One of the main tenets of green building is “Do you really need that?” Less becomes more. Smaller becomes better. And 8,000-square-foot homes are not supposed to be.
A home that size should not be considered green, says green designer and consultant Michael Anschel of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build in North Minneapolis, Minn. “The resource consumption, water consumption, land-use are all obscenely out of scale with what is appropriate, let alone required, for living.”
Custom homebuilder Margie Hamrick of Ecoexistence in Vail, Colo., would disagree. She’s the builder and owner of an 8,000-square-foot “green home” in Vail, called the Ranch at Cordillera. Built with a mountain of green materials, from recycled roofing tiles to reclaimed flooring and timbers to low-emission paints and stains, the “Rocky Mountain contemporary” structure was conceived with two goals in mind: to be as sustainable as possible, and to house the Hamricks’ five kids and oft-visiting relatives and friends.
“We’ve always had to live in a larger home,” Hamrick says. “In Colorado, larger homes are where people gather. You tend to come together and share your home with your extended family. … Because we did go big, we decided to take the extra steps and make it as efficient as we could.”
That includes a 7-kilowatt array of photovoltaic solar panels, which provides the home with about 50 percent of its electricity when it’s fully occupied. During the months when nobody is there, the system can provide almost 100 percent of the power. The home is effectively divided into several “pods,” which can be completely shut down when they aren’t occupied. One pod is the main living area, plus two bedroom suites on the lower level and a bunkroom that sleeps five.
Also helping to conserve energy is an AMX home control and automation system, a Lutron lighting control system which manages the home’s energy-efficient LED (light emitting diode) lamps, motorized window shades, a water circulation system and even an innovative home theater setup.
“We’re actually using less energy in this home than our previous home, which was 6,000 square feet,” says Hamrick. She says electrical bills range from $65 to $300 a month, but would be $800 to $1,000 without the home’s many green elements.
When Hamrick’s home project started, she was just aiming for some “shades of green.”
“We went to the local building department and heard of a green program in the community [Eagle County’s Eco-Build program], and we quickly learned about what there was out there with Colorado’s Built Green program and the [national] LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.” The LEED Home certification was a higher standard, but Hamrick decided to go for it and meet state and county requirements as well. “It was scary, because there wasn’t a lot of information available for me. I felt like the Lone Ranger out here, with no homes to visit or builders to look into. I went to green building shows and met everyone I could, and I learned a lot.” Then she started talking to local contractors about what she had discovered during her research.
She had decided on efficient lighting fixtures and heating systems, in addition to a solar array, but one green possibility she hadn’t considered was how home electronics could help her home be green—or at least be greener. “I didn’t know much about that at all,” she admits. But in talking with the local custom electronics pros at Conundrum Technologies, of Avon, Colo., she began to see the benefit. “I realized if you’re going to put all these things into the home, and if you don’t have a system to control them, you’re defeating the purpose because then you’re going to overuse your heating and lighting.”
Getting Teched Up
Conundrum and the electrical contractors separated the house’s electrical service into five different electrical panels and lighting control panels, which saved approximately $50,000 alone, by using far less copper wiring. Jason Perez at Conundrum also explains that the setup is more energy-efficient, because it’s natural to lose small amounts of power on longer runs of cabling.
The lighting system consists of 121 loads of LEDs, CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) and halogen lamps. The intensity levels of LEDs and halogens are dimmed by 10 percent at all times. The CFLs aren’t able to do that, but when the other lights are set back, they shut off completely. “With the lighting control system, we’re also not lighting areas we don’t need,” Perez says. “A lot of time, transition spaces like hallways are lit 90 percent of the time but are actually used only 10 percent of the time.”
This system goes much further. Photocell sensors are positioned throughout the house to determine how much sunlight is entering and how much additional artificial illumination is needed. The AMX home automation system retrieves local weather information from the Internet and operates the lighting and motorized Lutron Sivoia QED shades accordingly. If it’s a sunny day, for instance, the shades can rise to increase the solar gain, thereby requiring less heat and lighting.
The home control system regulates a complicated water recirculation system that brings hot water to the taps so cold water won’t be wasted. However, that uses power, so the AMX system ensures that it only recirculates when necessary.
The AMX system also acts as an energy monitor. It connects to the solar system’s inverters to read how much electricity the house is producing, and on its touchscreens can show much energy every device on its network is using. It can’t provide information on the house’s total consumption, however, as major appliances aren’t connected to the network.
Conundrum even found ways of making the home theater more energy efficient. Instead of a 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 surround-sound system, Perez used a Meridian-based 3.1 system with phantom surround channels, thereby saving energy and resources. The Meridian speakers also have their own built-in amplifiers (more savings on wire). And because a digital signal can travel right to the Meridian speakers, Conundrum used coaxial cable instead of thick copper speaker cables.
An amplifier for the whole-house music system can be shut down completely, thanks to an AMX PC-1 switch. Doing so reduces the amp’s standby (or vampire) power consumption.
Does Size Matter?
So can a big house like this really be green? Some may object about its size, but there’s no doubt that it’s much greener than it would be without its many energy-efficient and sustainable features.
“I feel that we’ve set a new standard in building, and the size doesn’t matter as much,” says Hamrick. “We challenged ourselves to do the right things by making it healthier, greener, more sustainable, instead of just what we wanted.”
She says going greener with her home also reduces the guilt of some of the excess features, like a driveway heating system. “Wealthier people can afford not only to build a home right, but to buy healthier and smarter and greener homes,” she says. “And once more of these items are brought to the marketplace, it becomes more affordable and accessible to all.”