This past fall I sat in on a residential energy code meeting. The City of Houston was finalizing their code for the start of 2012, with the goal of exceeding the International Energy Code requirements.
What struck me most was the dialogue between builders and “greeners”. There’s definitely a difference of opinion between the two. Builders are focused on the bottom line, and they talked quite a bit about the difficulty of getting a mortgage. A $2000 increase on a $110,000 house can make all the difference for a mortgage approval. And if you’re a builder constructing 100 homes, a small increase in cost can add up. As they said, they are watching every nickel.
On the other hand, the “greeners” argued for long range planning. That group in the room pushed for the mandatory installation of a conduit for future solar panels in new homes. Insulated attic doors were one of the other energy saving items added to the code. It does cost money to save money.
The first record of building codes is from Babylonian times, 1780 BC. They had an eye for an eye attitude about building – if a structure failed and caused a death, then the punishment for the builder was death. Talk about motivation to build well! Other building codes have been motivated by catastrophic events. The London fire of 1666 and the Chicago Fire of 1871 both motivated construction standards. More recently Hurricane Andrew in 1992 raised the standards on for wind resistance.
Building code’s primary purpose is to protect our safety, welfare and well being. Codes dictate a wide range of things – from bedroom windows that are large enough to provide an exit in case of a fire, to enough outlets in the kitchen (so lengths of power cords do not pose a hazard, to ventilation in a bathroom.
Energy Codes are relatively new. There have been voluntary programs, like Energy Star, developed by the Department of Energy (DOE), and LEED by the US Green Building Council. Energy Star, LEED and other programs require energy testing that verifies the actual performance of a home with air infiltration testing. Energy efficiency related requirements for our standard codes have dictated things like the R value of insulation, the efficiency of a furnace or the amount of glazing allowed. The revised code will include energy testing for the first time, as one option for proving a home’s efficiency. Other options including include installing solar panels to achieve efficiency.
What’s important to understand is that energy codes will be more stringent. And at some point most new homes may be built with a performance testing and given a rating. If you are building a new home, consider building to a higher standard and having the house tested. You’ll be given a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) rating. No one would buy a car without that MPG sticker on the window. And with a HERS score in hand you’ll be prepared for the day that homes have a performance sticker on the window too. It might seem like an extra burden to go through the testing process, but one day you may be glad you did, and at this point the City of Houston would agree with that – they want you to go through the energy testing process.
Or maybe we can consider the Babylonian’s concept of builder responsibility; - the builder of the house pays for the utility bills.
(Not all builders that I know would agree with the “bottom line” point of view. The builders mentioned here have a specific point of view that does not represent all general contractors. I think that many custom builders would prefer to build quality over quantity. They would be happy to focus on high performance as budgets and owner priorities allow.)
Posted: 1/30/2012 9:19:38 AM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments
Texas has been suffering through a historical drought. Lawns are turning brown, trees are dying and foundations are moving. The city has been rationing; we are no longer free to water wilting plants unless it’s a designated day.
I have a low-flow shower head, and I’ve been showering with this bucket for a while. (And yes, I can see that this weekend I need to clean my shower!) I’m thankful for the small size of my house – it’s not too far from the master bath to the backdoor. My shower water benefits some thirsty plant each day – my grapefruit tree looks great. One weekend I decided to see if my son’s bath water could be used to wash my car. It takes half a tub of water to wash a car – not too bad. The rest of the water gave most of the plants in my front yard beds some relief. It’s a lot of work carrying a large bucket of water, and it’s a bit awkward. But it made me think – how many people in the history of humanity had to carry water – most. And as for the awkwardness of the bucket handle cutting into my fingers; it’s a reminder of how we take for granted resources that at one time had to be physically handled, carried, stored, etc.. We readily consume what is delivered to us; all the work has been removed.
I think there’s a loss to the disconnection of physical labor and resources. (Of course there are plenty of gains too – we live with the benefit of so many things that extend our lives and increase our well being) But the down side is a loss of value - spend part of a morning hauling water, and you may think a little differently about the preciousness of water. The ease of consumption should not be confused with the value of what we are consuming - but maybe it is.
Water conservation is a big part of designing a green home. There are basically three main considerations: Indoor water use, irrigation efficiency, and rainwater catchment. It’s a basic list, and not hard to accomplish. But the trick is to keep sight of water conservation while you are making all the decisions that go into a home. Fortunately there are now lots of low flow fixtures to choose from. If you are truly dedicated to water conservation you can add gray water use to the list. (Yes, you can also just use a bucket as your gray water system.)
If rainwater catchment is a priority, this is something you should consider early in the design process, especially if you want to be able to capture every bit of water from a roof. Developing the roof plan is part of the preliminary design process. Considering areas of roof and how the water will be captured, along with the aesthetics of the home will play a big part on the overall design of a home. Choose simple roof lines, which can also mean a simple footprint shape.
It finally rained in Houston this past weekend – and I wish I had put rain barrels in place. With a full gutter system on my ranch home, along with a leaf guard system, I already have an ideal set up. It’s a weekend project for this fall. We are so accustomed to having too much water, the drought is a reminder that local climates can quickly change drastically. Be prepared.
And here’s something else to keep in mind – a simple roof plan also is ideal for the installation of solar panels. If you are thinking about saving water and using renewable energy – be sure to start with the roof design.
Posted: 10/18/2011 6:33:09 PM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments
My eight year old son likes to use the word mansion to describe large homes – and he’s made it very clear that he’d like to live in one someday. And since he’s only 8, I’ve come to a conclusion: some people will just like and want big homes, it’s part of their personality. I don’t think he’d be happy with a small house – it’s as simple as that.
My daughter on the other hand, will point out her favorite little bungalows, and talk about how she’ll have a small house when she grows up. Some people are naturally drawn to smaller homes and spaces.
I’d like to think that my kids are not old enough to be too influenced by the world around them, and have been relatively free to come up with their own ideas about house size. I do think that we all have a natural preference for the size of space that makes us feel comfortable. I’ve worked with clients who clearly had a need for larger spaces. Their furniture was a larger scale, the way they decorated demanded more space. I’ve also worked with clients who seemed to crave smaller more protected spaces. They wanted nooks and lofts, or a place to have some privacy.
It’s important to be sensitive to what your own preference is. Don’t be too influenced by trends one way or the other. Along with the overall size of the house, pay attention to room sizes that are comfortable to you. Furniture plays a big part in right size rooms. For example a small living room will have at least some furniture against the wall like a sofa. Large living rooms can have almost all the furniture pulled away from the wall. Rooms that don’t allow either scenario are awkward and hard to decorate, which means they’ll always feel uncomfortable.
When I interview for remodeling projects, I sometimes see that projects are driven by an undefined sense of unease. I’ve become more sensitive about understanding where those feelings are coming from. The home is not offering the types of spaces that are nurturing to an individual or family. The most disconnected, unused, dysfunctional room is often the dining room. The square footage in that space is sometimes enough to make a house live better, if its relationship to the rest of the house can be adjusted. If you are considering an addition because you feel that your home is not big enough – I’d first take a look at how you can turn unused areas into everyday/center of activity rooms.
When thinking about the right size home, also think about what types of spaces you need to feel at home. Bigger may not always be better but on the other hand, you may really need some space to be comfortable and satisfied.
Here are a couple photos I took one evening in Houston. These two properties are neighbors, with an age difference of about 90 years. Perhaps the small house was built in the 1920’s. What will homes be like 90 years from now? We can only speculate on the attitudes, values and lifestyles that will shape the future. I’m certain the builders of the “grandma” house never would have guessed what would be built next door!
Posted: 9/2/2011 6:39:14 PM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments
Deciding the size of your home is one of the most important green decisions you'll make. Lifestyle, neighborhood, budget, lot size, neighborhood requirements, social status and resale can all play a role in that decision. And once it’s made, the size of the house will partly determine ownership costs: utility bills, cost of upkeep and property taxes. It’s not a decision that can be easily reconsidered, and has long term consequences.
Regardless of what size is the right size for you (and I say this because there are instances where a large house is appropriate) there’s also the environmental footprint to consider. It’s easy to understand how a small house can have a smaller environmental footprint, but it’s also possible for a large house to have an even smaller footprint.
After a week long summer vacation on the beach, along with reading some American history, I began to wonder about why we make choices for bigger. . . For the past 500 years, starting with Columbus, our American culture has been born out of the idea of infinite resources. We are believers in the great frontier, and we continue to look for it. These days we channel that belief into technology, which is good, but also it fosters a culture of consumerism. On the most positive side, the idea of a limitless future fuels innovation. But I also wonder about why we choose to live and build as if our resources are limitless. The increasing size of our homes is one example.
Home size is the first step in establishing the scope of a project. We have a spreadsheet tool in our office to help clients understand how to develop and understand the overall size of the project – it’s fun to use because the spreadsheet does all the math for you, and you can start to dream about the spaces you might want. Start by listing all the rooms, and then determine the sizes. You can use your existing room sizes as a guideline. Or a designer/architect can help determine the ideal room sizes for your new project. Add 20% for halls, wall thickness, and miscellaneous and you’ll have a square foot number you can start working with.
Regardless of what size home is right for you; don’t forget to consider its environmental footprint. It’s about exploring the new frontier of building technology, from high performance products to renewable energy; it’s possible to have luxury and sustainability.
Next time – Bigger or smaller, understanding more about why and how. . .
Posted: 7/28/2011 9:38:37 AM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments
I’m thrilled to join the blogging team for Green Builder Media!
As a residential architect, I spend a lot of time helping clients understand the decisions they need to make. So much goes into a home project, at the beginning it’s hard to realize how many choices are involved. Those choices are in the context of a style, budget and the environment. It’s a one time opportunity to build a dream home – the pressure is on. At first it can seem like the most amazing shopping trip ever: Plumbing fixtures, lighting, tile, flooring, countertops, and appliances. But then the amount of different options available becomes clear and often clients wonder: “Where do I start? How do I pull everything together? The tub I love costs $5,000, and that’s my entire fixture allowance for the Master Bath. I need to pick windows too? How big should my house be? Wow, I don’t know if I’m going to have fun with this after all. . . “
And on top of it all, creating a green project is a priority. How do you understand what makes one product green and another product not? Understanding the nuances of different products can be mind boggling for someone who is not accustomed to making selections.
There are strategies for making the decision process easier, and my goal is to help provide some guidelines to keep your project fun.
Here are some of the important things to think about at the start of the design and selection process:
- Know yourself. – Think about how you respond to the built environment. Are you very temperamental about everything being perfect, or are you easy going? Let your team know how you feel; they should strive to suit you.
- Give yourself time (or not). – Do you need a lot of time to think thinks over, or do you easily settle on the first thing you like and not obsess over other choices?
- Find the right salespeople – A salesperson that understands your style and personality can make shopping fun. Take the time to find people you enjoy working with.
- Understand your architect’s, designer’s and builder’s role in making choices. – Consider how much time of your own you want to spend making selections, and how professional can supplement or guide your efforts.
- Understand the driving goals behind your project. – For example, if meeting a cost conscience budget is very important to you, don’t fight that goal, but strive to work with it. If building a green home is your highest priority, then be prepared to keep that in mind, and let that be the guiding principle for all choices.
With these things in mind, one of the things I tell my clients is to pre-shop. Go to showrooms, open houses and look in magazines without the pressure of making any decisions. Just enjoy what you see, and digest the variety available. Set aside some time to just HAVE FUN! DO NOT CHOOSE ANYTHING at first. If you happen to fall in love with something – that’s great, having one or two great selections can provide a spring board for the rest of the project. Call it reverse psychology if you like. Less pressure means you are freer to identify with the ideas and products that are a true reflection of who you are.
Posted: 6/10/2011 8:49:45 AM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments