Friday, May 9, 2008
Sweet Autumn Farm is green all year ’round
A former horse farm on Prospect Street will soon have a whole new look. Sweet Autumn Farm, owned by Katharine Endicott and Leslie Thomas, is being reinvented for sustainable farming and low energy consumption. A new house is rising on the site using low-waste building practices and environmentally friendly materials. It has been awarded preliminary Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Being green “is just important to us,” says Endicott. “It’s something we value and how we live our lives.”
Jeff Adams of J.W. Adams Construction, contractor for the site, is enthusiastic about the LEED program. This project “has been a nice opportunity to learn a lot. It’s very exciting.” He says that Thomas and Endicott meet with him every week and frequently come armed with research and new ideas. “It’s wonderful we’re collaborators. Usually we’re telling the homeowners what to do.” Working on this, his first LEED home, “makes you stop and think about the typical practice” and how it might be improved.
The USGBC is a nationwide non-profit organization “dedicated to sustainable building design and construction,” according to its web site www.usgbc.org. The LEED for Homes program assigns points to a building project according to its adherence to these principles. The certification encompasses a wide range of environmental impacts, including use of renewable materials, minimized water consumption, venting, and energy- efficient heating and appliances. A local third party provider, chosen by USGBC, does the on-site field inspections and performance testing.
A geothermal heat pump
Thomas and Endicott have big plans for their site. They want to install a geothermal or ground source heat pump. These systems use the temperature of the ground, typically 50 to 55 degrees, for heating or cooling. Unlike most such systems, which are dug deep, the Sweet Autumn system will circulate a water mix laterally through coils buried in six-foot-deep covered trenches in the yard. An exchanger will transfer the heat to pipes in the floors, providing radiant heat throughout the house. The system can also provide air conditioning, but the owners are not interested in adding the duct work. Although the up-front cost of installation is higher, the geothermal system should pay for itself in energy cost savings within seven to ten years.
Solar panels will be installed on the roof to provide electricity to the heat pump and hot water heater. Wind power is also being examined. Adams notes he is on the Concord Planning Board, which recently sponsored a wind turbine bylaw that passed at Town Meeting. Although it is Thomas and Endicott’s goal to be off the energy grid, that would require extensive battery back-up for calm nights, a solution that was not seen as particularly environmentally friendly. Instead, the owners will pay for green energy from NStar, encouraging the company to purchase more electricity from renewable sources.
LEED certification performance is measured in each of eight categories: Innovation and Design, Location and Linkages, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Awareness and Education. The USGBC recommended inspector ranks a home on 35 measures, from good practice, to better practice, to best practice. Each step up earns additional points, with 136 points the maximum possible. A home can be assigned higher levels of certification, including silver, gold or platinum, based on the number of points earned.
A small, energy-efficient house
Pete McElligott, site manager, details some of the areas where the home will encompass LEED criteria. Although the site is 14 acres, the three-bedroom house will be less than 3,000 square feet. “They want a house that meets their needs but is as small as possible.” Water- efficient appliances will be installed, and composting toilets and a gray water leaching system are being examined as alternatives to a septic tank. If septic is installed, it will be an environmentally friendly system that reduces nitrogen dispersal.
All aspects of the home and appliances will be Energy Star rated. Air infiltration through windows and ducts will be minimized. Wood is Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)–certified renewable, with an emphasis on ordering only what is needed. A new barn will use wood salvaged from buildings on-site. Green building practices, such as placing studs at 19.2 inches instead of 12, also reduce wastage. Adams points with pride to a dumpster containing nothing but small, three-inch wood scraps, and notes that these will be recycled, as will a waste bin of metal scraps. Even subcontractors are encouraged to recycle their coffee cups while on the site.
Gathering LEEDS points
Air quality is maintained through venting, and the garage will be separate from the house as specified by LEED. Floor finishing will be completed two weeks before the owners move in, allowing time for the air to clear. Glues and paints with volatile organic compounds (VOC) will be banned. McElligott points to “one of our bibles,” Green Building Products by Alex Wilson and Mark Piepkorn, which is the source for finding suppliers.
Adams says Endicott and Thomas are “not interested in gathering points for points,” but are using LEED as a guideline. The innovation category was largely ignored because “they wanted something simple, not a lot of gadgetry.” Thomas confirms that the goal is to be a conscientious member of the planet earth, but “It’s good to have that checklist. They are good guidelines.”
LEED for Homes a perfect fit
Mark Price of Conservation Services Group is the LEED certifier for Sweet Autumn Farm. “It’s great to work with owners who are so super-conscientious,” he says, noting that the LEED program fits goals Thomas and Endicott were already pursuing. “A successful project really requires the involvement of the homeowners.”
Price says the LEED for Homes program, launched in January 2008, already has certified 75 homes, with “thousands in process.” Formerly, the certification was available only to commercial projects and schools. The Sweet Autumn Farm project was a pilot site for LEED last year, and has been pre-evaluated for certification “probably at silver or gold.” Price will visit the farm when the house is completed to conduct a final certification. He will look at any changes made to the plan, and perform diagnostic testing. The performance rating will be recalculated based on those results, and a final certification issued.
Price bristles when asked about the purported 10 to 20% added cost of building green (see Wall Street Journal, Feb. 2, 2008, “The Price of Going Green”). “That’s not the case at all. I guarantee I could build a LEED home at almost no cost increase.” And he is not talking about long–term saving, only the initial costs of construction.
Locating the water heater
He points to two areas where homeowners typically realize efficiencies. “Where is your water heater? In a corner of the basement?” A house designed using LEED principals would include mapping of water usage with the water heater located centrally, resulting in less piping as well as less energy loss. Another example is the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) computer modeling required to determine the correct HVAC. In a typical, non-LEED home, the contractor often installs a furnace or air conditioning unit “three to four times what you need.” With HERS, a homeowner gets the right-sized equipment at a lower cost, located where there is less duct work. Of course the long-term savings in operating a smaller furnace are significant.
But one of the greatest advantages of pursuing LEED certification may be the extra oversight afforded. After a preliminary rating based on the plan, Price will typically visit a site five or more times during construction to ensure a builder “is doing what they said they would.” He contrasts this to the typical building inspection, undertaken by overburdened inspectors who “are looking for egregious violations.” For the homeowner, the LEED certifier performs “the real building inspection we wish would happen.”
Adams says the testing by a third party “works out well. We’re happy about it because it shows we do build quality.” He notes that too often builders allow water infiltration through improper flashing or badly-installed windows. Moisture management within is also important in a tightly-built insulated house. A building inspector is unlikely to notice the absence of anti-mold application in the insulation, but a LEED inspector will look for it. McElligott adds that the LEED method doesn’t really change the way J.W. Adams builds, but confirms “what is just good practice.”
Asked about costs, Adams demurs, noting it’s still too early to tell. Renewable products are more expensive, but wastage is less. And some costs at Sweet Autumn Farm are the result of criteria beyond LEED specified by the owners. Endicott and Thomas are dedicated to the Healthy Home principles outlined in the book Prescriptions for a Healthy Home by Paula Baker LaPorte. This means no VOC glues or paints, which the EPA says release fumes that cause allergies and asthma. It also means a concrete foundation without asphalt or petroleum additives that could leach into the soil of the soon-to-be organic farm.
Adams notes that “Just about every project we take on now, the owners consider some element of green.” He adds, “The guys working on site here are very interested, and thrilled to be involved. They appreciate that LEED is better built.” As we walk around, he introduces me to construction worker Ed Spoth, who says he now reads everything he sees about green building, “It’s kind of neat.” Agreed Adams, “We’re having a lot of fun and learning a lot.”∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito