Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What is Green?

A quick update on our status. It looks like we're moving forward now. We're scheduled to close our sale of the current house on August 29. We started looking for financing last week. Three out of four local banks are willing to finance owner-built homes (M&I, Waukesha State Bank, and Equitable). So things are looking pretty good. Next week, I'll start the permitting process, and finish up negotiations with the village engineer to get approval on our grading plan. The target date for ground-breaking is September 29.

In the last post, I started talking about green building. So what does "green" mean? If you ask vendors of home building supplies, everything is. Green concrete, green countertops, green carpets. You name it. Most of it is bunk. The point of green building is to create a house that is sustainable. Something that can exist without costing an arm and a leg to maintain. Something that can be built without requiring a tanker full of oil. Something that doesn't kill the occupants.

So we're making some choices to build a house that is as green as reasonably possible. We'll insulate as much as we can. Foam insulation, while technically the most energy efficient, isn't green. It's extremely expensive, and it requires too much petroleum to produce. So we're going with cellulose. I was tempted to try blown-in fiberglass, but decided to take a chance on the cellulose simply because it's created from natural materials. This is one of the biggest green steps that we'll take. We'll end up using foam to insulate the garage and basement floors, and we may even use it to insulate the basement walls. But the first and second floor walls and the attic will be insulated with cellulose.

The building industry has known about the value of insulation for a long time. The biggest problem with houses built 20 or 30 years ago isn't the insulation, it's the air flow. So we'll spend the necessary time and money to create an extra-tight house. We'll use Tyvek house wrap on the exterior to keep cold drafts out, and probably an interior vapor barrier called Membrain to keep warm air in. We'll seal every penetration as well as possible with foam and/or caulk. We'll use polyurethane vapor barriers on the ceiling, and on the basement floor. We'll even wrap the rim joists with housewrap, and tape the interior vapor barriers to that wrap (a practice common in Canada that's almost unheard of here). To make sure we don't kill ourselves with stale air, we'll invest in a heat-recovery ventilator to make sure we fill the house with fresh air. We'll use efficient windows and doors.

And we'll pay extra attention to HVAC. None of the ducts will run through unconditioned space (the attic), and all duct joints will be sealed with mastic. We'll spend extra up-front on extra efficiency: a 14-SEER air conditioner, a 92%+ efficient furnace, Energy Star rated appliances, a tankless water heater, maybe even a solar water heater. These things cost more to purchase, but they use less energy. So they'll eventually pay for themselves.

For water conservation, I'm still somewhat on the fence. I'd like to put in a rainwater catchment system, but I'm not sure it will fit into the budget (but if the catchment is out of the budget, the sprinkler system is too). Ideally, we'd install a sprinkler system that gets its water from the rainwater tank. I still need to do some research on graywater recycling, but it's a possibility. We'll use low-flow showers and tub faucets, and possibly even dual-flush toilets.

As far as materials go, we won't go overboard. LEED requires FSC-certified wood be used for flooring. If we use local materials, it's just a recommendation, but if we use tropical hardwoods, it's required. So we'll use local quartersawn white oak for the floors, and maybe also for baseboards and casings. We've been leaning toward using granite for countertops, but we heard that some types of granite are actually radioactive. So we'll probably use quartz countertops to be sure that the only things cooking in the kitchen are the cooktop and ovens.

That's about it. We are taking some additional measure to qualify for certification, but this should be sufficient. Next time, hopeully I'll be able to report some real progress.