ICPs at Greenprints

Among the many things I became most curious about at the recent Greenprints conference in Atlanta were Insulated Concrete Panels (ICPs), which appear to be something of a competitor to Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs).

SIPs are prefab panels of 2x4s and particle board that encase polyfoam. They’ve emerged as a hopeful alternative to the typical stick-built house, for a couple of reasons: 1) The waste material generated onsite can be controlled and minimized in a factory pre-fab setting. 2) The panels are more efficient insulators than stick-built homes because there are fewer “seams” through which air can migrate.

ICPs are forms made polyfoam into which concrete is poured. The foam forms then remain as insulation, encasing the concrete.

At least two manufacturers reps were there. Naturally, they badmouthed each other. One uses plastic to hold the foam together; the other metal. Both use rebar.

ICPs have traditionally been used in commercial buildings, particularly in Europe and Canada.

I’d like to find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Watersense toilets at Greenprints

First there was Energy Star, the federal program to certify energy-efficient appliances. Now, for those concerned about our dwindling water supply, there’s WaterSense, a seal-of-approval system for water-saving products.

Toilet manufacturers touted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new program at the recent Greenprints eco-building conference in downtown Atlanta. “What Energy Star was for energy, WaterSense is for water efficiency,” Kohler’s Ken Shear told a workshop audience.

Like Energy Star, which places its familiar blue rectangular label on efficient dryers, refrigerators and air conditioners, WaterSense uses a water-drop logo to sanctify toilets, showerheads and other plumbing fixtures. It’s an idea that falls at the modest end of the spectrum of tools that environmentally sensitive homeowners can use to cut water use.

Sudden consciousness over the Southeast’s water limits is spurring a growing number of builders and homeowners to take more aggressive steps. At the Greenprints conference, Orion Hanson of John Wesley Hammer Construction outlined his company’s radical eco-makeover of Stonehurst Place, a historic bed and breakfast on Piedmont Avenue in Midtown. Rainspouts will lead toward underground cisterns from which water will be pumped through a mini-treatment system so it can be used as drinking water. Water from baths, showers and sinks will drain through a Brac recycling system, which cleans it to a “gray-water” standard — meaning it can be sent through a separate set of pipes for flushing toilets. And overflow gray water will be directed toward drought-resistant landscaping.

Hanson admits all those features combined are expensive. Alone, even a smaller Brac system, adequate for a home, costs about $3,000 to install. It’s likely to take at least a couple of decades at current water rates to get a full return on the investment.

For a less-extreme, one-step approach to saving water inside the home, green-building experts have one word of advice: toilets.

Toilets typically consume 30 percent of a house’s indoor water, according to the EPA. That’s by far the largest indoor use, even though today’s standard commode uses 1.6 gallons per flush — much less than the three to five gallons models installed until the early 1990s.

Early versions of the 1.6-gallon variety, which is now mandated by federal law, got a bad reputation when they hit the market because they weren’t very dependable at moving their freight down the pipeline. But toilet manufacturers, aided by a “testing medium” made of soybean paste, resolved the design flaws, and have put even more efficient models on the market.

Now, companies like Caroma, Kohler and TOTO — all of which had sales reps at Greenprints — are selling toilets that use various techniques to further cut consumption. “Pressure-assisted” toilets use an electric pump to send water down the drain more forcefully; as little as 1.1 gallons a flush is needed. “Dual flush” toilets, commonly used in Australia and Europe, allow you to push either a button that sends 1.6 gallons down the drain or one that sends as little as half that — depending on the type of, um, load.

I’m partial to the dual-flush option. It’s a simpler technology. It doesn’t use electricity. And since we (pardon me) pee more often than we pooh, dual-flush toilets can average out to as little as a gallon a flush. Then again, you might opt for the pressure-assisted type if you have kids or frequent guests who’ll ignore the pee-flush button.

Either variety of high-efficiency toilet costs $100-$200 more than a comparable standard toilet. But one “HET” used by two people can save 2,000 gallons a year compared the 1.6 gallon variety, and a lot more compared to the old guzzlers. That translates to about $10 less a year in water bills at current Atlanta area water and sewer rates.

In addition, Atlanta and some surrounding counties are now offering a rebate of $100 or more for people who replace the old three or five gallon varieties with high-efficiency brands (you’d get a smaller rebate for replacing an old guzzler with the standard 1.6 gallon toilet). Do the math, and you’ll find you could repay the extra cost of a high-efficiency toilet in about 10 years. And over the first decade of your toilet’s life, you’ll actually end up using something like 20,000 fewer gallons.

It’s no wonder that WaterSense announced specs for high-efficiency toilets — those that use less than 1.28 gallons per average flush — before it did for any other fixture.

There’s a more radically green option. Back-to-Earth types have long extolled composting toilets, which use a fraction of the water used by conventional models or even no water at all. The concept is to let Mother Nature take its course by breaking down all that waste and turning it into nutritious fertilizer.

Composting toilets have couple of drawbacks, however. They’re expensive — around $2,000. They require a fair amount of maintenance and extra infrastructure, such as vents. And convincing local health officials to allow you to process your own waste can be about as hopeless as getting sewage to flow uphill. For now, at least, composting toilets seem best suiting for rural homes and mountain cabins off the sewer system.

My guess is that there’s a bigger future for gray-water systems like Brac. They’ll down come down in price, and we’ll all eventually be using recycled water to flush. But the easiest call right now when it comes to economically reducing indoor water use is to invest in a high-efficiency toilet. Plus, you’ll be reminded that you’re doing the right thing at least three or four times a day.

Choosing an architect

I’m 48, and Silvia’s just a few years younger. But neither of us has ever undertaken a project of this magnitude. And the project already has been a lot more complex than we’d realized.

It shows in some of the decisions we’ve made and in the length of time it’s taken us to make them.

At first, we’d thought we’d hire design-build firm. We figured we’d just tell the designers what we wanted, get them to design it, make sure that they’d do all the EarthCraft stuff that needed to be done, watch them build it and then move in. A turnkey operation.

I suppose we could have done that. But as we got into discussions with some very good EarthCraft-certified design-build firms, we ran into two issues. The first was an inescapable catch with design-build companies: You have to sign a contract essentially committing you to both design and build the house with the same company. Even if it’s a two-step process — you sign the design contract first, and don’t end up signing the construction contract until after you’ve approved the design – you still have no leverage in bidding out construction, because you’re already stuck with the design-build firm.

Although a lot of architects consider such a relationship a conflict of interest (they view their role as being the client’s advocate once construction begins), I don’t think it’s disreputable. But it does mean that you’re a bit more stuck with the design they create and with the builder; all your eggs are in one basket.

The second issue was that as we reviewed the work of design-build firms, we were struck by their predictability. Even work of the highest quality (and much of it was beautiful design that was very well constructed) was Victorian, Craftsman, Four Square or some other variation of “traditional” architecture.

We’d always wanted to take a bit more risk than that. Even before we’d met one another, Silvia and I had gravitated toward the Prairie style, which draws on the language of traditional architecture but adds a dose of modernism.

We also would rifle through the pages of Dwell Magazine and see how architects in other cities and around the world were incorporating innovative techniques and materials to come up with contemporary solutions to both environmental and design issues. We were impressed by the sleek, boxy houses made of corrugated metal and concrete panels, but in the end were searching for a more refined, modest update of the neighborhood’s historic bungalow look.

We asked friends for recommendations and researched a handful of Prairie homes in nearby neighborhoods. We ended up interviewing three architects.
The first was Robert Reed, a commited green architect in Little Five Points who’d worked on a sustainable community called East Lake Commons. Robert’s work impressed us but it was mostly in the traditional bungalow style that we were trying to get away from.

Another architect, XXX, and his partner, XXX, had designed a beautiful Prairie Style home on Euclid Avenue in Inman Park. Silvia and I had admired the house since it was under construction. It was much, much larger than the house we expected to build – perhaps 40 feet wide but at least 80 feet deep, with a three-car garage a full basement and two floors above it.

But it was very much the style we were interested in: a sort of updated version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Robie House, with cornice windows and big-detailed glass walls, lots of long, wide bricks, and wide-brimmed rooflines.
But XXX’s estimate came in extremely high. He expected the house to cost us something like $800,000, way more debt than we could take on.

The next architect, actually architects, were a husband-wife team suggested to us by our friends Stephanie and Jamie, an artsy couple who’d hired them to create a studio behind their tiny bungalow in Oakhurst. The project is simple yet contemporary – a corrugated metal roof that sloped inward like a “V,” big-beam construction, a lofty-two story high space, huge folding glass doors, and a concrete floor. A single gutter runs down the vortex and splashes freely into a goldfish pond. The simple side is lined with pebbles while a grass embankment in the back is topped by a living screen of giant bamboo.

The project won an award – in the category, I think, of low-cost solutions – from the Atlanta chapter of the Atlanta Institute of Architects. But it turned out not to be typical of the work of Michael Gamble, a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech, and his wife, LeeAnn Gamble.

Both Alabamians who studied at Auburn University (although he did some grad work at Harvard), they’re actually very refined modernists. Michael’s even kind of inclined toward neo-classical feel of carefully proportioned structures. After Silvia met with the Gambles, we visited their client, the Bowens, a retired couple (he was a very successful construction engineer). There had been an unremarkable mid-century modern house on the lot on a very fancy street in the very fancy neighborhood.

The Gambles stripped it down to the foundation and built an elegant rectangular home that fits among the Tudors and Georgians of of the upscale Druid Hills neighborhood. At the same time, it has a more streamlined feel than those older Druid Hills homes. It would look boxy except for a shallow roof that slices sharply and generously out from all four sides, like a wide brim.

The front door opens onto a wide but shallow foyer, which is shaped like a short hallway formed the front wall and an interior wall. To the left is a stud, to the right an elegant dining room. The interior wall forms the backside of fireplace at one end of a two-story-high living room off which more of the other rooms, both on the first floor and second, emanate. The house struck me as an understated neoclassical villa rather than modernist flash.

The Gambles were getting some attention around the same time for a recently completed modern conversion of a mid-century modern house in the neighborhood of Sherwood Forest. More importantly to us though, they’d just won a competition — held by Southface and the Kandeda— to construct an affordable, sustainable house in the Grant Park neighborhood. It was a pretty cool project based heavily on using insulation, ventilation and natural light.

These, we knew pretty quickly, were our people.

EarthCraft’s version of the green house

A long time ago, I was lucky to learn about an organization in Atlanta called the Southface Energy Institute and to meet its driving force, Dennis Creech.

Now, after 30 years as Southface’s executive director, Dennis is a nationally recognized expert on green building — an adjunct professor at Emory University featured many times in major media outlets like CNN and the New York Times. But if you get him talking about ductwork and insulation he comes across as just a geeky, gangly, cheerful Mr. Gadget. He’s the first guy who ever showed me a compact fluorescent light bulb — and he somehow imbued that rather pedestrian product with an exuberant glow. (I switched to compact flourescents immediately, and don’t remember the last time I had to buy a bulb.)

What he really showed me and, one way or another, thousands of other people, was an idea: That the green house didn’t necessarily have to be something way out of the mainstream. It could be economically justified and built by ordinary homebuilders. The most important thing to do was for people involved to stay focused on reducing energy use, and along with that, to reduce the use of environmentally harmful materials, to use water efficiently and to reduce the amount of material being sent to the landfill.

In 1999, Dennis and Southface got together with Atlanta Homebuilders Association to create “the EarthCraft House,” a certification program for environmentally sensitive homes. Just as you’d expect for a program developed partly by the homebuilders, EarthCraft relies heavily on practices that don’t deviate too radically from the industry’s standard — and grossly wasteful — building practices. Most EarthCraft homes, for example, are standard wood-frame construction. Few use such leading-edge technology as photovoltaic roof shingles and even fewer use such esoteric, do-it-yourself techniques as straw-bale walls or ceramic siding.

But EarthCraft does place a strong emphasis on investing in boring basics like insulation; moisture control; and efficient, properly sized heating and air-conditioning systems. One of the core ideas is that the house works as a tight well-insulated “envelope” that doesn’t let the heated or cooled air escape, unless of course you want it to for ventilation.

In a lot of ways, an EarthCraft House simply is a house that’s been built the way a house ought to be built. Higher quality materials and better craftsmanship protect the building from water damage; make its walls, windows and doors tighter; and allow its systems to work more efficiently.

The program’s also set up very practically: EarthCraft homes and additions can only be built by contractors certified through a special course in Earthcraft building. Each home goes through “blow test” for air-tightness. And each home is scored on a point system; in the end, you have to get at least 150 points to be certified.

The big deal is, of course, energy. That’s where you can get the most points. But there are other do-good features that go along with an EarthCraft House.
The sighting of the house is important. Is it near public transit? Does the orientation take advantage of the sun? Were a lot of trees cut down to make room for it?

You can get more points from water conservation – low-flow toilets, natural landscapes, etc.; more still by controlling construction waste; and additional points by using materials whose production didn’t harm the environment. Radical — and often costly — steps like solar electricity and recycled “gray water” will raise your score big-time.

The EarthCraft House makes sense in the system as it currently exists. Homeowners might pay a bit more up front, but they’ll theoretically end up with a better-built house that costs less to operate and fetches a higher resale price. The premise is that homebuilders and good tradesmen won’t have to leap far to develop the skills to construct such a house. Over time, their skills, and technology will push the market in the direction of better environmental practices, and the market will push the industry’s skills and technology in the same direction — a virtuous cycle.

Southface and EarthCraft sit at one end of a familiar spectrum for the environmental movement — or any social movement for that matter. Creech  is pretty firm about his environmental principles as are others who work at Southface; you can see that in the passion he expresses when asked to critique Georgia’s failure to encourage conservation. But he looked at his piece of the puzzle and developed a practical solution, more evolutionary than revolutionary, more cooperative than confrontational. In this case, I think, that approach has worked beautifully.

Green house: The extreme version

Around 1990, I toured a hardcore back-to-Earth community in, of all places, Alabama. It had the works: Organic farms, communal eating, a rain-fed water system. It was a place where people dropped out of the mainstream and experimented with an entirely different lifestyle.

There was even a house built entirely out of glass bottles, which were stacked and mortared together into exterior walls. The owner and creator had dropped out of college, and was living for a year inside the house in a bunk.

Eco-houses have evolved considerably since then. For one thing, they’re typically referred to by the more scientific-sounding “sustainable” homes. But even now many folks tend to think that going green means something radically different from standard construction methods, something much more expensive and much less comfortable than the American Dream.

We occasionally see and heard about them: Rammed-earth homes. Zero emissions. Off the grid. Houses made entirely of recycled materials. Straw bales. Green roofs.

Newspapers and TV stations tend to make a bigger deal of the radical and strange than they do of incremental change. And it’s certainly true that our homebuilding industry is ripe for some radical change.

But rammed-earth housing isn’t really what Our Green Dream House is about. There are a couple of reasons for that: One is that one of our aims to explore whether the mainstream homebuilding industry can sustain a set of more, well, sustainable practice. And the practices that homebuilders adopt are more likely to be those that blend the current industry with more environmentally sensitive innovations.

The other reason sort of follows from the first: We care about the environment but we have fairly conventional dreams — to raise a family, to enjoy financial security — and not some huge fortune that we can risk on an experiment. Silvia and I simply don’t want to sink a whole bunch of money into a new home that doesn’t fit in the neighborhood, that might be uncomfortable to live in, that’s built on a lot of unproven ideas, that costs more to create and that we’re less kely to be able to sell if we must.

On top of that, like most people, we’re not construction professionals and we don’t have the time, the expertise or, probably, the patience to hurdle the regulatory obstacles that the city of Atlanta is bound to put in the path of anyone doing something way out of the mainstream.

So the whole project of building Our Green Dream House is often about where we draw the line — about how far we, like most people, are willing to go when it comes to cost, risk and potential discomfort. We came up with a simple rule of thumb: Each decision we make has to have a good chance of enhancing the value of our new home. I doubt every decision we make will prove to be so wise, but that’s at least our aim.

Why we want to renovate

There really is nothing wrong with our 1929 bungalow.

Except that it’s too small for the two of us. Especially if we have children.
And the roof’s beginning to dip in one spot because the foundation’s slipping. And there isn’t a bathtub. Plus the dishwasher stopped working a few years back, there’s dry-rot under the fridge, and the basement is kind of nasty.

A few years ago, I tested the water for lead, and the old pipes were carrying a lot of it. Not to mention that there’s a bit of radon in the basement.

Oh, yeah: It’s not air conditioned, and this is Atlanta, where it’s hot and muggy, and getting hotter. So, in the summer, when the afternoon sun fires missiles across the park into our living room, you have to head for the basement. Except that the basement isn’t a finished basement, which makes it hard to tinker in my little shop, particularly because I’m always bumping my head on the weird tangle of gas and water pipes, and joists, and wires that hang too low for a guy who’s 5-11.

And in the winter, the house is drafty. Although I insulated the floor and the ceiling more than a decade ago, cold air finds its way through various holes and slivers, and simple jumps across the thin panes on rickety uninsulated windows.

Other than that I love the place. I really do. I’m not kidding. It’s in an intown neighborhood that went downhill during the Sixties and Seventies, and now is getting much, much fancier. It’s on a quiet street across the street from a park — I tell my friends from the ‘burbs that when I visit them I feel as if the multiple lanes of ferocious traffic, the massive shopping centers, the huge hurry everyone seems to be in to get somewhere makes me feel like they’re the ones in the big city. Despite the pastoral neighborhood, my house is really close to our local rail transit (Marta), intown shopping and entertainment, and the neighbors are a really cool diverse, friendly bunch of people.

The house itself is a cute and, despite my quibbles, comfortable — a porch with a swing bench, two little bedrooms, an office, a not-quite-badly-renovated half-cathedral ceiling that gives the living room a bit more panache than most pre-Depression, working-class houses.

You feel like you’re in a real place when you’re in it – not in some cookie-cutter box that a homebuilder stamped out as quickly as possible before moving on to the next “community.”

We don’t want to move from our great location. But, as you can see, we’ve assembled quite a list of needs and wants that the old house can provide. So rather than sell the house, my wife, Silvia, and I have decided to renovate.

At first, we thought this would be a lot simpler than it turned out to be: We’d build an addition onto the back of the house, move into the addition, and then renovate the original 1,080 square feet — maybe even adding a second story.

Literally for years, I’d daydream on the porch or sit in the yard with pencil and paper imagining what our new, improved abode would look like — our dream house. There’s nothing like time and familiarity to help you understand a place.

I had a pretty firm idea of what I wanted before we even started. This, we were soon too learn, was more likely to drive our architects crazy than it was to make their lives easier (or their bills lower).

First of all, I figured, the master bedroom will look out over the woods in the back. That is our island of peace and nature in the big city. We may as well take advantage of it.

And, after years of just showering, I’m ready for a nice tub. With a window. Overlooking the forest. Lu-xuuu-riant, Silvia would coo. Hedo-nishhh-tic.

We also want a big kitchen. Silvia’s a chef instructor, and she wants to offer classes to small groups in the new kitchen. It’ll be tricky to design a kitchen that works for the occasional class but that also feels comfortable like a home.

We continued thinking about our project as a renovation. But it quickly took on a lot of qualities of building an entirely new house. For instance, we had to consider style.

We want the design and the size of the house to fit into the neighborhood – not to be big blockish thing like an ordinary house on steroids. At the same time, it needs to be big enough to have decent resale value, which means at least three bedrooms, and a guest room or a den. (We’re planning for kids, anyway.)

Plus, it’s really important to us that the refashioned house be progressive architecturally. It always struck me as somehow false to see new houses built that look like — or are made to look like — old houses. Victorian houses were built in the late 1800s. Craftsman bungalows went up in the early 1900s. Nobody gives much credit suburban ranch homes anymore but at least they were true to their era.

Nowadays, there seems to be a split: the homebuilding industry stamps out the safe styles for the mass market — faux Georgian, faux Victorian, and in my neighborhood faux Craftsman (even if the house is four times the size of the bungalow) – while the high-end avant gard architecture crowd gravitates toward custom homes featuring various experimental materials, designs and concepts.From a design standpoint, we saw a central challenge: How do we rebuild our house to fit into our neighborhood but at the same time to step forward architecturally — to acknowledge that it was built in this era not out of some nostalgia for the past. It is important to us that our place be authentic.

That’s a long list of desires. Sometimes, I worry that, for a couple with modest means, it amounts to a fantasy.

But I haven’t told you about our biggest wish of all: We want our dream house to be a green house. We want to minimize our impact on the environment, specifically with respect to garbage and water, but more than anything we want to cut down on carbon emissions.

In short, we want to build a green dream house, and we want to make it affordable. If a editor and a chef can do that, anybody can.