Many custom builders, architects, and designers have become adept at creating green homes that offer tangible benefits such as lower operating costs and improved indoor air quality and comfort. But there’s more than one way to achieve sustainability. As this article shows, a modestly sized home that maximizes passive solar heat gain and ventilation can work just as well as a large one where the clients opted for a hefty investment in alternative energy sources.
Making every inch count
Since all views are to the northeast, Brown placed windows and roof overhangs where they would get minimal solar heat gain during the day. On cool nights, the family enjoys gathering around the wood stove on the screened porch.
When architect Tim Brown designed his home in Hays County, Texas, he wanted it to be as small as possible. In fact, he’d have preferred it to be smaller than 2,075 square feet, but his wife insisted on having a third bedroom. “I’m glad we [included that], because we have out-of-town guests from time to time,” says Brown, principal of Tim Brown Architecture in Austin.
The home sits on 10 acres of land just west of the Austin city limits, but the footprint is only 2,120 square feet. The property appealed to Brown because it was naturally terraced and didn’t require a lot of site work.
“There’s actually one tier higher than our house,” he says. “If we’d built on that, we could have captured more views, but we wanted a little bit of privacy from the neighbors.”
Brown, who recently started his own practice, previously worked for Barley & Pfeiffer Architects, an Austin firm renowned for its pioneering work in sustainable design. “I’ve always had a physics-geared mind, and working with Peter [Pfeiffer] was great,” he says. “He gave me time to delve into the minutiae of energy efficiency.”
The home’s large shed roof faces north, so it receives no direct sun during the scorching Texas summers. Large windows and doors on the north side help keep the indoor environment comfortable.
The living spaces aren’t large, but they connect and flow together well, “so it doesn’t feel like you’re in a tiny space,” says architect Tim Brown. Transom and clerestory windows can be opened to allow breezes to naturally ventilate the house.
Passive ventilation plays a key role in conditioning the interior. Clerestory and transom windows allow cross breezes to flow throughout the house. “The way it’s oriented to take advantage of prevailing winds is really nice,” says builder Cody Schmidt of Schmidt Custom Homes, Dripping Springs, Texas, noting that all the windows except one are operable.
Architect Tim Brown’s home in Austin, Texas, is 2,075 square feet. Brown provided the following details:
In a blower-door test, the home scored 0.7 air changes per hour (ACH). To meet Energy Star requirements, that figure must be 2.5 ACH or less; 1 ACH is considered excellent.
In a duct-blaster test, air leakage was 3.8 percent. The acceptable level of leakage is 10 percent.
The roof is Galvalume, an aluminum-zinc alloy coated sheet steel made by BIEC International. A portion of the home is sided with the same material.
Three filters—sediment, charcoal, and ultraviolet—purify collected rainwater for drinking. The water is gravity-fed into two 10,000-gallon tanks, where it’s stored until needed.
The home has low-flow faucets, dual-flush toilets and an efficient electric water heater that loses only one degree in temperature per day when it’s shut off. A recirculation system at each shower and bathtub ensures that water isn’t wasted as it heats up.
Native grasses and plants don’t require irrigation.
Brown convinced his trash-collection company to haul away recyclable materials from the site, which earned him extra points from the Austin Energy Green Building program.
One of the family’s favorite spots is the screened porch on the west side. Two 3-foot-wide doors open onto it from the house. “We naturally ventilate four months out of the year,” Brown says.
Thanks to a rainwater harvesting system, the Browns don’t have to draw water from an aquifer or groundwater source. “The beautiful thing about (the water) is that the pH balance is neutral. You don’t get hard or soft water when you’re showering or washing clothes or dishes, and there’s never sediment on the plumbing fixtures,” he says. A filtration system removes all the minerals from the cloudy, malodorous well water. “At our house, you can fill a glass right from the faucet. The water is crystal clear and it tastes great.”
A multi-stage, zoned HVAC system covers 700 square feet per ton and removes humidity without lowering the temperature.
Brown says his utility bills are about $150 per month in the summer. “Our neighbors, whose home is approximately 500 square feet bigger, pay $400 to $450 per month, and they have two air-conditioning units.”
The home received a five-star rating (the highest possible) from the Austin Energy Green Building program, and achieved Gold in the NAHB’s National Green Building Program.
“It’s not an extremely fancy house,” says Schmidt. “It’s very well thought out. You don’t need much electricity for lighting during the day because of the transom and clerestory windows.”
Plus, says Schmidt, it’s a home that stands out in the central Texas landscape. “The red two-story section looks almost like a barn until you get right up on top of it.”
Reclaimed merbau, an Asian hardwood, was used for the stair treads and the countertop on the kitchen island. The shiplap detail on the wall is another flourish that builder Cody Schmidt especially likes.
Balancing size with efficiency
Architect Jack Kemper broke down the mass of the house into smaller pieces to reduce the scale, and oriented it to capture lake views and take advantage of passive solar heat gain. “We weren’t shooting for anything formal or European,” says Kemper. “It’s an amalgamation, with elements of Craftsman style in the porch columns and French style in the steep hip roofs.” Photos: Olson Photographic
At the other end of the spectrum is a custom home in Oxford, Conn., that is nearly 8,000 square feet including the walkout lower level. Yet this home, too, is green. “This was going to be their last home, so the clients wanted their wish list fulfilled in every way,” says John Ricci, president of Ricci Construction Group, Cheshire, Conn.
For an active family that enjoys water sports, the opportunity to purchase two lots in a lakefront development was irresistible. Even though they were planning a large home, they wanted to use as little of the property, which totals 3.47 acres, as possible.
“We tried to get the house to work on one of the lots,” says architect Jack Kemper, principal of Kemper Associates Architects, Farmington, Conn. “But in the end, we had to put part of the driveway on the second lot. And partway through the process we flipped it.”
In lieu of a formal dining room, the clients have a large eat-in kitchen with a coffered ceiling, a walk-in pantry, a large island, and two-tone stained and painted custom cabinets.
Including the walkout lower level, this Connecticut home is 7,906 square feet, but it’s no energy hog. Here are the details:
The HERS index of 43 is 56 percent better than a comparable code-built home.
According to a blower-door test, the air infiltration value of the heating and cooling system is 5400 CFM at 50 Pascals.
Five geothermal air-to-water, two-stage geothermal heat pumps exchange heat through closed-loop well fields located more than 400 feet below ground. The homeowners will recoup their investment in the geothermal system in 10 years, says builder John Ricci.
Solar roof panels collect energy to heat water in large storage tanks, providing all the hot water for the family’s needs.
The developer had previously excavated the site to use some of the material in road construction. Ricci had to re-excavate it to accommodate a 3-percent pitch on the driveway and build a 9-foot walkout basement. “With the road being higher than the top of the foundation it was a little tricky, but we built a retaining wall and brought the driveway along the front and put in some additional drainage,” he says.
The first and second floors total 5,902 square feet, plus another 2,004 square feet of finished space on the lower level. Ricci was determined to make the home energy efficient and comfortable. Rooftop solar panels heat water in storage tanks for the family’s household needs, and a geothermal system heats and cools the home while keeping operating costs low. Closed-cell insulation in the outside walls and sealed ductwork keeps air infiltration to a minimum.
Even though retirement isn’t yet on their horizon, the clients wanted to age in place, so Kemper put the master suite on the first floor. They wanted a lot of deck space, he says, and a private dock so the family can indulge in boating, water skiing, and other aquatic activities.
The great room has 21-foot ceilings with reclaimed wood beams that had to be crank-lifted into place. Rounding out the rustic look is a two-story stone fireplace and hickory columns in the entry foyer.
The use of native wood species gives the home a warm and intimate ambience despite its size. The floors and interior doors are hickory, and the front entry and foyer has custom-crafted hickory columns. The office has a hickory coffered ceiling and a custom-built hickory fireplace mantel. Two staircases lead to the second floor, where the children’s bedrooms and guest suite are located. The guest suite has a private bath and kitchenette.
The clients were eager to use a new material called NuCedar, a vinyl composite product, for the siding and trim. “I would use it again,” Ricci says. “It’s very expensive—three times the cost of regular western red cedar—but it does have a great look and it’s maintenance free.”
The home was named Best Custom Home (7,000 to 8,000 square feet) by the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut.
This open, gazebo-shaped porch, supported by tall pillars, has a flat-screen TV, a gas fireplace, a hot tub and views of the lake, the mountains and the swimming pool.