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Building green: Energy efficiency, sustainability can be incorporated into home design
When Del Holland's children moved out and he retired from teaching, he decided it was time to downsize. He wanted to live in the most environmentally-friendly, energy efficient house he could.
'I just really feel like it's important to do things to make the world better and not to be exploiting the resources we have,” he said. 'I need to try and align my way of living with my values.”
That's what attracted him to Prairie Hill Cohousing, a new development of homes built around a communal-living concept in Iowa City.
The neighborhood of more than 30 residences features a jointly-owned communal building with space for shared resources like washers and dryers and lawn care tools. Holland has been involved throughout the planning process and is on the board of directors.
'Different people have come to cohousing for different reasons. For me, the environmental sustainability reasons are were the first things that attracted me,” Holland said.
All of the homes at Prairie Hill are designed to meet LEED-certification requirements, with the help of C-Wise, a green building consulting firm Martha Norbeck started in 2008. Most of the LEED-certified buildings she has consulted on have been commercial buildings, but she is awaiting final certification to arrive for her first LEED-certified house, an Iowa City home she renovated for her mother.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it incorporates a wide range of criteria, from energy efficiency to urban planning elements like prioritizing infill.
Norbeck said many people want to use these techniques in their homes but often don't know where to start.
'There is tremendous interest on the residential level, but I think people feel overwhelmed. It's like when you go to the grocery store and there are a million choices,” she said. 'Do you want carpet or wood or bamboo flooring? What kind of siding do you use? How far apart should the studs be?”
She recommends narrowing those questions down and going from there.
'‘What can I afford?' and ‘What's best for the environment?' are the two key questions,” she said.
She said homes built with green techniques can be cost competitive with other new homes on the market, something that has grown easier to accomplish in recent years as interest has grown and more products have entered the market.
She said one challenge to making homes as efficient as possible is making sure the humans in them know how to make the house work correctly.
In the house she built for her mother, for example, she installed an air to air heat pump. To work most efficiently, the ceiling fan needs to run to circulate the heat, because it doesn't have ducts throughout the house.
True green building, she said, works by doing more than installing efficient appliances or good insulation. It's about designing a house to take advantage of its natural surroundings.
'Natural ventilation is something we've kind of forgotten how to use. If you build a house with windows on both side of the room, you can make your room feel lovely on spring days,” she said. 'The connection back to the natural system is something people have to relearn.”
She recommends clients looks at the resources available at the building site, everything from the direction the wind tends to blow to where sunlight falls, to the way water runs on the land. The human needs for the building are also key.
For her mother's house, for example, she wanted to install solar panels, but the street has many trees. Her mother only needed one story, but if they wanted the solar panels to work, they needed to add a second story. The solution was to design the second story as a studio apartment. For now her mother rents the space to a tenant, with the idea that if she needs a live-in care taker as she ages, the space be converted to accommodate that.
'But really the purpose was to provide a support structure for the solar panels. We took what was potentially a liability and turned it into an opportunity,” Norbeck said. 'That's really the key, trying to look at ways to bundle things so you're meeting multiple needs with one solution. A house that is a green building is more carefully suited to the environment.”
Norbeck offered these green building elements to consider:
Window placement: Put more windows on the south side to let in sunlight and pleasant breezes. Add a window shade for the summer.
Insulation: At Prairie Hill, the studs are 24 inches apart instead of 18 inches. This uses less wood and adds more room for insulation. They also wrap the whole house in insulation, with no gaps.
Flooring: 'I look at durability, cleanability and toxicity,” Norbeck said. 'Some flooring is literally made up of toxic materials. In the winter, I spend 98 percent of my time indoors. I want my indoor space to be healthy.”
If using vinyl, she recommends looking for 'GreenGuard Certified” or 'GreenGuard Gold” labels. For carpets, look for 'CRI Green Label Plus,” a certification from the Carpet and Rug Institute.
If you choose wood floors, she warns that certain popular woods such as mahogany are often harvested from rain forests.
'Maple and oak and some others are more likely to be grown in the United States or Canada, which both have pretty stringent requirement for forestry,” she said.
If unsure if the wood was sustainably harvested, look for Forest Stewardship Council certification.
'It's the equivalent of an organic label on your fruits and vegetables, and there is a premium for that,” Norbeck said. 'There is also some exotic woods that grow here in the Midwest. You can go to one of the local millworks and purchase something like Osage orange - it's beautiful and kind of rare. If you have the budge, it's a lovely feeling to know this wood was once standing in Iowa.”
Heating systems: Find the system that works for your home. Geothermal is very efficient, but it might not be right for every home. 'My mother's house is built very well in terms of insulation, and it is small. Using geothermal for it would be like using a truck to move a feather,” Norbeck said. 'So we're using air to air heat pumps.”
That system uses the same technology as a refrigerator, compressing and expanding gas to absorb and give off energy.
Behavior: At the end of the day, Norbeck said, humans are the most important element in making a home efficient. 'The same house, depending on who lives in it, can change its energy use by up to 20 percent,” she said. 'Turn off your lights, unplug things that aren't in use. You can buy plug-in strips to help with this. Put on a sweater first instead of bumping up the thermostat. It's about living with your space.”
Green building terms:
When looking for a 'green builder,” there is a lot of lingo out there to sort through, said Chris Mottinger, owner of Legacy GreenBuilders & Developers in Solon, which has worked with Norbeck on many projects. Another builder, Apex Construction, is building the Prairie Hill homes.
Mottinger warns against being fooled by 'green-washing,” the practice of marketing something as 'green” and environmentally friendly without the qualifications to back up the claims. But there are labels and certifications to look for to find a green builder or contractor.
Here are some of the labels and what they mean:
Energy Star: This is a federal government-based certification. Find certified builders at energystar.gov, which also has a database of energy efficiency tax credits and rebates.
LEED-Certified: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, this certification is offered by the United States Green Building Council. Find more information on LEED-home building at greenhomeguide.com.
RESNET HERS Index: The Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) gives the Home Energy Rate System (HERS) label, which measures a homes energy efficiency score. Learn more at hersindex.com.
EPA airPlus: This Environmental Protection Agency certification means homes meet specifications for indoor air quality. Find details at epa.gov/indoorairplus.
Zero Energy Ready Home: Certified by the U.S. Department of Energy, this means a home is so energy efficient, all or most annual energy consumption can be offset with renewable energy. For example, even if the home does not solar panels when built, it is designed so that if solar panels were added the home would have net zero energy usage. Learn more at energy.gov/eere/buildings/zero-energy-ready-home.
Certified Green Professional: Offered by the National Association of Home Builders, this designation recognized builders, remodelers and other industry professionals who incorporate green and sustainable building principals into homes. Find Certified Green Professionals in Cedar Rapids at crhba.org/Certified-Green-Professional- (CGP).
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