June 22, 2005
Architect Doug Graybeal and his wife Peggy are reaping the fruits – and vegetables – of building green.
“We were growing tomatoes and lettuce in January,” said Graybeal from the 440-square-foot greenhouse incorporated onto the south side of his Missouri Heights home.Tender, young shoots of onions, broccoli, artichokes and carrots poke from the soil of the raised beds in the greenhouse. Shades cover the towering glass panels, tilted A-frame style away from majestic Mount Sopris across the valley to the south. Even so, it’s hot and humid enough inside to make the sweat bead on your forehead in just a few minutes. The refreshing, unmistakable aroma of damp soil and vegetation in a tropical climate fill your nose and lungs.The steady whirl of fans pulls the warm, humid air into the soil beds to keep them at about 50 degrees. But it’s not just the greenhouse that makes this a green house. The Graybeals incorporated environmentally friendly aspects into every detail – from where their building materials originated to the compact size of windows on the north, east and west sides.
The home’s energy efficiency, indoor air quality and use of green products earned it a spot on the Homes Across America website, which promotes resource-efficient, high-performance building.The uncommonly green home doubles as an eye-catching model for Doug, a longtime local architect of high-end homes, to show to potential clients.The Graybeals used straw bales within wood framing on three of the four walls of the ground floor. Four hundred bales were used because of their high insulation value. They are invisible except for a small “truth” window that reveals the straw is there.Straw-bale construction can conjure stereotypes of ramshackle hippie homes, but the Graybeal’s 2,100-square-foot house could turn wealthy home shoppers green with envy.
“It’s not the same ’70s weird house that we’re all used to seeing,” said Graybeal.Much of the woodwork in the kitchen is plantation-grown cherry. The trim is Douglas fir from the Northwest. The opulent granite countertops come from rock mined in North Dakota rather than Italy.The Graybeals feel that home builders’ individual choices, such as reducing transportation costs by avoiding imported material from overseas or using wood that wasn’t clear-cut from a national forest, are as important as reducing the consumption of power from coal-fired, greenhouse gas-producing generators.
Green design and building are not new, but they are becoming more commonplace. Randy Udall, the director of Pitkin County’s highly regarded Community Office for Resource Efficiency or CORE, noted that 60 people (about five times more than expected) attended a recent workshop on solar photovoltaic systems, which reduce dependence on electricity from the grid. And the skyrocketing costs of energy are enticing more people to take energy-efficient steps when building new homes, remodeling or retrofitting.”People are getting hammered by these energy hikes,” Udall said. Efficient building “makes more economic sense now. It always made environmental sense.”Still, Udall thinks more could be done in the Roaring Fork Valley, particularly in homes in the $500,000 to $1 million range. For a small increase in cost, such homes could take a huge jump in energy efficiency.”I regret to say we’re missing opportunities,” said Udall.
Green building isn’t something only wealthy home builders can afford. Two other homes in the midvalley showcase what people on a tight budget or in affordable housing can do.Dave Reed and Krysia Carter-Giez are building a 2,000-square-foot straw-bale home for their family of four near the Roaring Fork River along Catherine Road. They became interested in straw-bale construction after encountering it at the Waldorf School, which their kids attend.They did thorough research on the pros and cons of that type of construction before deciding to go with it. They were attracted by the high insulating value, of course, but also by an important intangible quality. “There’s something about a straw bale that has a community aspect to it,” said Reed. They held a “bale-raising party” in April, when 40 friends and people interested in that type of construction hoisted and placed about 250 bales.
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Their contractor and Solar Energy International, a Carbondale organization, regularly host straw-bale-construction workshops at their four-acre spread. “Straw-bale construction, even in this valley where it’s taken root, still creates a lot of interest,” said Reed.The bales in their house were placed on end to provide 14-inch-thick walls. There is still a good deal of wood used in the frame construction, but there is no need to blow insulation into the walls. The real savings will come from increased energy efficiency.Graybeal said his straw-bale design has an insulating factor, known as an R-value, of 48 “which is pretty outrageous.” A typical 6-inch wall would be about R-14.
Reed said he anticipates the energy efficiency of his straw-bale house will be at least twice that of his former house in Basalt’s Elk Run subdivision.The Reed family picked a one-story design because it’s easier to work on and has a smaller visual impact. Carter-Giez said that new homes are often “trying to be seen. We’re trying to blend in.”Reed used to work for Rocky Mountain Institute and now works for Wilderness Workshop, a top environmental organization in the area. He said he’s “kind of a doom-and-gloom guy” on many environmental issues and could rightfully be challenged for building a house in what used to be a pasture near the river.”The most environmental thing to do is live in town on a small lot,” he acknowledged.
They justify their decision based on the rural lifestyle they intend to follow. They will raise goats, ducks and chickens, complete with a straw-bale henhouse. Carter-Giez has already staked out locations for vegetable and herb gardens.Two other families, friends of Reed and Carter-Giez, have bought lots on the former ranchland. Combined, the three families plan communal gardening and farming, and resurrection of an orchard. The Reeds plan to be on the land for the long haul.The long haul is what architect Steve Novy and numerous partners had in mind when they launched Next Generation Homes at Blue Creek Ranch, in the neighborhood of Catherine Store. Novy and his partners were working on the Next Generation homes as sort of a demonstration project, part of the U. S. Department of Energy’s Building America program.Novy’s goal was to design a 1,250-square-foot house that’s 75 percent more efficient than a conventional home and at only 10 percent greater cost. The motto of the team’s project was to build “responsible, replicable housing with style.”
The results were impressive. Tim and Marina O’Keefe, newlyweds who live in one of the Next Generation homes, have a 1,250-square-foot house that packs three bedrooms and two baths into a compact but comfortable design. If this house were a human body, it would resemble Lance Armstrong, the cyclist whose efficiency is off the charts and whose body fat is nonexistent.Novy, owner of Green Line Architects, and Fenton Construction, the general contractor, designed and built everything to promote efficiency. Solar panels are attractively used to shade a south-facing window while working to help heat water. “There’s a real stigma to solar right now because people haven’t done it tastefully,” said Novy.A separate photovoltaic system with 13 panels on the roof produces electricity for the home’s use when it needs it, and feeds it back to the grid when it doesn’t. “These guys, through most of the day, spin the [electric] meter backward,” said Novy.
Cathedral ceilings make the small house feel bigger. Novy had windows installed high on the south wall to increase the natural light, believing there is no excuse to design a house that needs artificial light on a typical, sunny Colorado day.The windows are high-efficiency at R-4 rather than R-3, but they’re also roughly 8 inches off the ground to help keep the concrete floor warm during the winter. The appliances are all Energy Star power savers.The efficient design started with the frame and extends to the roof. Novy drew up specific plans for placement of the framing so no wood was wasted. The house required 25 percent less wood than it would have using conventional construction methods.Low-maintenance, long-lived materials were used whenever possible, like a galvanized ridge cap and edge sheets on the roof (where shingles tend to wear down first) and a metal apron around the exterior walls is integrated into a shallow, frost-protected foundation that uses less concrete.
The O’Keefe house was built for about $165 per square foot, said Novy. The typical home in Carbondale, comfortable and somewhat energy-efficient, can be built for about $135 per square foot, he said.The O’Keefe house was built as a “dollar-a-day house” for energy costs, according to Udall of CORE, a partner in the project. It looks like it will cost $2 or $3 per day, but the greatly increased efficiency will still make the higher construction costs worthwhile.Udall and Novy hope the Next Generation Homes provide an affordable model that will become the norm in the Roaring Fork Valley, particularly in an era of rising energy costs. Graybeal thinks the market will dictate it.”I like to call it sustainable building,” Graybeal said. “Green’s the buzzword.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org