Energy | Sustainability

Earth-friendly Home Saves Money and Environment

Becker front exteriorIt’s a common misconception that having a “green” home means small, basic and visually unappealing.  Dale and Sharon Becker had long dreamed of the home they built in O’Fallon, Missouri, but wanted to apply green building principles in a comfortable, beautiful home.  They had been fans of Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House and designed their home around one of her designs that was reminiscent of a prairie-style Frank Lloyd Wright home, with wide roof overhangs to comfortably shade the home in the long Missouri summers. 

They worked with Tim Montgomery of TMA Architects to customize the design to incorporate the many features they’d always longed for.  Together they created a remarkable space that seems so much bigger than its actual footprint, including a large shaded screened-in porch on the east side of the home that is usable most of the year.  The floor plan of the home has a very open feel to it, with a study off the spacious foyer, and a great room that opens out onto the porch.  You can actually see from one end of the home to the other from the front door.  “We worked closely together to design a number of special nooks and spaces to create a perfect home for their belongings,” said Montgomery.

The all-electric home includes a wide variety of state-of-the-art features that make it efficient, comfortable and earth-friendly.  The most important consideration in any home is an air-tight, well-insulated building envelope.  The Becker’s foundation is a prefabricated Superior Wall system, which was assembled in less than three hours at cost lower than traditional poured foundations.  The built-in foam insulation on the wall panels coupled with blown-in cellulose result in an R-38 insulation rating, and the basement floor included a foam underlayment to further minimize heat transfer. 

On the upper levels, Enercept Structural Insulated Panels were used to complement the energy efficiency of the basement.  These foam-filled wall panels are also prefabricated, and have an R-26 insulation rating.  The exterior doors are all insulated fiberglass, and are complemented by low-E inert gas-filled double-pane windows.  The building is topped off with a generously insulated (R-44) attic and roof structure.  Even the garage is insulated, including foam filled garage doors boasting an R-19 rating.  For comparative purposes, it’s probably worth noting that the average home has an R-6 rating on the walls.

There is a big payback to this important investment in the building envelope that will pay dividends for the life of the home.  Since the home is so well sealed and insulated, the cost to heat and cool the home (usually the biggest energy expense by far) is minimized.   A GeoComfort ground-source heat pump was installed to capture the natural warmth stored in the earth’s crust.  This HVAC system uses a closed-loop fluid transfer system that draws and concentrates heat from the earth during the winter to minimize the need for supplemental electric heating.  In the summertime, the system works in reverse, extracting heat from the home and putting it back into the ground.  In addition, the heat from the system is used to pre-heat the source of the hot water tank.  An Energy Recovery Ventilator was installed as an integral part of the HVAC system to bring fresh air into the house.  (Most of our homes have the equivalent of a two-foot open window when you add up all of the leaks!)  The ERV transfers the heat from the incoming or outgoing air to further minimize energy consumption. 

The 3100 sq. ft. house is “smart-wired” to facilitate communications and enable automation of HVAC, security and other systems.  All of the other appliances in the home are ENERGY STAR appliances, which typically use 20% less energy than traditional equipment.  The lighting in the home is almost exclusively compact-florescent lighting, tastefully enclosed in a variety of attractive fixtures that warm up the home nicely without literally warming up the home.  CFLs use one-fourth the amount of energy and burn much cooler than traditional incandescent bulbs, so you don’t introduce unwanted heat into the home in the summer.  A number of the CFLs are dimmable, which enables the owners to create the desired mood in the room.  The master bath and dressing area are brightly lit with daylight from skylights, and tube-lighting is used in other areas of the home to pipe in natural light from the roof.  The home also sports radiant floor heating in the master bath, and uses dual-flush low flow toilets to conserve water.

Another important consideration in building an eco-friendly home is the materials used.  The home’s exterior is built with a fiber-cement siding and trim with manufactured-stone masonry on the fireplace, chimney and base of the exterior.   A variety of flooring finishes were used because of the renewable nature of their content, including cork, bamboo, linoleum, and oak hardwood floors from a certified sustainable forest, and the carpeting was made from recycled plastic bottles.  The interior features zero VOC (volatile organic compounds) finishes, including paints, stains, sealants and adhesives, to promote healthy indoor air quality. 

The home was completed in 2008, and was awarded the coveted ENERGY STAR certification.  Since then, many more options have become available at a more attractive price-point.  “We were on the leading edge of the green technology curve,” said Dale, “but we are really proud to be living in a more sustainable way.”  This home is certainly a beautiful example of how you can live in harmony with nature in style.

Published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s “The Green Life” on April 5, 2010

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