The Green Builder in Little Rock, AR

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Home Design / Custom Build / Live in a Green World near Little Rock, AR

Archive for the ‘green products’ Category

Couple makes designs for sustainable living.

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Now here is a fun project. An Army barracks?  No, a prospective home. The inspiring couple behind this idea want to make all the right housing choices to utilize green ideas and educate others on how sustainable and green one’s house can be.  They have purchased a 40 foot by 80 foot Quonset Hut from SteelMasters. These can be used as airplane hangers, storage buildings, or emergency structures.  They intend to live simply and comfortably in one as their home.  The Quonset Hut will come to the site ready to be lifted in panels onto the foundation to form the structural shell of the house.  These panels are developed from the World War II units that were used throughout the war effort and are still used today.  EnergyStar has approved these structures as an exemplary building material and method.  Its galvalume finished steel shell is reflective as a radiant barrier and is made of mostly recycled material that in the end can be reused or recycled again for that cradle-to-cradle effect.

The couple has come to EcoHouse to make their simple living choices  as effective for being green as for sharp looking aesthetics.  There are many ways to use the panels to configure a home and we will be exploring several to find that perfect site placement and solar orientation.  The site is 11 acres in the Mountains of Arkansas near Russelville.  They were careful to find land with good soil for landscaping and a great view from the top of a gentle ridge.

We will be busy getting the design together and exploring systems and material choices to achieve strength, tightness, health and responsible living in their new home.  Look forward to design sketches.

Simple trim carpentry for a Craftsman Bungalow

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Door header trim detail

We are trimming out a bungalow in the Capital View neighborhood of Little Rock and want to keep the original and traditional trim style, but want to use the economical and green materials of modern construction.  The proportions of a simple trim for a window and door gives the openings their elegant appearance.  We place a 1×4 on the jamb casings, a ledge trim and a 1×6 header casing.  The change in width of material gives the doors and windows a taller look.  The edges are square to give a more strong, less frilly look. The ledge trim hides the joint between materials, and allows the eye to overlook minor imperfections in an old remodeled wall.  Trim carpenters have always sought to make the best of aethetics with the most economic means and materials.  Being green follows the same historical trend.

The difference between age-old and modern trim carpenters, besides their awesome tools, is their use of modern manufacturer’s materials to help in the process.  Instead of consuming large stands of old growth forest to harvest high grade wood to make the door jambs, smaller rapidly renewable trees are used for smaller pieces of wood that are finger joint cut and glued together.  This conservation practice is both green and economic.  The casing trim is even finer bits of wood compressed into medium density fiberboard, MDF.  It has the benefit of not warping or having knots.  It takes the intended paint very nicely.

We have installed traditional 3/4″ wood hardwoods to match the existing front rooms.  The boards are laid first, so that the trim and doors are placed precisely and level.  We will come back later, after the painters have cleaned up their mess, to sand and finish the hardwoods.  Overall, we will achieve a handsome traditional look to match the historical neighborhood, without much fuss or unnecessary expense.

Craftsman wood carpentry details

When is a large green house, too large to be green?

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

The first premise in green design is to conserve energy and natural resources to create a healthy, sustainable environment.

Various green building programs have been written to perpetuate that thinking.  LEED for Homes for one, penalizes a large house by setting its standards higher as the floor area per bedroom increases.  A 2000 sq ft 4 bedroom house can achieve platinum status easier than a 4000 sq ft 4 bedroom house.  In the same logic, a 2000 sq ft bedroom house 4 bedroom house can achieve platinum status easier than a 2000 sq ft 1 bedroom house.  As designers and builders focus on the numbers and the rules set up by the green guideline agencies, they begin to play the numbers.  They lose sight of the first premise.  Once green becomes  a game of numbers for an arbitrary certificate, then we begin to question the value of those certificate.  Anyone can make a claim of being green.  Some can provide the certificate from a third party saying they are green.  We must still ask the question, are we being good stewards of this earth and are we providing a good environment for our families.  Two houses, one on each far flung coast, have been in the news illustrating this inherent problem with the label “green.”

  50,000 square feet of living space. Photo by RICHARD MESSINA /  HARTFORD  COURANT / February 4, 2010 on HartfordCourant.com.   Fine Homebuilding posted an editorial blog that incited some heated discussion of a very, very large house.  Questions for the Man with the Big House – Fine Homebuilding asks how can a big house ever be green.  The argument is simple.  Don’t build more than you need.  Anything else is wasteful.  Assumed is that since the average home built in the US is somewhere around 2400 sq ft, that’s all you need.  The house has 50,000 sq ft.  There is no one arguing that it is small.  On the sheer size only, the editors of Fine Homebuilding railed against the designer claiming to be green.

The first comment rallied the defence of this big house:

…Are you usually in the habit of judging a home by looking at a single picture of a side?

While the bricks obviously do not generate electricity, the 17 Kilowatts of PV certainly do. If you bothered to really study the project you mock, you would find a list of extraordinary energy saving measures (geo-thermal systems, R-values greater than 50 in the exterior walls, underground earth-mass HVAC utilization, total DDC operation of all valves and air handlers, etc). For 2009, the property was carbon POSITIVE.

To accomplish all this in a home that is architecturally correct as to design, materials, and installation makes one wonder what you would consider “Fine Homebuilding” to be?

The house has certainly forsaken the first premise, but the owner himself defends the construction which involves harvesting the stone and wood primarily from the site and state of the art building thermal envelopes and air handling equipment to be as efficient as possible.

The owner certainly built his house with all the New England frugality that his coast is famous for, but also with the showiness of that coast as well.  It is hard to place this house in either tradition without considering the other.  I once saw a custom car plate that read “Humble”.  Does that mean the car owner is or isn’t?  Does a green label on a large house mean the house owner is or isn’t?

On the opposite coast, in the heart of liberal, environment advocate central Berkley, another house intends to challenge these notions of size and greenitude.  Neighbors Oppose Green Label for the Software Mogul Mitch Kapor’s Big House – NYTimes.com

As opposed to an uncertified claim of green by the New England house owner, the battle lines for this West Coast house are drawn in a community driven green building label.  And again, the labeling is structured and codified to the point that a clever designer can achieve a green label without the rigor of explaining its size.  Unlike a more general standard such as LEED for Homes by the USGBC or a energy efficiency centered program such as EnergyStar by the Department of Energy, this local green building program does not factor for size or consumption.  Instead of looking to the first premise, the program follows a more mild objective which is to encourage those that build to be “more” green than they otherwise would.

This is weak policy, when such a house consumes such a swath of resources and energy, and still can get a government certified stamp of green approval.  I applaud the citizens of that community for being outraged at the hypocrisy, and yet I am sympathetic to the local government for moving our collective whole toward a greener way.

As a design/build professional caught in the middle, literally in Little Rock, Arkansas, I navigate the green ways and by ways of various building programs such as LEED, EnergyStar, HERS, and just good ole fashioned common sense.  Of the choices, I trust the latter.

$1500 difference in insulation installation grades

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Not all insulation installations are equal.  In fact, there are different grades of installation that your contractor or building inspector may not even know about himself.  RESNET, or Residential Energy Services Network is a non-profit organization that sets standards which energy audit inspectors use to evaluate the residential building industry.  They define grades of insulation that materially affect the energy scores of a construction project.  You can see more of what they do on www.natresnet.org.

For building or remodeling homes in the middle South such as my home in Little Rock, Arkansas, we tend to like the spray foam applications that create a 100% air barrier in the cavities of the structure.  Their pricing has gone down in the years, especially with the hybrid applications of a thin layer of foam and a filling application of cellulose.  Installation is more consistent.  Also, I like the insulation per buck on this rather than the traditional methods.

Still, the most common insulation is inexpensive batt insulation.  This is the rolls of pink stuff that you can buy at Home Depot and looks so temptingly easy to install.  The manufacture of them have improved so much that they are easier than ever to install yourself.  I love DIY projects.  However, the insulation companies have such good deals on the pricing of the material, that it is often the case that they can deliver and install for the same or less price than you can buy the material retail.  And have you seen how much they haul in one truck?  I would never do that to even my own pickup.  Let the installers do it.  But be aware that there is a wide range of quality in the labor.

Variables one should look for in batt insulation is compression, gaps, air barriers and being inspected.  If it is not inspected by a Qualified Energy Auditor at the time of installation, then you can only get the lowest Grade 3 rating on a RESNET rating.  This may or may not be significant and could cost you from getting a possible $1500 tax credit for building envelope efficiency for new buildings.  Check the IRS or your local Auditor for more information on that.  I highly recommend hiring one of this guys.  Not only might you qualify for tax incentives, but you get better inspections and therefore better work products.  I just want to tell you the criteria that the auditor will look at, so that you can look and know yourself.

You don’t get what you contract for.  You get what you inspect.

Grade I

  • There should be no gaps or at least only very very small gaps less than 2%.
  • There should be no compression, or at least not more than 30% compressed in spots
  • Where there is wiring, the insulation should be split around wire, not compressed.
  • The wall needs to be enclosed on all 6 sides with drywall or air barrier
  • The insulation must rest against the inside edge of the space that it is supposed to insulate.  You would not want to walk outside with your coat loose around you so the wind could whip through your coat, now would you?

Grade 2

  • Moderate to frequent defects such as gaps around wiring and pipes is allowed
  • Rounded edges over less than 10% of the area and compressed by 30% is allowed.  You know, like pushing the edges of the insulation in too much on the sides to make it easier to staple the paper to the studs.  Too much ease of installation and your grade goes down.
  • Gaps of no more of 2% of the area that have no insulation at all, (not just the compressed amounts allowed in Grade 1)

Grade 3

  • More than 2% of areas totally missing
  • If more than 5% is totally missing, then the auditor has to count that 5% as not having insulation at all in his energy models, significantly lowering your rating and your energy savings.  My wife would not let me out of the house with a coat with more than 5% holes in it!

What is your contractor’s grade?  Ask an inspector.  For the most part, generals are happy to have a client’s inspectors checking the work.  It guarantees better work from his subcontractors.  It gets better results for you and saves the planet too.

Screens can shield or illuminate a home, or both

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

A rainscreen can be more than an awning or flat layering on your facade.  It can be dynamic!  Using perforated corrugated aluminum, a screen can be diaphomous, turning a house into a lantern.

Diaphonous membrane creates an architectural lanternThese houses face west and want to enjoy the western sunset, but the harsh light of the evening sun prevents a casual view.  No awning over the top of the windows is going to stop the evening sun which is already low in the sky by the time it reaches the western horizon and starts burning heat and light into a building.  Vertical strips of awning might reduce the amount of sun that comes into a window, but only a screen across the entire window will allow view and light.  Imagine placing a sturdy metal screen in front of expensive glass?  This is not an idea that is received well by homeowners.  Yet perforate the metal, and then the eye focuses on the lighter parts of the metal.  When the sun reflects on the metal, the eye sees the metal and no further.  When the lights beyond the metal are brighter than the surface of the metal, then the eye sees right past the holes and the metal which become transparent to the mind.  Its a miracle of the one way mirror on an architectural scale.

The  metal is hot on one side, a cool porch on the otherSeen from the street during the day, the passer by cannot see into the building, but the occupant can see out.  At night, when there is no light on the metal screen, both inside and out can see past the screen, the building becomes light and airy, and building cools.  I like to invite guests to parties starting around 7 pm so that they can see the screen disappear as they approach the building for festivities.

The screen has other functions.  It encloses a welcoming porch.  While the intial steps up to the main living level start on the hot reflective side of the screen, the steps do switchback behin the screen, cooling the visitor and welcoming him into the front porch.  From the chairs in the front porch, pedestrians on the sidewalk in front can be seen and heard without giving away the viewers presence.

The  chairs sit cooly behind the screen

Are Your Shingles Warranted?

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Shingle manufacturers require that roof systems in which it roof shingles are installed meet HUD or local building code standards for ventilation. If your home does not meet the minimal requirements, your warranty may be void in whole or part.

How do you know if your home has a properly vented attic?

You must understand what Net Free Ventilation Area (NFVA) is and how to calculate yours. NFVA is a ratio based on the total amount of square footage in your attic and the amount of square footage used to vent, through intake vents, (i..e. continuous soffit vents, under eave vents, drip edge vent, etc) exhaust vents (i.e. roof louvers, gable louvers, ridge vents, etc.) power attic fans, etc.

Working in the rafters.

The HUD standard for a balanced home using 50% intake and 50% exhaust is 1 square foot of venting for every 300 square feet of attic space, noted as 1/300. If your home only uses intake vents that ratio reduces to 1/150. For example: if you have an older home which only uses soffit venting and the attic square footage equals 2,000 – then you must have a minimum of 13.33 square feet of soffit vents to comply with most roofing material warranties.

Before you purchase new roofing material, make sure you know what they require for NFVA and confirm your home meets those requirements. Also, if you are building a new home take some time to look at attic venting options. This can save you in energy costs, air quality, and moisture control which are as important as roofing warranties.