showcase of viable business models for building green while making a profit.

    Carl, Beth says all sorts of nice things about you, which I won't bother to repeat in detail, but you somehow seemed un-curmudgeonly to her.

  4. zeta cross | | #4

    I congratulate Raleigh NAHB for a super tour....
    My plane was cancelled at the last minute so I drove to Raleigh from Philadelphia so that I would not miss the tour. The whole 7.5 hour drive down I was thinking that I was nuts. But I am so glad I got on the tour! It was so well done and so well thought out. The homes were so interesting, as Carl described. The home owners and builders deserved to be saluted!

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