Green Building

Green Building

The term "Green Building" covers a lot of ground. Are you trying to reduce your carbon footprint? Your ecological footprint? Do you want to be sure you and your family aren't exposed to bad chemicals in your home? What is a "bad" chemical anyway? Maybe you're interested in a third-party certification for your home so you'll have an objective measure of how your home compares with others. Or maybe you're simply interested in learning about all these things so you can make informed decisions about your home...

If you want to be informed, you need to select a team that is paying attention. This means an architect who is current on the basic principles of sustainable design and a builder who is well versed in building science, product and process innovation, and lifecycle impacts of a home. The pace of new product introduction is accelerating and what is a great product, building practice or material today may be found out as terrible tomorrow. This doesn't mean you should steer clear of new products and materials and innovative building methods, it simply means someone has to do the research to assess the risks and you have to make choices that suit you.

If you step back from the details and the products being pushed in the market, there are a few simple principles that can help focus your thinking:

Efficient, comfortable, and healthy go hand-in-hand

You should build a tight home. Think of it like a down jacket: Wear a heavy down jacket, leave it unzipped, and you're still cold. That's because cold air is getting past the insulation. Zip up the jacket and suddenly you're toasty warm. Your home works the same way. Insulate all you want but leave lots of gaps, cracks and crevices for air to leak in and out of and you have a home that's drafty, has cold spots (and hot spots) and is expensive to heat and cool. How tight should your home be? Massachusetts Code says 3.0 Air Changes per Hour at 50 pascals pressure (ACH50). PassivHaus requires 0.6 ACH50. Building Science Corporation research suggests 2.0 ACH50 is the sweet spot. We think somewhere between 1.0 and 2.0 ACH50 is what yields the most value: your home will be comfortable. So why is code at 3.0 ACH50? Because you have to build with thought and care to build that tight. Not every design lends itself to air-sealing and not every builder brings the same level of craftsmanship to the job.

You should build a well insulated home. Let's go back to the jacket example. It's cold outside and you're wearing a light windbreaker. You've got it zipped up, but you're still cold. So you start doing jumping jacks to warm yourself up. You are burning calories (energy) to generate heat to warm you up. If you swap the windbreaker for the down jacket, you keep more of your body heat from escaping and save the calories for later. Your home works the same way, insulate it and burn less energy. So here's the trick with insulation: don't limit your thinking to what is filling the empty spaces inside your walls. Imagine a wall that is twelve-feet long with a four-foot by three-foot window. The window accounts for almost 15% of the wall space. And the wall framing materials account for almost 20% more of the wall. That means that the cavity insulation only takes care of one-third of the wall! The quick lesson here is that windows matter a lot. And framing and insulation practices can make a considerable difference as well. There are different ways to build and insulate a wall assembly and you should understand your options. Your team should understand the options as well. We've learned a lot by engaging with the leading thinkers and by doing in the field, and Yogi Berra probably summed it up best when he said "in theory there is no difference between practice and theory, but in practice there is."

You should ventilate your home. If your home is tight, you want to make sure you are getting a good supply of fresh air. A good ventilation system includes either a Heat-Recovery Ventilator (HRV) or an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) so that you either pre-heat or pre-cool (depending on the season) and filter the fresh air you are bringing into your home.

Build as little as possible to achieve your objectives

This is a simple concept to grasp but possibly the hardest to pursue because it is so conditional and so subjective. When you think about your dream home you're tapping into so many emotions: memories of the home you grew up in, memories of places you've been, thoughts about your friends' homes, thoughts about what you're "expected" to build by friends, family, peers... and all these feelings evolve as you delve deeper into the design process and think about what is important to you.

What are your objectives? Build a home for you and your family? But what about hosting guests? And what happens when your kids go to college? Do you host a lot of functions? Will you have a party for a family member? A wedding? Will you host the President or the challenger? Objectives are tricky to define. And once you've defined your objectives, the next question is "Are your objectives the same as your spouse's?"

Let's say you've clearly defined what you want in your home. Now you have to decide what you need to build and that leads to a new set of questions. How much will you use each space? If a space isn't going to be used a lot, can it be designed for multiple functions or to be re-purposed over time?

Our advice here is pretty straightforward: pick an architect you really connect with!

Look for opportunities

Take time to think and explore your options. This is a tough one because time is such a precious commodity. Many people feel more comfortable following the center-line through the project than engaging in less structured conversation about what is unknown yet possible. Some examples of opportunities some clients have taken where others rushed past include:

  • Building a kitchen from reclaimed flooring material. The team observed the tight, consistent grain of the wood flooring they were about to remove as part of the renovation and explained to the client the quality inherent in the old growth. A discussion ensued around the question "what can we do with this wood?" The wood ended up in the kitchen rather than the dumpster
  • Deconstructing a house (taking it apart piece-by-piece rather than knocking it down). While exploring ways to reduce the amount of waste generated through our construction projects, we spoke with a number of downstream vendors including Boston Building Resources http://www.bostonbuildingresources.com/ and Green Goat http://www.greengoat.org/. These organizations salvage some material but we wanted to know if it was possible to salvage more material. And we wanted to know if this could be done without added cost to the client. In the end we found folks who are taking houses apart and selling the materials to established brokers. They cost to the client is the same as knocking a house down and taking it off site in dumpsters.
  • Using wood harvested during clearing of the site for furniture. A client loved a majestic maple tree that stood on their property. But the tree was nearing the end of its natural life and posed a threat to the planned addition. Rather than cut-and-chip the entire tree and ship it to a biomass generation facility, the trunk was cut, milled, dried and saved so it could be crafted into furniture for the finished home.

Our approach

We will build you an efficient, durable, healthy home. And we will take the time to engage with you so you can pursue opportunities that you find meaningful. We can't claim to build quality custom homes otherwise. In that sense we are, and always have been, a green building company.