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.