Tyler Malik and her husband, Richard, decided they wanted their new home to be “really green,” for practical as well as philosophical reasons.
“Our two main concerns were energy efficiency, because we wanted to escape the utility companies as much as possible, and eliminating toxic materials from the home, because my son and I are really sensitive to chemicals. We also wanted to reduce the damage we cause to the environment,” Tyler said. “We think we achieved all of those goals.”
Indeed, the new home they moved into August 2012 is about as environmentally friendly as possible in New England. It has earned an Energy Star award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a high rating on an efficiency index known as the Home Energy Rating System (HERS). The house was designed by West Stockbridge architect John Fülöp and built by Derek Heartquist from Stuyvesant, New York.
The Maliks built their 2419 square-foot house in an open field southwest of downtown Great Barrington—with a spectacular view of East Mountain. The view dictated lots of east-facing windows, but windows tend to be among the biggest energy losers in any house. The Maliks turned to a super-efficient window system, installed by Morrison’s Home Improvement in Pittsfield, that allows in heat and repels cold in the winter; roof overhangs help keep out the sun in the summer.
The windows are among the most obvious of the features that make the Maliks’ house super-green. For example, every ceiling and wall in the house (except for the bathrooms and garage) is covered with natural pine, rather than painted drywall, because Tyler is allergic to all the chemicals and paint that drywall requires. Solar panels on the garage roof heat nearly all of the water used by the family of five. Other solar panels provide much of the electricity in the winter and nearly all of it in the summer. Wintertime heating is through a propane-powered radiant system embedded in the slab under the floors. Most of the flooring is wood but some is nontoxic porcelain tile.
Architect Fülöp says the most important energy-saver is out of sight: The walls are super-insulted with cellulose (recycled, fireproofed newspaper), and the house has a special energy-efficient framing system.
The kitchen also is environmentally friendly, with Energy Star– rated appliances and plain pecan wood cabinets. The composite-stone countertop looks like black granite but, unlike granite, was not dug from the earth and does not emit radon. “Unfortunately, the most toxic thing in the house is the glue needed to keep the countertop in place,” Tyler said.
A different approach to going super-green is a brand new custom modular home on a hilltop in Copake, New York. Built by Blu Homes, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, this 2,420-square-foot home has walls of windows that make eye-catching views available from every room. But even with all the windows, the energy-efficient walls and floors make the house seem warm and cozy even on the coldest winter days.
Like the Maliks’ home, nearly everything about the Blu Home model, known as a “Breezespace,” was designed with energy savings in mind. “There are so many inefficiencies in building any house,” said Kaitlin Burek, the company’s sales director. “Our goal is to keep those efficiencies to a minimum while also having a house the homeowner will enjoy living in.”
Getting all the eco-friendly features the Maliks wanted, or that the contractors put into the Blu Home model, may be practical only in a brand new home. But experts say it can be easy—and even economical— to increase substantially the energy efficiency, and reduce the environmental hazards, of just about any home.
John Majercak, executive director of the Center for Eco-Technology (CET), located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, said the “very first step” for any homeowner is to get an energy audit to identify areas where the home can be tightened against winter winds and summer sun. Majercak’s agency carries out the energy audits in Western Massachusetts, under contracts with local utilities. The assessments are free and the utilities pay half or more of the cost of insulation and air sealing the inspectors recommend.
Jeanette Rotondo said she called for an energy audit after noticing “tons of icicles” hanging from the roof of her century-old farmhouse in Lee—a house that always had been drafty and expensive to keep warm in the winter. Now that contractors have insulated the attic and knee walls and plugged all the holes along the foundation, “some days this winter my bedroom was too warm,” she said. “The furnace hasn’t been running half as much as it used to, so we are happy. Now, I’m encouraging everyone to do it.”
Reducing utility bills may be the biggest, but is not the only, financial incentive for improving home energy efficiency. The federal government offers a range of tax credits for installing energy-efficient heating systems, insulation, roofs, windows and doors. Some credits will expire at the end of 2013 unless renewed by Congress. Credits for solar and other renewable energy installations run through 2016. Some manufacturers and utilities offer rebates for super-efficient heating systems.
WHAT IS GREEN?
Many people think of going “green” as just one or two things, such as improving energy efficiency or recycling cans and newspapers. Architect Fülöp, who started promoting green building long before people started calling it “green,” said adopting an environmentally friendly approach to any home means considering the entire home as a “system” with many components that need to work together.
“Putting in more and better insulation is the first, and single most important, thing to do, and you will notice a big difference in your energy bills,” Fülöp said. “But that is just one of many things any homeowner should do, not only to save his own money but to reduce his own impact on the environment.”
The CET’s Majercak said going green “shouldn’t be intimidating. There is so much information available out there, and all it takes is to start with one simple step, maybe even just using a clothesline rather than a dryer in the summer. What we find is that when people do one thing, like improving the insulation in their home, then they say, ‘Well, that worked pretty well,’ and over a couple years they get a bunch of things done. But if you start out trying to do everything all at once, that can be overwhelming.”
Great Barrington architect Christopher Blair agrees that homeowners need to plan projects carefully and ask lots of questions about practicalities, rather than simply jump at the latest trends. “I’ve never been called by somebody with an unlimited budget,” he said. “My advice to clients is to go for the low-hanging fruit—those things that will save them money in the long run and also make them more comfortable in their home.”
The main components of green building, according to Blair, Fülöp, Majercak and other experts, include:
Energy efficiency, starting with improved insulation and other measures that reduce heating and cooling costs. One of the simplest and easiest steps, Blair said, is buying programmable thermostats. “I’m always surprised by how many people haven’t done this.” Also important is buying appliances that consume less energy.
Absence of toxic materials and other health hazards, such as toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paints, sealants and adhesives. Use of materials that do not harm the environment and that were produced in environmentally friendly ways. Examples include materials made largely or entirely from recycled sources and wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or through the Sustainable Forest Initiative.
Efficient use of space and materials. Fülöp recommends, for example, “advanced framing” techniques that reduce the amount of wood required or use “structural insulated panels” and other components.
MAJOR ELEMENTS OF A GREEN KITCHEN
Because the kitchen is one of the most important parts of any home— maybe especially so for readers of Edible Berkshires—it also is one of the best places to start when thinking about greening a home. Kitchen appliances are major energy hogs that need to be slimmed down, kitchen work areas can be made of environmentally friendly materials, and kitchen lighting and windows are more efficient than ever before. Here are a few tips for a green kitchen, offered by experts and organizations that promote environmentally friendly homes.
Start with the refrigerator, for one simple reason: Any refrigerator, no matter how efficient, consumes more energy than any other home appliance (excluding, of course, heating and air conditioning). The good news is that recent models, especially those with the Energy Star rating, are much more efficient than older ones. That’s because new refrigerators have improved motors, better insulation and lighting, and compartments with separate temperature controls.
The CET’s Majercak said replacing any old refrigerator (especially one past the 15- or 20-year range) with an energy-efficient model will save money, over the long run, through reduced energy bills. And it’s important to give the old refrigerator to a contractor who will recycle its components. “What you should not do is to save it and put it in your garage,” Majercak said. “That is increasing the environmental impact because you are using an inefficient refrigerator to cool a pack of beer or a big bowl of chili.”
Dishwashers also can be energy hogs in a kitchen—or, at least the old ones are. Any dishwasher older than about 10 years probably is very inefficient and should be replaced as soon as possible, Majercak said. The government’s new standards require dishwashers to use no more than 6.5 gallons per cycle; the current top-rated unit (by Bosch) uses only 2.22 gallons per cycle).
In terms of cooking, as a general rule gas is more energy-efficient than electricity. But cooking represents only a small percentage of the energy usage in a typical household, so the choice is more a matter of personal preference than a question of environmental sustainability.
Every type of countertop has its pros and cons–—and that includes the environmental factor. Countertops made of “natural” components, such as granite, have many advantages, but those materials are extracted from the earth, often at a high cost to the local environment. Architect Fülöp notes that granite, still a popular choice for American kitchens, is durable and attractive—but it also can be a major source of radon, a hazardous gas.
“Green” alternatives such as engineered stone with recycled glass can be just as attractive, and similar in price to granite, but some can stain easily. “As with anything, there are trade-offs,” Fülöp said. An almost bewildering number of environmentally friendly countertops are on the market, some of them readily available in the Berkshires but others harder to find. A few examples include Slatescape, made of cement-like material; Paperstone, made of recycled paper; Vetrazzo, made from recycled glass; and IceStone, made from recycled glass, Portland cement and pigment.
Many standard kitchen cabinets consist of manufactured wood products heavy with toxic glues and finishes. Specialty manufacturers, individual craftsmen and even some big-name cabinet companies now use bamboo, pecan, wheat board (made of recycled wheat products) and other renewable materials with nontoxic finishes.
Another green option might be refinishing or resurfacing existing kitchen cabinets. To keep the project green, look for cleaning solvents and paint labeled as low-VOC or VOC-free.
Flooring can be among the most expensive—and environmentally damaging—elements of any kitchen. Wood extracted from Pacific rainforests and toxic glues and finishes are among the dangers. When remodeling a kitchen, experts suggest reusing existing floors and subflooring when possible; just remember to refinish wood floors using nontoxic products and processes. If a new floor is essential, try to use flooring made from recycled materials or materials certified as sustainable.
The key elements here are to maximize daylight (while using low-E windows that reduce heat gain and loss) and to use energy-efficient lighting. Most new fixtures accommodate a range of compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, both of which use far less energy and last much longer than incandescent bulbs. Architect Fülöp said LED lights are the smart choice for their super-long lifespans, and the latest ones are more pleasing to the eye than earlier models were.
FAUCETS AND SINKS
The big energy saver here is installing an on-demand hot water system, which heats only the water being used at any given time. Such systems represent a big one-time investment but yield large savings over time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Some people want to go green “to lower their environmental footprint,” Majercak said. But, he added, most people are motivated more by tangible considerations, such as saving money, by using less energy and living healthier lives by avoiding toxic chemicals.
“If you are careful about it, you can tread more lightly on the Earth, while also saving money and being healthier,” he said. “It’s a win-win-win.”
John Felton is a freelance writer and editor specializing in foreign affairs and public policy, based in Lee, MA. He and his wife, Marty Gottron, moved to the Berkshires in 1993 from Washington, DC, where he was a foreign editor for National Public Radio. They operated two B&Bs, first in Lenox then in Stockbridge, for 15 years.
WHERE TO FIND IT: RESOURCES ON GREEN HOME
As with everything these days, an overwhelming amount of information about green homes can be found on the internet. But sorting out the reliable and useful information from the other kind can be frustrating and time-consuming. One detailed list of internet resources has been posted by consultant Miriam Landman at MLandman.com/resourcelinks
Here is Edible Berkshires’ own list of some of the best resources for information about green homes:
Center for EcoTechnology (CET). This nonprofit helps homeowners and businesses make their buildings more energyefficient and environmentally friendly. CET staff carries out home energy audits sponsored by electric and gas utilities. CETonline.org
U.S. Department of Energy’s “Savers Guide” is a comprehensive list of energysaving tips. Energy.gov/sites/prod/files/energy_savers.pdf
The federal government’s Energy Star program has many tips for increasing the energy efficiency of any home. EnergyStar.gov/index.cfm?c=home_improvement.hm_improvement_index&s=m
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is a nonprofit organization that conducts research into energy efficiency. ACEEE.org/portal/residential
Energy Star is the federal government’s system for rating the energy efficiency of appliances, heating systems, etc. Check its ratings before buying major appliances. EnergyStar.gov
Earth Easy Energy-Efficient Appliances. Another guide to buying appliances. Earth- Easy.com/live_energyeffic_appl.htm Top Ten USA. This site lists the most efficient dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances according to government standards. TopTenUSA.org
BUILDING AND REMODELING
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Green Building.” This is another good place to find reliable information about all aspects of environmentally friendly building or remodeling. EPA.gov/greenhomes/overview.htm
U.S. Green Building Council. Primarily for builders, this organization’s website also has lots of useful information for homeowners. Its pages on LEED homes can help you decide if you want to spend the money and time getting LEED certification. The council’s Green Home Guide includes an “Ask a Pro” question-and-answer section. New.USGBC.org
Green Builder magazine. This is a monthly magazine for builders and consumers. Look for its annual Homeowner’s Handbook. The 2012 edition was published last November. GreenBuilderMag.com
Residential Remodeling Guidelines. Primarily for builders and architects (but also useful for the inquisitive homeowners), these are green guidelines for a variety of home remodeling projects. RegreenProgram.org/docs/regreen_guidelines.pdf
Healthy House Institute is a useful site for anyone wanting to know how to avoid environmental hazards at home. Healthy-HouseInstitute.com
INCREASING ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Every homeowner can reduce energy bills—regardless of the energy source—by hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually.
The secret is taking a “whole house” approach to energy efficiency: viewing your home “as an energy system with independent parts,” in the words of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Saver’s Guide.
Here are some of the most important steps toward improving the energy efficiency of your home, whether it’s 200 years old or brand new. Some of these steps are simple things you can do in a few hours over a weekend. Others require planning and renovations or purchases that will pay for themselves over time:
- Seal air leaks (particularly around windows and doors, and in the basement) with caulk, foam sealants and weatherstripping. Install appropriate insulation throughout the house (including in the attic).
- Install high-efficiency windows instead of those that minimally meet the energy code. Alternatively, install less expensive interior storm windows.
- Purchase only Energy Star–rated appliances.
- Install low-flow water fixtures.
- Upgrade to at least an Energy Star–rated water heater and lower the thermostat on the heater to 120°F. Water heaters with a timer can be turned off when you are traveling, then will turn on and begin heating the water in preparation for your return home. Tankless gas water heaters—which activate only when residents start to use hot water and immediately deactivate when they are done—are an even better option and can reduce water heating costs up to 35% annually.
- Purchase the highest-efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system you can afford and make sure it is correctly sized for the home. Automated HVAC systems can maintain a more energy-efficient temperature while the homeowners are away at work, but switch to a more comfortable temperature prior to their arrival home. Zones can also be created to heat or cool only the areas most used by the occupants, keeping other areas, such as guest bedrooms, shut down until they are needed. According to Energy Star, programmable thermostats can save consumers about $180 per year in energy costs.
- Use energy-efficient lighting, including LED, CFL or halogen bulbs instead of standard incandescent. Installing an automatic dimmer, which adjusts to your needs based on time of day or occupancy, will lower electricity bills and increase the life expectancy of light bulbs.
Adapted from “Energy Savers: Tips on Saving Money & Energy at Home” (EnergySavers.gov); “Green Remodeling” and “Improve Your Home’s Energy Efficiency with Technology” by National Association of Home Builders; and “Actions to Go Green” by the Center for EcoTechnology (CETonline.org/green-for-homes/actions-go-green/).