Clean Construction | Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Development

Clean Construction

What it means to go green in home building


Published June 24, 2009 at 9:37 a.m.

We’re building green. We’re doing it because it’s trendy and we have loads of money. OK, not really. But we’re sure that’s what some people think when we tell them about our construction plans.

In truth, we are building green because we really don’t see any other option. It doesn’t make sense to us to construct a home that sucks energy, thereby contributing to global warming and our utility bills, or that has the potential to make us sick. What appealed to us as we began this project was the thought of creating a structure that is appropriate in size to our needs and is Earth and human friendly. If the technology is available to make it happen, why not go for it?

There are numerous definitions of “green” in the building world. Our definition is twofold. One, building green means creating the tightest building envelope possible to minimize the home’s energy needs and generate what little energy is required from renewable sources. Two, it means using environmentally sound materials wherever possible, as well as locally sourced or salvaged ones. (We’ve indicated our choices of suppliers here, but there are others in the area.)

A primary goal of our project is to prove that it is possible to go green without spending a lot of, well, green. Yes, there are some up-front costs, but we choose to think of them as long-term investments. And, by and large, with some careful thought and deliberation, we believe it’s possible to build an affordable green home. In fact, we’re banking on it. We’ve estimated our construction costs (minus land and site work) at $220,000. This equates to approximately $140 per square foot, not including our walk-out basement. It’s comparable to what we would spend to build a traditional home.

So, we don’t have a lot of money. But we hope we are trendy. Building green homes — what a refreshing fad that would be.

1. One of the best ways to reduce the energy load of a new home is to shrink it. While our original plans added up to almost 2200 square feet, we reconsidered and chose a design that is less than 1600 square feet (not including the basement). Less square footage means less to heat and cool. But it also necessitates a more deliberate use of space. Many rooms in our house have multiple purposes. A corner of the living room serves as the dining room; our home office will be tucked in an upstairs hallway.

2. ICF (insulating concrete form) foundations look like large Styrofoam Legos filled with concrete. The rigid, plastic-foam forms surrounding the concrete provide thermal insulation, making this type of foundation much more energy efficient than traditional poured concrete. Supplier: Vermont ICF in Waterbury.

3. If ICF foundations look like Legos, SIP (structural insulated panel) wall systems resemble an ice-cream sandwich. Two planes of OSB (oriented strand board) flank a thick layer of white foam. SIPs act as the frame and insulation all in one. According to some calculations, they are 66 percent more energy efficient than standard frame construction and can reduce the energy a home requires for heating and cooling by 50 percent. Another benefit: They minimize framing time and waste, since they are prefabricated off site. Supplier: Panel Pros in Keene, N.H.

4. Who knew that asphalt roofs were so bad for the environment? According to the Green Living Journal, asphalt “is petroleum based and energy-intensive to produce,” and “once the shingles are worn out, there’s no good way to dispose of them.” So we chose to go with metal instead. Standing-seam metal roofs are energy efficient, have a much longer lifespan than asphalt shingles, and are optimal partners for a rainwater catchment system.

5. When it comes to siding, an excellent green option is available. HardiePlank fiber cement siding looks like wood but doesn’t require the felling of trees. In fact, it is primarily made of cement. And, unlike vinyl, it does not off-gas harmful chemicals. Plus, it’s designed to last up to 50 years. Supplier: Allen Lumber in Barre.

6. Windows are a major source of heat loss in many homes. We debated windows more than almost any other product in the house because a) they are such a critical part of the building envelope; and b) there are so many options from which to choose. We ultimately decided to go with Marvin Integrity fiberglass windows. Fiberglass is the most energy efficient of window materials (e.g., wood, vinyl, aluminum), because it expands and contracts at the same rate as the glass in the panes, therefore preventing the inevitable leaks that occur over time when the glass separates from the frame. It is virtually maintenance free and can be painted. Score! While fiberglass windows are marginally more expensive than other types, we expect to recoup our costs in energy savings. Supplier: Allen Lumber in Barre.

7. Radiant-heat floors are heavenly on cold days (or so we’ve heard). This system works by pumping warm water through tubing underneath the floorboards, thereby heating from the ground up. Radiant heat is more efficient than baseboard heat and is better for indoor air quality than forced-air systems. We plan to connect our system to solar hot-water panels so that the sun can help provide us with both domestic hot water and heat. Supplier of radiant-heat and solar hot-water systems: Radiantec in Lyndonville.

8. Our maple wood floors were milled regionally from sustainably managed forests. There is a range of environmentally friendly flooring options including cork and bamboo. Supplier: Planet Hardwood in Hinesburg.

9. All lights in our home will be CFL (compact fluorescent) and all appliances Energy Star rated. Supplier of appliances: Cocoplum Appliances in Essex Junction.

10. Paint can be stinky. But it doesn’t have to be. We’re exclusively using AFM Safecoat paint in our new home. It’s zero VOC (volatile organic compound) and nontoxic. Among environmentally friendly paints, AFM Safecoat is consistently ranked at the top. Supplier: Planet Hardwood in Hinesburg.

11. Kitchen cabinets can be a surprising indoor air pollutant. The pressed particleboard used in the construction of many cabinets may contain formaldehyde and other toxins. While green cabinets can be expensive, we found a good option from a regional company, Young Furniture. The plywood in their boxes contains no formaldehyde. The cabinets come unfinished, which we prefer because we can paint them on site with AFM Safecoat, ensuring that they’re healthy on the inside and outside. Supplier: Young Furniture in Bow, N.H.

12. Let’s talk bathrooms. All toilets in our house will be Toto low-flow models (Eco Drake) that use less than 1.28 gallons of water per flush (compared to the industry standard of 1.6). The sinks in our master bathroom also have green cred. Dating back to the 1950s, they were salvaged from a Middlebury College dormitory. Salvaged goods can be considered green because they don’t require the production of new materials or the transportation of goods from far-off places. And you’re giving a life to something that might otherwise end up in landfill. Plus, they look cool. Supplier of salvage items: Mason Brothers Salvage in Essex Junction; toilets:

13. The greenest part of our entire house may be the lawn — that is, the lack thereof. Instead of creating a large, manicured expanse of grass that requires constant mowing and upkeep (at least in the summer), we’re going natural. We plan to leave most of our building site as it is now: meadowland. We hope that convinces the birds, deer and foxes that currently romp there to stick around. What little landscaping we do will consist exclusively of planting native species.

You may be wondering how we can do this affordably when products such as SIPs, ICF foundations and fiberglass windows are pricier than more traditional (less green) options. First, we are acting as our own general contractors. While this will cost us a lot in time, energy and stress, it will save us money. Second, we made the decision early on to prioritize the building envelope (e.g., walls, foundation, windows, roof). Yes, we’re investing more in those elements, but we expect long-term savings in energy costs.

Other aspects of the house (trim, window treatments, cabinets, etc.) are a step down from luxe. When you’re on a budget, you have to make tough choices. We decided to put our money where we think it counts the most — in reducing our energy load — even though that means less bling on the inside. Finally, one of the primary principles of building green — building small — translates into savings. Less square footage means less drywall, siding, paint, flooring, lighting, roofing and foundation materials, and fewer SIPs.

Anticipated project completion date: February 2010. Details on an open house will be posted on our blog. That’s also the perfect place to give us your feedback, ask questions, or volunteer to help out with construction (hint, hint).

Ryan Hayes works as a designer for Seven Days.