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Less Is Moore

A local builder's homes have a small footprint but make a big impression

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In October 2009, Tom Moore of Underhill Center, like all home builders in Vermont, experienced the worst economic downturn to hit his industry in a generation. As new housing jobs ground to a halt, renovations dried up and his company faced the prospect of laying off staff, Moore decided it was an opportune time to build a three-bedroom house for his son, Lincoln, who’s married with children and works in the family business.

He began constructing it right next door to the home he shares with his wife, Deb. In fact, three generations of Moores, including Tom’s 90-year-old father, Ed, who founded the business in 1967, live together in a compound of homes on 17 acres in Underhill Center, where Tom Moore Builder’s offices and carpentry shop also reside.

One day, as they completed work on the first floor, Moore came to a forehead-slapping realization: The big, four-bedroom house where he and Deb lived had much more space than the empty-nester couple needed. Moore decided to give his son the larger house and build himself and Deb the ultimate retirement house.

The result was his “green dream home,” a two-bedroom, 2000-square-foot, super-energy-efficient house. Both its form and function reflect Moore’s philosophy, as expressed in a quote from 19th-century arts-and-crafts designer William Morris that hangs in his foyer: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

The Green Dream Home captures both attributes, offering a glimpse into Moore’s vision of how he’d like to see all houses in Vermont built. It’s clean, green, and designed to accommodate the needs and lifestyles of its occupants — in Moore’s case, a house where he and his wife can grow old together. It’s also a silver-certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) house that won the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Northen Vermont’s 2011 Energy Efficiency Award and Most Innovative Design/Build Award.

Today, Moore spreads the gospel of eco-friendly home design and construction in a way that’s rare for a home builder: He persuades his clients to build smaller houses than the ones they originally requested. Using his own house as an example, Moore shows them that a smaller but smarter dwelling can dramatically outperform a larger one in terms of energy efficiency, livability, long-term maintenance costs and even usable space. Plus, it can be exquisite.

“Most of the green houses I see being built today are very plain Jane. I don’t want that,” Moore says. “I want a high-performance home that’s also beautiful.”

Moore, who turns 60 in October, can easily pass for 10 years younger — no easy feat in a profession that can prematurely age a man. With graying, close-cropped hair and a trim, athletic build, he speaks rapidly and with enthusiasm and pride about the house, where no detail was left to chance.

Indeed, Moore enjoys showing visitors around and has done so on many occasions. Since the house was finished last year, he’s given at least three formal tours, allowing more than 150 people to traipse through his private residence. Taking a first glance, one might assume that the frequency of visitors explains why the place is so tidy. Not so, Moore insists.

“It’s always immaculate, but it’s easy to do when you have a place for everything and everything in its place,” he says. “What people don’t understand is, if there’s clutter around, it’s not designed around your lifestyle.”

One of the first things a visitor notices on entering the house, whose style Moore describes as “country craftsman,” is that it feels much larger than its 2000 square feet.

“I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in Europe and around the world,” Moore says. Because Europeans tend to live in older, smaller dwellings, he explains, they often use space more efficiently.

That’s a lesson Moore learned in 1970 when, between high school and college, he was accepted into a program called the Expedition for Cultural Studies, which allowed him to go around the world studying art history and architecture. Though Moore had worked in his father’s business since he was 15, this international exposure opened his eyes to new and innovative approaches to using space and form.

Today, one such lesson is realized in Moore’s second-floor bedroom and attached bathroom. There, he explains, he could have installed a conventional-size bathroom door. Instead, he put in a sliding door that’s nearly as tall and wide as the bathroom wall itself.

This serves several functions. For one, it allows the bedroom to incorporate the bathroom space and vice versa, making both rooms feel larger than they are. Plus, someone relaxing in the claw-foot tub can slide open the bathroom door and enjoy the impressive view of the mountains through the bedroom windows.

A bigger door is utilitarian, too: As Moore and his wife get older, one or both may eventually use a walker or wheelchair. Having wider doorways and lower thresholds makes the house more handicap accessible. Because Moore is a certified aging-in-place specialist, he incorporated such features into the house as levered doorknobs, handle rails and seats in the shower, rounded corners on counters, and an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant wheelchair ramp in the garage.

Moore approached his project with the goal of building the tightest house possible, using as many local, sustainable and eco-friendly materials as he could. Those materials include locally built renewable-energy systems and lighting and plumbing fixtures, as well as lumber cut and kiln-dried in the Green Mountain State.

Moore himself also harvested 16,000 board feet of lumber from the land, which he incorporated into the frame, walls, stairs, deck and finish work. Tom Moore Builder has its own furniture and cabinetry division, so the inlaid cabinets, dressers, night tables and other décor also feature Vermont wood. In the living room, a recliner-size tree burl serves as a natural, one-of-a-kind sculpture.

Moore claims that more than 90 percent of his materials were locally sourced, but when he couldn’t find what he wanted new, he used recycled or salvaged items, including stained-glass windows, doors, brass hinges, renewable cork floors and granite countertops.

Some of those materials, such as the granite Moore installed on his extra-wide windowsills, serve a function that is more than just decorative. Because the house is perfectly configured to “solar south,” with 13-inch-thick walls rather than the conventional 6- to 8-inch ones, the sun heats up the sills in winter. They then radiate warmth all day, reducing the need for mechanical heat. Thicker walls also allowed for three times the insulation of a conventional home, giving Moore’s an R-value — an industry measurement of insulation performance — that he calls “off the charts.”

Another innovative feature: The house’s roof and ceilings were built to be structural, which means it lacks load-bearing interior walls and support posts. All the ceilings and floors were installed before the interior walls were erected. Why? So the interior of the house can be easily reconfigured as the owners — or their needs — change. Thus, this two-bedroom home could be converted into a three-bedroom one without the replacement of ceilings or floors.

“In this house, whenever you move a wall, the floor and ceiling is finished underneath it,” Moore says. “That’s a neat thing for sustainability.”

The construction of the Green Dream Home is virtually complete — minus a sundeck/screened-in porch still to come. But Moore’s tour isn’t done yet. Descending into the basement, he shows off the utility room, where the plumbing, wires and other hardware are as neatly aligned as the pipes on a church organ.

“This is the most impressive room in the house,” Moore says proudly, pointing out the various features of his renewable-energy systems. “This is where all the engineers want to come and check it out.”

It’s also where Moore is “pushing the green envelope.” He undertook the Green Dream as a test project, in partnership with Efficiency Vermont, to discover how much energy savings can be squeezed out of a home’s systems.

To that end, every major appliance and electrical circuit — from the 38 photovoltaic panels and solar hot-water system on the roof to the Energy Star-rated dishwasher, dryer, refrigerator and television set — is wired with sensors that track how much energy it consumes minute by minute.

Throughout the house, touch pads can be used to display those figures, and to monitor and adjust lighting, heating, humidity, ventilation, security systems and so on. The wall panels can also be used to turn appliances on and off remotely and to control the sound system that runs throughout the house. Moore, an amateur drummer, particularly enjoys using it to access his online Rhapsody account.

The “coolest feature,” he adds excitedly, is the “ALL OFF” button, which he presses whenever he leaves the house. With one button, he can shut off every electrical device.

What does it cost to build this green? Moore declines to say, noting that his goal wasn’t to make this his most affordable house. Nevertheless, he insists that he can build to virtually anyone’s size or budget and says that, ultimately, green homes save more green than they burn.

“I encourage my clients, regardless of who they are, what their means are or how they live, to try to build as small as they can for who they are,” Moore says. If he can get a wealthy person who’s currently living in a 5000-square-foot house to downsize to 3500 square feet, he says, “I’ve done my due diligence as a green builder.”

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