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Green Homes

Energy Comes from the Sun, Wind, and Earth in This Vermont LEED Platinum Home

TIME-TESTED SHAPES, MATERIALS, AND COMPONENTS. This home may have many "new" parts, but few would be unfamiliar to native Vermonters. The high-tech wind turbine is merely a more efficient example of the innovative machinery that has sustained remote farms for more than 100 years. Wide, cooling porches, steep, snow-shedding roofs, and a floor plan that encourages cross-ventilation are details that local residents have long understood as sensible ways to deal with the seasons. Metal roofing and siding are common in northern New England because they are durable and easy to install.
Image Credit: Jim Westphalen
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#Multiple renewable-energy sources help a Vermont home built with more or less conventional methods reach net-zero-energy use

To build a house with no carbon emissions and zero-net-energy use, the owners of this rural home in Vermont employed a strategy embracing alternative energy sources, unusually high insulation values, and conscientious fabrication.

Start with a good team and a purpose

David Pill is an architect, so he and his wife Hillary went into this project with a head start. They retained builder Jim Huntington, who had experience building energy-efficient homes and is himself a designer. Schooled in self-sustaining and socially responsible lifestyle choices, they wanted to purchase materials locally, recycle, and reuse as often as possible. Something creative would also have to be done with a derelict 14,000-square-foot covered riding arena on the 44-acre plot.

That they were successful in meeting their goals might be measured by a net gain in electricity — 192 kWh in 2008, several notable awards, and designation as the first LEED Platinum home in the state. It might also be measured by how great the place feels to live in.

Matching their plan to their needs

David points out that before they did anything else, they hired Andy Shapiro, an energy consultant, to model a best-case scenario, including orientation, passive solar design, massing, surface area, structural square footage, thermal mass, envelope design, glazing, air tightness, mechanical systems, lighting, and appliances. They then weighed possible building strategies from technical perspectives, as well as an important programmatic one — the family of four, including two children, would be spending most of their time living and working here. They settled on the premise of an ultra-efficient all-electric house (including appliances) to keep the design simple and the fuel source unified. To implement this, they commissioned a wood-frame house and installed a 10-kW net-metered wind turbine.

Local vernacular makes sustainable sense

On a sunny day the temperature of the 2,700-square-foot interior doesn’t drop below 70°F, even when it’s –10°F outside and the heat is turned off. Air conditioning is completely unnecessary in summer; the home’s ample thermal mass keeps it cool, and a few open windows upstairs send breezes through the house. Simple, but not austere, one wing is highlighted by fir columns reclaimed from a local mill, and the warmth of the locally made maple cabinetry throughout is enhanced by bright rugs and natural finishes.

The two-story house is laid out as two intersecting rectangles — one sided in painted cedar and the other in corrugated Galvalume. The look recasts the forms and textures of an agricultural heritage with clean, modern ease. The steep pitch of the standing seam metal roof sheds the heavy Vermont snows, and the large wrap-around screened porch is well used during long summer days. The wind turbine, 400 feet from the house, is barely audible.

There’s a chicken coop out back, also built to sustainable specs; a new apple orchard; and a vegetable garden. And the riding arena? It was bought by neighbors, disassembled, and reconstructed elsewhere.

Four important things

While the turbine and the ground-source heat pump (GSHP) get a lot of attention as new and exciting technologies, David has a list of things he finds just as important. Number one: solar orientation, a “no-brainer,” says David. The house is long and narrow along the true east-west axis, with simple massing.

Number two is to spend as much of the budget as possible on the shell. This one is superinsulated (EPS, denim batting, polyisocyanurate foam, and dense-packed cellulose), achieving R-values up to 58 and mitigating thermal bridging. The house has been fastidiously caulked to seal the envelope. Ultra-efficient fiberglass windows employ orientation-specific glazing: South-facing glazing allows more solar gain; the north-facing windows are more insulating.

Number three is short and sweet: “Find a builder before designing the house,” says David. “You want to work simultaneously with your contractor to create an integrated plan. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to retrofit a design after the fact” and, thus, coping with cost overruns.

Finally, number four is to “get the projected energy loads down as low as possible in the design process, so you’re not trying to overcome them later on.” Combine efforts. The GSHP, powered by a variable-speed drive, pumps water from a well that also provides drinking water. A GFX waste hot water heat recovery unit and highest-efficiency lighting and appliances further reduce energy usage. Several devices track energy use and efficiency: a wind data logger from NRG systems; a kWh meter on the turbine; a BTU meter and kWh meter on the heat pump controls; and a meter for hot water usage.

Lessons Learned

David wanted to push the economy of building the structure, so they used two-stud corners (with nailers), minimal framing for window headers, and a two-foot module for all dimensions. He thought of using a single plate and skipping the exterior sheathing, using lateral bracing instead, But Jim advised strongly against these last two, even though they are increasingly recognized as advanced framing techniques. David’s glad he listened, as winds can plow down the valley with vigor.

Because the owners went for all the bells and whistles in the GSHP assembly, installation took a lot of time, as did programming the drive that manages it. They’ll probably never use the extra lines in the radiant heat manifold that stub to the second floor — the house stays comfy from what’s in the first floor slab alone. They'll also never use the blocking in the walls for brises-soleil — it stays cool without it.

Heating system choices offer challenges and opportunites
They also want prospective alternative energy users to carefully assess the apparent cost of new technologies in context: For instance, “If you already have a well you can use [for the GSHP] and are already doing a radiant floor, the cost of it might be not much more than a standard boiler," David advises. "The benefit of a boiler is that you can put in relatively inexpensive baseboard, which itself is less costly than radiant.”

These trade-offs can get complex because the sizing of the heating system also depends on how tightly the house is sealed, among many other things. Can a non-architect manage all this? “Yes,” says David, ”but they’ll need the help of experts.” He adds, “It can be a fun learning experience.”

General Specs and Team

Location: Charlotte, VT
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 3
Living Space: 2700
Cost: 196
Additional Notes:

Cost does not include septic and well
Completed: August 2007

Architect: David Pill, Pill–Maharam Architects
Builder/contractor: Jim Huntington, New England House Wrights
Energy consultant: Andy Shapiro, Energy Balance, Inc.

Construction

Foundation: 4-in. concrete slab over 4-in. EPS foam on gravel (R-16); poured 8-in. concrete walls lined with 2-in. EPS; 2x4 studs at 24-in. o.c. filled with dense-packed cellulose contained by reinforced netting (R-21 total)
Floors: I-joists at 24-in. o.c.; OSB subfloor, then 4-in. poured concrete floor, ground and polished, enclosing radiant heating system (denim batting under first floor radiant slab, R-21)
Walls: 2x6 studs at 24-in. o.c. insulated to full depth with closed-cell polyurethane spray foam; 1-in. polyisocyanurate foam board over exterior sheathing; house wrap; cedar breather mesh; painted cedar clapboard/corrugated metal exterior cladding (R-40)

Windows: triple-glazed fiberglass (U-value, .17; R-15 to R-17, Thermotech)
Roof: 2x10 rafters at 24-in o.c. filled to 9 in. with closed-cell polyurethane spray foam (R-58); 3/4-in. OSB sheathing; waterproof membrane; standing seam metal roof (Engler)

Energy

  • Building envelope sealed to NACH .08 for heating 600 cfm @ 50 Pascals
  • Fluorescent lighting throughout
  • Open plan oriented for daylighting and maximum solar gain in winter
  • Highest-rated Energy Star appliances
  • GFX waste hot water heat recovery

Energy Specs

Heating/cooling: GSHP (Econoair) with variable-speed drive (Hitachi) connected to well

Water heating: same as above plus 100-gallon storage tank (Marathon)
HERS index: 0
Annual energy use: 0 MMBtu/year
Energy production and use from January 9, 2008, to January 9, 2009:

  • Total electricity usage: 6,094 kWh
  • Total produced by wind turbine: 6,286 kWh
  • Net electrical gain: 192 kWh

Water Efficiency

  • Low-flow plumbing fixtures

Indoor Air Quality

  • Low-/no-VOC paints, finishes, and most adhesives
  • Natural materials

Green Materials and Resource Efficiency

  • Most of existing 14,000-square-foot riding arena building relocated and reused locally
  • Created access to community open space and trails
  • Innovative septic system by Presby Enviroseptic: filtration tubing contains coarse fabric with ridges and perforations laid out over leaching field
  • FSC-certified decking (Cumaru)
  • Most materials locally sourced
  • Reclaimed fir columns
  • Recycled materials (denim) in insulation
  • Certification

    LEED for Homes: platinum (90 points)
    Energy Star score: 5+ stars

    17 Comments

    1. John Brooks | | #1

      Nice Architecture
      Very nice David.
      I have to admit that even the "windmill" looks good.

    2. Michael Schonlau | | #2

      Expensive
      Awesome project, but what about middle-class folks who want to build green? I'd love to see a case study of a green home built for closer to $100/sq ft. I can't afford to drop a half mil for my family home.

      Also, does the 2" of EPS behind the 2x4's below grade reduce/remove thermal bridging?

    3. User avater
    4. George Adams | | #4

      About that grey water heat recovery unit.
      When I was building my house 29 years ago, I put in for DOE grant money [that Reagan killed] to perfect more or less the functional equivalent of what was depicted/described in the utility chaseway picture: a gray water heat recovery scheme. I would really like to know more about it, particularly how the grease trap issues are solved. Any grease or fat that hot water can bear away easily, may congeal and adhere to cold surfaces in a heat exchanger.
      I wound up shelving that idea and a few others but the superinsulation and the passive solar that I did carry out have stood the test of time...and I have yet to buy a watt of electricity for space heating.

      Which leaves the cost of water heating...how much is that gray water heat recapture estimated to save on water heating bills?

    5. Kate Bender | | #5

      Hello, I am doing a case
      Hello, I am doing a case study for my Sustainable Design masters at Carnegie Mellon University. I was wondering if you have metered data for at least 12 months for your home. Very impressed by your home!

      Thanks!
      Kate

    6. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #6

      Energy use data
      Kate,
      You will see energy use data in the sidebar above. The data were also reported in a GBA news story:
      "Monitoring data from January 2008 to January 2009 has confirmed that the home’s on-site 10-kW Bergey wind turbine produced 17 kWh more energy than the occupants consumed. While Pill and Maraham used 6,269 kWh of energy (6,094 kWh of electricity and the equivalent of 175 kWh of firewood), the wind turbine produced 6,286 kWh."

    7. Chris Builder | | #7

      Home Remodeling
      I had fantastic success with a greenhouse kit I assembled for a home in Maine. It took only a weekend to install and now provides fresh vegetables all year round. The hardest bit of the assembly was getting the permit approved by the local neighborhood council, though they are now happy they did seeing as how they benefit from fresh tomatoes in January as a thank-you gift!

    8. Mehdi Karroubi | | #8

      I viewed the profile of David
      I viewed the profile of David Pill on Linkedin I sent request to him I belong to home insurance company I am interested in LEED Platinum Home.

    9. Willem Post | | #9

      Windows
      U = 0.17 = 1/R. Hence R = 5.88 which is about 2x better than a standard Andersen, Pella, or Marvin double-pane window,.

      Did you perform a blower door test at 50 Pascals? What were the results?

      For reference: The Passivhaus in Germany standard is 0.6 ACH @ 50 Pascals.

    10. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #10

      Blower door results
      Willem,
      The results of the blower-door test on this house: 500 cfm at 50 Pascals.

      To calculate air changes per hour at 50 Pa, we need to do some math -- we need to multiply cfm50 by 60 minutes per hour and divide the product by the building volume, including the basement, measured in cubic feet.

      I don't (off the top of my head) have the building volume, but anyone who wants to can estimate it if they want. Here's a guess: each floor has 1,200 square feet; including the basement, the volume of the house might be 28,800 cubic feet. That would mean that the air leakage rate might be about 1.0 ACH @50 Pa.

    11. Pierre Goulet | | #11

      house plan
      would like to build the same house is the plan available

    12. Daniel Ernst | | #12

      Window Leaks
      Martin Holladay,

      When you covered David Pill's house in the 2008 Energy Design Update, you noted the builder was dealing with minor water infiltration around the windows. The GBA article doesn't mention this issue.

      It's unclear to me how the windows were installed and flashed. The GBA specs show that they used housewrap. Was this installed on the exterior of the foam? Did they use anything as a capillary break between the foam and the sheathing? Did they use any type of metal flashing on the window headers, or was it all flexible flashing tape?

      It would be interesting to hear what David Pill and Jim Huntington would do differently next time. At the time you wrote the EDU article it didn't look like they had come to any real resolution (or root cause).

      I would appreciate any additional information you can provide. Thank you!

    13. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #13

      Response to Daniel Ernst
      Daniel,
      I have forwarded your questions to David Pill by e-mail. I'll let you know if he responds.

    14. Amy Wise | | #14

      roofing contractor
      Would you recommend the roofer that installed the standing seam roof?
      i also live in Chittenden county.

    15. David | | #15

      Daniel-
      We did apply

      Daniel-
      We did apply housewrap over the exterior side of the foam, there was no capillary break between the foam and the sheathing. We did not use metal flashing over the windows, Thermotech said while that would be an added precautionary measure they were unnecessary. We did use flexible flashing tape. Looking back maybe a capillary break and the metal flashing would have been a good idea.

      I am extremely disappointed with Thermotech's windows. Thermotech came out to the house and did determine that five of the large mulled windows were leaking at the mulled joints. They took the mull covers off and recaulked them. They no longer leak. There are still 2 windows upstairs which are leaking, at one point I need to take the trim off and see what is going on. The custom color paint which was an extra completely faded after 2 years and from day one the interior veneer was peeling off the fiberglass. We had to have our painter repair all of the veneer which cost quite a bit. When I originally brought this to Stephen's (the owner) attention he told me that they had used the incorrect type of glue on the veneer and that the paint was a bad mix. He said they would cover the cost of the repairs and would send someone out to repaint the windows on site. I did not want someone site applying paint and just wanted a credit on the custom color which was essentially white now. He has never made good on any of this. Stephen will absolutely not return my calls or emails. While they may have " the worlds most efficient windows" They are also the worlds most unprofessional company, with serious quality control problems and no follow through.

      David

    16. Daniel Ernst | | #16

      Thank you
      David,

      I just saw your response. I'm sorry to hear of the poor service / experience with Thermotech. Thank you very much for the feedback and cautionary tale.

    17. Matthew Amann | | #17

      Fiberglass.....REALLY?
      I wonder why no company in America is building wood aluminum clad windows to the same specs as these fiberglass windows. Once again following the Germans...... Aluminum, wood, cork sound great to me..... fiberglass and vinyl, not so much......getting ready to build a net zero home for a client , glad to get this Thermotech feedback

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