Eco-House: Home Construction Goes Green

eco_house_11Scott Elliott is passionate about saving energy. As president and founder of Custom Structures in Lynchburg, Scott is more inclined than most to look for alternative methods in home construction. Since it was founded in 2003, each year Custom Structures has made an effort to research new products. “We try to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” said Elliot. “It became evident where we needed to go as a company.”

According to Custom Structures Vice President and Architect Ron Driskill, “Sixty-five percent of the people who come through our door ask what we and they can do to save energy, and what they can do to be better stewards. Our ears perk up when we hear this.”

Scott Elliott explained that in the past the majority of their homes were somewhat efficient. “We’ve done common-sense green, using energy-efficient heat pumps and good windows.” When the opportunity came up for Custom Structures to construct a super-energy-efficient home in the Great Oaks subdivision off Highway 811 as part of the Lynchburg Green Building Initiative, they recognized this as a real opportunity to educate the public.

According to their website, the Lynchburg Green Building Initiative’s mission is to “transform Lynchburg and surrounding areas through sustainable and environmentally responsible planning, design, construction and operation of the area’s buildings, landscapes, cities and communities.” As a provisional branch of the US Green Building Council, they are taking steps to significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of building on their occupants and our environment and make green buildings available to everyone within one generation. Additionally, annual expos are planned to serve as a platform for builders interested in displaying their green workmanship.

When Custom Structures began plans for their Eco-House, Elliot explained that they looked into several of the third-party rating programs and chose the LEED Program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) created by the US Green Building Council.

LEED is an internationally recognized certification program emphasizing state-of-the-art strategies in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources selection and indoor environmental quality. All building types from office and retail to institution and residential can qualify for certification. LEED certified buildings are designed to:

Lower operating costs and increase asset value
Reduce waste sent to landfills
Conserve energy and water
Be healthier and safer for occupants
Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions
Qualify for tax rebates and other incentives
Demonstrate commitment to environmental stewardship

When Custom Structures decided to introduce their eco-friendly homes, they recognized this as an opportunity to illustrate that “going green does not mean going broke.” Elliott explained that they decided to take on this project “to raise the bar on what Lynchburg gets.” Custom Structures considers first-time homebuyers and retirees as likely customers and provides them with the whole package—good indoor air quality, superior materials plus exceptional energy-savings systems. It is remarkable just how far home construction has come in its pursuit of green.

In crating the Eco-House, Elliot explains, “we have spent the last year and a half dissecting all types of materials, methods and systems to find out what is true and what is not.” He warns that today “green” is something that people are using as a marketing ploy. Sometimes it is used in the wrong way and products are not really green. “We try to find as many local, regional and natural products; products that take less energy to manufacture; and are true to what they say…that’s green!”

LEED certification requires that in the construction of the house the contractors must follow a chain of custody on all of the waste and materials leftover from the building site. To put it simply, the contractor must account for every bent nail, scrap of wood, empty paint can and particle of insulation. All waste is placed in a dumpster or in special containers for recycling. Once the project is complete, recycled goods are weighed and refuse bound for the dump is measured. The solid waste at Custom Structures Eco-House was insignificant, amounting to less than half a dumpster. Typically 120 to 160 yards of trash are generated in a job this size. In this project 2 1/4 yards were produced.

When the homebuyers move into this house, they will receive a thorough report detailing everything from the orientation of the house to its carbon footprint, explaining exactly how the ground has been disturbed to prepare the building site. Removal of soil, trees and specific small plant life is all documented.

eco_house_2The building’s orientation takes maximum advantage solar exposure. Long-lasting cypress overhangs and plantation shutters block invasive summer sunlight but allow warming rays in during winter months.

In an effort to curb waste, the house was designed on a two-foot grid. Framing lumber was harvested regionally. It was a select grade to insure that every piece of wood starts straight and stays straight.

The home features cementitious siding manufactured by James Hardie. It is non-combustible, termite-resistant and handles natural elements exceptionally well. The manufacturing components consist primarily of recycled materials and focus on using wood pulp from sustainable and environmentally-managed forests.

Interior and exterior paint is manufactured at Davis-Frost, Inc. and available from James T. Davis. It has zero VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) and meets all green building standards. Both durable and scrubbable, it includes antimicrobial product protection, inhibiting the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew.

The yard, with its natural landscaping and a rain garden installed by Southern Landscape, is as lovely and green as the interior. Water from the roof flows into special tanks and can be used for watering, washing cars, etc. The overflow feeds into a rain garden which serves as a bio-retention area. Here storm water is cleaned and its volume reduced.

Sod was grown and installed by Bass Sod Farm. This locally-owned, eco-friendly company fertilizes their sod with fly ash. This adds organic matter as well as pot ash and lime to the soil and is a by-product of a wood-fire power plant in Altavista.

eco_house_3Perhaps the foremost energy-efficient detail in the Eco-House can be found in the windows. According to Elliott, when renovating, “If a homeowner wants to spend money on something, replace the windows.” He recommends investing in something that is part of the structure of the house. “Crown molding can always come later!”

The windows in the Eco-House are manufactured in Rocky Mount, Virginia by Ply Gem. They feature a durable and maintenance-free extruded aluminum exterior with tilt-in sashes for easy cleaning and airtight performance weather-stripping. The warm edge insulating high-performance glass reduces energy costs and fabric fading.

Aqua Pros/Hearth Pros installed a sealed-combustion direct-vent fireplace with no drafts and no heat loss. This gas-fueled fireplace operates at near 90% efficiency. Decorative stone around the fireplace is manmade locally by Custom Stone.

Ron Driskill pointed out how important Custom Structures considers indoor air quality. “We want these homes to be the best you can possibly have. Products used in the homes do not produce VOC’s, which have been proven to cause health issues. No vinyl (which is heavily petroleum-based) or plastic was used in either the interior or exterior. Indoor beams and decorative moldings are all wood. Masonite, which releases formaldehyde gases into a home, was not used. All doors are solid pine.

Toilets and the washing machine are equipped with flood- control sensor devices that detect excess water flow and moisture. If water is detected an alarm will sound. The house is “literally a smart house!” said Elliot. Locally owned and operated Innovative Electronic Systems (IES) installed a keypad that controls everything from a change in lighting to turning on the air conditioning or heat. Controls tie into the computer so the home can be managed from virtually anywhere.

All of the cabinets were manufactured and installed by Scott’s Cabinets from cherry wood and plywood, not particle board. Particle board is made from urea formaldehyde resin, a known carcinogen.

eco_house_41Major appliances are designed to use less water and energy. Faucets and showerheads meet EPA’s “water sense” specifications. And lighting fixtures are Energy Star qualified using one quarter the energy of traditional lighting. Bulbs last about seven years with regular use. They also distribute light more evenly and efficiently.

Additional safety features include technology to turn off the ventilation system in the event of an activated smoke or carbon monoxide detector and a radon migration system designed to pull out any trapped gases underneath the house, preventing them from infiltrating the home.

Custom Structures believes in using as much locally or regionally produced supplies as possible. Red Oak flooring was harvested regionally in North Carolina. The 3/8 inch engineered hardwood flooring uses approximately 50% less newly-forested wood in its production than conventional alternatives. No VOC adhesives were used in its installation.

Recycling is a high priority for Custom Structures, so they opted for recycled interior carpeting. A nationwide recycling carpet network exists where carpet can be recycled into new nylon carpet that is 100% stain-resistant and comes with a lifetime warranty.

The primary heat source is a Reverse Cycle Chiller, featuring air-to-water technology, manufactured and installed by Solar Made Easy. Used commercially for many years, the system has proven to be very efficient and is often less expensive than geothermal.

The house is constructed on a concrete slab. Radiant flooring runs through the house and serves as a secondary source of heat. Plastic radiant floor tubing is embedded in the floors and carries water heated by rooftop solar panels. Once the cost of the solar panels has been recovered, the homeowner enjoys no-cost heating when the sun is shining. This provides triple the efficiency of a standard heating system.

Toler Insulating installed both the blown cellulose and EcoBatt bio-based and sustainable insulation materials. The cellulose contains nearly 100% recycled content and has an R50 value, where a standard home requires an R38. This results in energy savings of 14% per month on utility bills.

These Next Generation Homes feature improved air quality, exceptional energy savings and practices, plus many other environmentally-efficient qualities. The Eco-House is an Edinburgh Cottage style home with some contemporary features. Painted a moss green, it has white trim with red metal window frames and cypress plantation shutters. In the background are the beautiful mountain views. Linda Edwards of Decorating Den designed the interiors and selected the colors and furnishings, keeping in mind the green premise. “We used as many techniques in the house as possible and also stayed within the budget of the house,” said Elliot. With its eco-friendly and energy saving features plus its affordability, there is absolutely no reason not to say “Lets go green!”

The Great Oaks subdivision features several homes with green status. Dietz Lilly has recently completed an Earthcraft House here and has an additional green home under construction. Earthhcraft is another building certification program similar to LEED. Earthcraft serves as a blueprint for healthy and comfortable homes that reduce utility bills and protect the environment. They perform better, are more economical and cost little more to build than a comparable home built with standard construction practices. To achieve green status this home has “no air leak” insulation and an efficient HVAC system with no wasted air and a variable-speed blower. According to contractor Brent Lilly, green is the future of construction. “People are soon going to catch on, especially when they see their power bills going down!”


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