Jen is a friend of mine who will be guest blogging here at “Trying To Be Greener” once a month. As you will see, she has a lot of first hand knowledge in the many possibilities in building an eco-friendly home. Take it away, Jen, and thanks for being a part of things here!
My family lives in a college town in Virginia and this summer, after five years of planning, we broke ground on our dream home.
It took us two years alone just to find the right property. We were looking specifically for something within a short distance of our little downtown, so that we could walk or bike to restaurants, shops, the library, and other places. As you can imagine, finding an empty lot in a 250+ year old town is not an easy feat.
Luckily, we eventually found the perfect lot on a little street that was developed about 45 years ago — old enough to have some character but not so old that it’s in a historic district and we would therefore have to meet any strict architectural restrictions.
Another bonus is that our new house is less than a half mile from a bus stop. My husband already bikes to his job at the local university, but having a bus stop nearby will give him other options. As for me, my office is currently in my house, so I have the easiest commute possible (as well as a pretty terrific office dress code).
When my husband and I were planning our new house, we had four firm requirements:
- It has to be modern — we prefer sleek, edgy design. Our little town is over-run with red brick Colonials and faux Colonials. While traditional architecture can be quite lovely, we wanted something that was clean-lined and not the same old, same old.
- But… it also has to be comfortable — after all, this will be a family home. Our daughters are 8 and 10 and we want this house to be a fun place for them and their friends.
- It has to be as environmentally friendly as we can afford — green construction is not always affordable, but we wanted to do the best we could.
- It has to be built on a reasonable budget — anyone can build a house on an unlimited budget. It takes real creativity to build well while still sticking to a budget. When we were still in the research phase, builders and architects told us to expect to pay $200-$300+ per square foot — not including the land. We knew this was unreasonable and not necessary, so we kept researching our options. We ultimately found a builder who thinks the same we do and uses basic materials in creative, fun ways. Consequently, we are currently on course to spend well under $150/s.f. — including our one-third acre lot. And we are definitely NOT skimping on the materials we want to use, including gorgeous woodwork in every room and stunning tile in the bathrooms.
We designed the house specifically for our lot and the layout is based on the direction of the sun, so as to take advantage of passive solar heating. Large windows will face south, east, and west and the light should stream in during the cold months. During the warm months, the roof overhang will partially protect the interior from direct light and therefore keep the house cooler.
We considered solar power and water for our house, but ultimately did not choose them, as they were outside of our budget. Maybe in the future…
For the construction of the house, we (okay, really it was my husband) chose Superior Walls for the basement and structural insulated panels (SIP’s) for the first and second floors. You can see the actual construction of our basement here. In short, the resulting basement is solid, well-constructed, and very energy efficient. The SIP’s only just arrived this week, but we already have a completed first floor and will have a completed second floor by Friday afternoon. The roof — also SIP’s — will go up on Monday.
All of the joists and other structural beams are made from engineered woods that were produced from scraps and not old-growth forests. The joists are constructed in such a way that they use less wood in general. The house will have one structural steel I-beam, which will include some recycled metal.
The walls will be rated R-24 for insulation and the roof will be R-40. If you are not familiar with insualation values, let me assure you that these are excellent numbers! The windows will be low-E insulated windows. For heating and cooling, the house will have a very efficient heat pump, which is one of the best options for our particular climate. We are anticipating that, because the house will be insulated so well, our actual heating and cooling costs will be low.
We are huge fans of the Not So Big House movement, so we worked hard to keep the size down and to have no unused rooms or large, wasteful hallways. Including the basement and the garage (also in the basement), the entire structure will be less than 2,800 square feet. The bedrooms and bathrooms will be small, so that the bulk of the square footage will be given over to communal spaces, like the living room, kitchen, and the family computer room. (As I mentioned earlier, I work at home and my husband also telecommutes at least once a week.) We also found space for a 10′ X 12′ toy room next to the children’s bedrooms (each 10′ X 11′) and, instead of a guest room that doesn’t get used very often, we’re instead using that space for a craft room, which will probably be used on a daily basis, as both my daughters and I are always working on a variety of projects.
All paints, sealants, glues, etc. used in the house will be low- or no-VOC. VOC’s are volatile organic compounds and they release vapors into the atmosphere. You know that new paint smell around construction sites? Those are VOC’s and they are not good. I don’t want VOC’s in my house and, luckily, our builder feels the same way and has actively sought out more environmentally friendly products.
On a related note, we will not have any wall-to-wall carpeting in the house. Instead, we are bringing our existing area rugs — most of which are FLOR, which is very eco friendly — and reusing what we already have. We do need to pick up a few extra rugs and they will be either more FLOR or some other green rug option (we’re still researching).
All light fixtures in the house will be either fluorescent or LED. It has been a challenge to find great lights that don’t use halogen bulbs, but I’ve found them and they’ll look fabulous.
All appliances will be Energy Star rated. Toilets and faucets will be low-flow.
Unfortunately, truly green kitchen cabinets were outside of our budget. Instead, we chose Ikea cabinets, which Consumer Reports loves for being well-built and very budget-friendly. We love how great they’ll look! We have not yet chosen the kitchen counters, but are considering a variety of options, including Formica, which has become much more environmentally friendly in recent years.
One final thing I should mention is that our builder has made the construction site as green as possible. There’s no dumpster for trash, as the builder believes that dumpsters encourage waste; all so-called trash is sorted first to remove anything that can be recycled or reused in some way. What is left has thus far been a very small pile of debris. The builder has two guys working for him and they both bike to work — and the builder is planning to start doing so soon as he recovers from a running injury.
I recognize that some of our choices are not the absolutely most environmentally friendly options, but we’re trying to find that balance between green (eco) and green (budget). I also recognize that building a new house is more wasteful up front than renovating an existing house; however, in the long run, if built well, the new house will be more energy efficient.
If you are interested in following our progress, we are blogging the whole process.
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