The Green House Effect

 The next time traffic on the Post Road slows you down near the Westport firehouse, let your eyes linger on its façade for a moment. Those panels you’ll notice on the roof are actually collectors that transform the sun’s energy into clean kilowatt hours of electricity — more than 16,000 and $9,000 worth at this writing. It’s part of a town-wide effort to connect Westport to the growing national movement toward living greener.

Westport’s Clean Energy Task Force, founded last year and chaired by former second selectman Carl Leaman, has its eye on an even bigger prize: reducing energy consumption and resource use by ten percent over three years. The population’s current environmental impact, or “carbon footprint,” as it’s called, is calculated at a hefty eighteen tons per citizen. (For purposes of comparison, consider that the EU’s contribution is about half that heft, per person.) High-visibility activities, like obtaining a grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund to mount the solar panels on the firehouse, help raise public awareness of the group’s earth-friendly initiatives.  

But as Leaman himself will affirm, solar panels alone won’t get the job done. The most effective activities will be those undertaken by individuals who want to make a difference. (If you’d like to start greening your home and lifestyle, right now, see the sidebar on page 82.) Problem is, unlike those solar panels, a lot of this good green stuff is difficult to see. It works behind walls, is screwed into light sockets or hidden in underground wells, invisible to the eye. So we did a little sleuthing to reveal the green revolution going on behind some of our most traditional-looking facades.

Green Building Blocks
Westport resident and developer Barry Katz experienced his environmental epiphany years ago. “I sold a very expensive house to people who could easily afford it; they just wrote a check,” he recalls. “It was a large home, and I heard from them when they got their first heating bill. They were shocked at how much it cost to keep the place warm.  Given that financial resources were definitely not a problem for them, I thought to myself, What would ordinary people do?”

Wanting to answer that question, Katz began to read, educating himself about resource- and energy-saving building practices. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn,” he remembers. He also attended several green-building conferences, where professionals and eager amateurs exchanged ideas and resources for building more earth-friendly housing. Gradually he decided to dedicate his business to building green.

“If you know how to build a quality, energy efficient and healthy home, why wouldn’t you?” he asks.

Early last year, Katz completed a new green home on the site of an old house from the sixties. Unlike other “wrecking ball” projects, which have raised the hackles of many residents, he recycled the teardown, finding willing takers for lumber, appliances, fixtures and other materials. Katz then proceeded to build a new/old house — a Colonial, five-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath home. Traditional in appearance, the house boasts a laundry list of green materials and systems:

Skin Deep: All walls require insulation, but Katz went much further. A spray foam insulation system seals the house perfectly against air leaks, even before other high-tech systems add incremental energy savings. Attic ductwork is fully insulated — lack of this energy-saving blanket is a major culprit of heat loss in non-green built homes. open-and-shut savings: Double-glazed windows, filled with insulating argon gas and a low-e (emissivity) coating that prevents heated or cooled inside air from escaping is a major upgrade from ordinary code standards.

Heat Repellent: Roof shingles have a special coating that deflects the sun’s heating rays, offering savings during air conditioning season.

Water Misers: Even comparatively high rainfall areas — think Atlanta — have recently experienced years-long droughts. This house is prepared for shortages, with insulated hot and cold water pipes, and on-demand hot water heating by means of motion sensors in each bathroom, so warm water is instantaneous and doesn’t require running the faucet. Also standard in the Katz house are low-flow fixtures and fittings, including faucets and toilets that will save thousands of gallons each year.

Geothermal Heating and Cooling: Underground wells capture, and then circulate via a system of piped water, the constant 55°F temperature of the earth below the frost line; this nonpolluting energy source provides cooling in the summer and heating in the winter, without fossil fuel. While the system is more expensive than conventional gas or oil heat, it’s the next big thing as oil supplies decline and energy prices skyrocket.

Clean Indoor Air: An energy recovery ventilation system provides a steady supply of clean air, while capturing 70 percent of the energy of stale air as it is removed. The central vacuum system filters out dust and allergens for more pristine surroundings. Coatings — paint and other finishes — were chosen for their very low content of volatile organic compounds. VOCs, as they are known in shorthand, can be respiratory irritants, and pollute the air indoors and out. 

The project so embodied Katz’s philosophy for building green and natural that it also impressed his fellow developers, winning the 2007 Home Builders’ Association of Connecticut HOBI award for Best Green House, and — even better in such a tough market — an enthusiastic buyer.

Custom Homes
Another Westport project, undertaken by the family-run Stillman Organization, a residential and commercial real estate development company, is a group of three custom homes built along the Saugatuck River. Robert Stillman, who made a presentation of the project at a recent meeting of Connecticut building professionals, recaps the high points as we tour the first of the homes to be completed. With its beautiful surroundings and meticulous landscaping, it’s difficult to discern how this large, luxury home differs from its equally large neighbor, also recently built by another developer. But the green is, once again, in the invisible details.

Stillman, along with his brother and father, now runs the company founded by his grandfather nearly fifty years ago. They each take a personal interest in the fine points of the project. True to the principles of green building, they first used construction practices that provide for energy efficiencies far above current code standards. Starting with the basement, Stillman’s builders used a Canadian-made panelized construction system — instead of going up stick-by-stick, the house was shipped in panels, shortening the time between hole-in-the-ground and framed house. Under the basement slab are two layers of expanded foam, giving it an R (resistance to heat) value of 10. Since nearly a fifth of a home’s energy can leak from the basement, Stillman marvels at the cost-effectiveness of this small and relatively inexpensive step.

The foundation walls themselves are made with concrete insulating panels, cast with 2×4 wall studs in place so that drywall can be nailed up without further ado — a cost-saving efficiency that allowed for other, bigger green features elsewhere.

“Most houses have R-19 walls, and even double-glazed windows are R-2,” says Stillman. In this house the building envelope is much more snug, with R-30 walls and triple-glazed, gas filled, low-e high performance windows that provide an R-value of more than 6 — an incredible energy saver. Builders paid special attention to the attic space, again increasing the R-value of the insulation and also using special heat-resistant light fixtures on the upper floor so that attic insulation could fit snug against the fixtures without creating a hazard. To mitigate its air tightness and prevent moisture retention, Stillman has also employed a state-of-the-art, highly efficient ventilation system, much like the Katz house mentioned above.

The highlights of this luxury dwelling are the systems that heat and air condition the inside of its super-efficient, insulating skin. Like the Katz house, a geothermal heating and cooling system requires no oil burner or gas furnace, instead using below-ground temperatures to heat and cool. To augment the system, using rebates provided by CL&P, Stillman installed 5 kilowatts of solar collectors on the south-facing roof of the house. These panels function on the net-metering system, meaning that when the sun is producing more energy than the house needs, the electric meter actually runs backward.

The benefits of the new technology are not just earth-friendly or cost saving. The green house is as quiet and comfortable as it is proportionately skimpy in its resource consumption. Stillman, who is proud of the many fine details of the house’s construction and finish, is sold on green. Along with Katz, he believes that this is the way the business of residential building is headed.

“We’ll reach a tipping point in a few years,” says Katz. He is convinced that the cost of building green (a ten to twenty percent premium over standard practice right now) will come down as technologies improve, acceptance of the practices and materials becomes much more widespread, and general understanding of the “green” concept grows. “Not only will people build green to save on energy costs, but they’ll also realize that a home that’s built green will be healthier for their families.”

The Green Retrofit
While it’s good to build new and green, what’s to be done with existing houses? There are lots more of them than there is new construction, and most were built long before energy prices rose and people became concerned about global warming and environmental degradation. Fortunately, the answer is quite a bit.  

Jennifer Boyd-Mullineaux, her husband and two children had already found a location they loved in Westport, but the house needed some work. Jennifer, a physician’s assistant who now does medical educational consulting for clients seeking a holistic approach to health, had a natural inclination toward a renovation that would include green practices and materials. With ideas taking shape in her mind’s eye, the family was walking a street fair in South Norwalk when she noticed the booth of Trillium Architects.  

“It read ‘Architectural Help: Five Cents,’ ” she recalls, “and I noticed the architects were women. It felt right, and I stepped up to the booth.” She clicked immediately with Elizabeth DiSalvo, a partner in the firm with two decades’ worth of experience and dedication to the principles of designing and building green.

“We spent a year working on the design,”  says Boyd-Mullineaux. “You can get carried away with what you think you need. I went through magazines, looking for things I liked.  I found that I kept ripping out pictures of bungalow-style houses, or spaces with a Japanese aesthetic. I like offset lines, not perfect symmetry, and whimsy speaks to me.”

While the appearance of the home changed completely on the outside, and DiSalvo’s plans reworked the interiors, the renovation had a very modest effect on the home’s dimensions, adding only 800 square feet to the existing footprint. What emerged was a thoughtful remix of existing elements, augmented by strategic bump-outs and careful choices of equipment and materials for their energy efficiency and healthful qualities.

The earth-friendly decisions began with demolition; at the owners’ instructions, the contractors, Charter Oak Construction, salvaged all the materials that could be recycled. Items such as windows, lumber, flooring and kitchen cabinets found new homes via Green Demolitions in Norwalk. “Don’t throw anything away,” says Jennifer. “It’s amazing what can be donated, recycled and repurposed instead of going into a landfill.”

For the renovation, Jennifer started with basics: energy-efficient windows and blown-in insulation, which have made the house quieter and more comfortable. Then came the fun part: a new mudroom, designed with a closet for every family member, keeping this possible catchall space attractive and welcoming. Outside, the deck is crafted with IPÊ wood and metal railing — no-maintenance alternatives to traditional materials.

In the basement, there’s space for the children, with natural, nontoxic linoleum flooring that floats on its underlayment instead of being glued with off-gassing adhesives. In the space’s small accessory kitchen, Jennifer has used high-efficiency appliances and reused a piece of honed granite that fit perfectly as countertop. To let in light for the bumped-out exercise area, Boyd-Mullineaux had DiSalvo specify a commercial-grade curtain wall material called Kalwall, which is durable enough for a snow load.

The bedrooms are all designed for excellent air flow and equipped with ceiling fans, to cut down on the use of air conditioning and maintain healthy air quality. In the master suite, a small, two-sided gas fireplace lends its cheerful, efficient, and on-demand warmth to the bedroom and the bath area. It’s a renovation with many small changes and additions that in the aggregate combine to beautiful effect. A limited size increase, but lots of thought and care, gave the owners the result they wanted.

Says Jennifer, “I discovered that the right question to ask was, ‘Will this improve our lives, or are we doing it just because we can?’ If we could say yes to the former question, we knew we were on track.”