Building a Greener Home (a re-post)

Quite often Enviro Girl entertains questions about her house–it’s about 10 years old,  She loves talking new construction with people looking to build or move.  Environmental ethics were key considerations for Enviro Girl’s home and she recommends thinking in this vein because it saves a lot of money.  Answering questions about her house several times in the past couple weeks triggered her to tell the story about her home building experience once again:

When Enviro Girl and Mr. D built their dream house, they’d had the blueprints for over five years. Every now and then they’d tweak things — move a wall, add a closet, change out a window. When it came time to build, they had the floor plan down pat. The big challenge was choosing a lot and then find the devil…in the details.

They first bought a 5 acre plot because Mr. D wanted to live in the country — but they weren’t “sold” on it. About 4 years later Enviro Girl and Mr. D came across 17 acres located next door to an elementary school and a mere 7 minutes from the major highway running through the Fox Cities. Mr. D could be to his office within 7 minutes, Enviro Girl could be anywhere else within 20 minutes. Short driving distances was a major factor in choosing their lot — driving is (DUH!) a major polluter and their family’s quality of life is better when they’re not sitting in a car for hours every day.

A few wise landscaping choices makes the outside as inviting as the inside of a house.

Originally the 17 acres consisted of alfalfa planted by the farmer up the road and some  woods with a creek running through it.  Enviro Girl and Mr. D knew immediately they’d restore lots of natural habitat, including a prairie and native tree species. They wanted “country” acreage so they could create a green space full of wildlife — bugs, birds, critters and creatures.  Together they mapped out a plan for land use, trying to work with the natural geographic features.  Knowing your landscape plans in advance will save you a lot of time, effort and money.  Before they dug the foundation, Mr. D and Enviro Girl planted 100 tree seedlings and designated the spot for the next season’s prairie planting.  They also identified the best spots for planting shade trees and a garden.  They made sure outdoor faucets were appropriately placed for convenient use.

Positioning the house on the lot was easy, their builder advised them on maximizing the heat of the sun for cold Wisconsin winters and placing the garage on the west side to take the first gusts of prevailing winds. Fortunately, their builder put a lot of stock in quality over quantity and wanted the 8 or so houses he builds each year to last for centuries — he framed their house with thicker than usual beams, added extra insulation and made the basement walls extra thick. They’re far above the flood plain (it’s illegal to build in one in Wisconsin, anyway) and connected to electrical, phone and cable through a trench dug up to the main road. Underground utilities are safer for air traffic (birds & bats) and for people (no wind or ice storm can down any lines on the property).

Since Wisconsin has bitterly cold weather for 6 months of the year, Enviro Girl and Mr.  opted for brick — it holds heat and never needs replacing like other types of siding. They also installed a radiant heat system instead of a conventional forced air system. A huge boiler in the basement heats water that runs through tubing in the floors. The heat rises and keeps everyone comfortably warm more efficiently than a forced air system. It uses less energy since they’re able to keep the thermostat at a lower setting (67 degrees all winter long) and heating a house with hot water is more energy-efficient. This was a budget battle, however, because radiant heat costs three times as much as a forced air system — but the savings are generally recouped within 5 years. Enviro Girl and Mr. D figure they regained their investment within the first 3 years of living in their house based on the cost of their propane bill versus their neighbor’s.

Additionally, the boiler system handles hot water for any other use, like showers or laundry.  Programmable thermostats mean Enviro Girl can set a nighttime and daytime temperature to further save on energy expenses.

A radiant heat system has no duct work which means no blowing dust and no worrying about where to put furniture since there’s nothing to block. This also means installing central air is an additional expense.  Enviro Girl and Mr. D agreed to install a partial duct system to blow the heat around the 2nd floor of their house in the winter and cool with an air conditioner in the summer if they wished. In 10 years they average one week of using the air conditioner each year because ceiling fans in every room combined with wood & tile floors, window blinds and cross breezes have kept them very comfortable. This hybrid heating/cooling system is hands down a huge money and energy saver.

Enviro Girl and Mr. D chose tile and wood floors with very limited carpet because, like the brick outside, they don’t want to replace flooring. Every replaced floor means junk in a landfill. Opting for durable, classic materials means a room redux mostly consists of new paint and furniture.  In other words, by investing in a good base, renovations are inexpensive.

Quality woodwork and carpet means knucklehead boys (and superheroes) can’t destroy the interior.

Country living means privacy so the house has few window treatments.  Enviro Girl tweaked their house plan to eliminate windows from one full and one half-bath. Window blinds are only used in bedrooms where they need to block the sun and in the living room because huge windows, no matter how well made, let in summer heat and winter chill. Here’s where they again opted for a one time only investment in wooden blinds and waffle blinds — they may look bland, but they won’t clog a landfill and they’re easy to clean and they’re made from renewable resources.

Naturally, all of their appliances are Energy Star rated. They have water-saving faucets in the showers, toilets that use less water to flush, and a urinal that requires a half-gallon per flush. Most of the lighting throughout the house is recessed or “cans.”  These light fixtures are efficient and require almost no attention.  Mr. D and Enviro Girl opted for the best quality roof, one that has a 50 year warranty, which means they won’t need to replace it anytime soon.  Again, Wisconsin weather requires excellent insulation and the builder only buys Anderson windows, so the house is extremely weatherproof and durable.

Observe the tile floors and recessed lighting in Enviro Girl’s kitchen.

The other environmentally conscious consideration in building this house involved size. In a time when most McMansions measured 3,600-4,000 square feet, Mr. D and Enviro Girl built a 2,600 square foot house. They eliminated “wasted” space in the house plan by eliminating a huge entryway and all but 2 hallways. Pocket doors and reducing the size of 2 bathrooms gave them more square feet to add to their living room. The house has no “extra” rooms — the formal dining room became a library. There is no den, study or sewing nook. The “breakfast counter” became the “office” by converting the space into a built-in desk (placing the family’s computer in the middle of the traffic flow when kids are using it, parents can keep an eye on the stove, computer and the laundry from this centrally located perch). What their family may lose in privacy and space they make up for in having one less room to clean. Less house means less to heat, clean and repair — instead of more space, they invested money in quality materials.

With an eye on the future, the house has everything on the main floor except for the children’s bedrooms and one bathroom.  This means that Mr. D and Enviro Girl can live here for a very long time and when their children/grandchildren come to visit, they can enjoy some privacy.  It’s amazing for Mr. D and Enviro Girl to hear of many friends “downsizing” already because of too much space or too many stairs … they’ve eliminated that concern by building a house that will make sense for many stages of their life together.

Looking back, they would not change much in how they built their house.  It’s the perfect size & temperature year round while staying durable enough for Team Testosterone (3 sons!) to tear through. They did their best to build an energy-efficient house with siding, flooring, window treatments and cabinetry that would last a lifetime. They didn’t always buy the most “eco-friendly” products available, but they’ll only buy them once. Enviro Girl and Mr. D continue to tell anyone who asks them that the key to a greener home is quality over quantity.

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