Energy Source Builder

Environmentally Responsible House Requires Thoughtful Choices

Kermit the Frog noted that "it ain't easy being green." Builders James McDonald and Cary Thompson would agree. One major obstacle to building environmentally friendly houses is finding building materials that cause the least environmental harm. McDonald and Thompson have been trying out their ideas for several years, but their latest project is a speculative home in Eugene, Oregon designed by Architect Rob Thallon and James Givens. They must be doing something right. Halfway through construction the home sold for the asking price. Also, two buyers are waiting for houses that will be built on adjacent lots.

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Builders Cary Thompson and James McDonald faced tough decisions when building their environmentally-friendly house.

Evironmentally Responsible Materials

"You can't just run down to the lumber yard for these materials," says McDonald. "Sometimes you order something, but it's not there when you need it. So you have to scramble to find a replacement."

Because they are unfamiliar with environmentally friendly materials and their suppliers, builders generally have concerns about availability, reliability, durability and cost. To address these concerns, McDonald and Thompson relied on several resources, including printed material, computerized databases, organizations, conferences and manufacturers. As builder and consumer interest grows, retail suppliers are appearing in some larger cities--offering another source of information and places to go when you find yourself one quart shy of a finished floor.

McDonald and Thompson asked manufacturers' representatives about product content, toxicity, origins, processing and transportation. Many times these reps didn't have answers and referred the builders to others.

It's not surprising that manufacturers are unprepared to answer those questions. Until recently, no one asked them. That is starting to change. "Most people consider only cost," says Thompson. "We're going further. We're considering all the options." But you can't deliberate forever. There comes a time when you must make a decision, choose a product and get on with the job.

"You don't have time to keep researching every point," says McDonald. "It would never end." Even after all the research, decisions are seldom clear-cut.

Take the case of the cedar siding. McDonald and Thompson had two choices: Red Cedar and White Cedar. McDonald's reasoning went like this: Red Cedar grows closer to the site in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, but it comes from dwindling stands of old growth. White Cedar is more available and comes from well-managed forests, but must be trucked thousands of miles from eastern Canada. He finally choose the White Cedar.

Many manufacturers make environmental claims, but most of these claims are impossible to verify. Fortunately, builders will soon have help. Independent agencies have begun certifying the environmental claims made by manufacturers. Two prominent agencies are Scientific Certification Systems and Green Seal. In the house built by McDonald and Thompson, the maple flooring, framing lumber and AQC treated lumber were certified.

Energy Use

One key feature of any environmental home is low energy use. The energy efficiency of this house was certified by the Eugene Water & Electric Board through their Super Good Cents program. In fact, the house uses 20 percent less energy than the level needed to qualify.

Energy-saving features include: R-26 double-framed exterior walls, windows with a heat loss rate of U-0.35, fully insulated concrete slab floor, R-49 attic insulation and a passive solar water heater. One key feature is passive solar space heating. Almost 60 percent of the home's windows are located on the long, south-facing wall. The sun shines through these windows, heating an exposed slab floor in the living room.

Indoor Air Quality

Paints and finishes low in toxic compounds were chosen for most inside and outside applications. McDonald notes that finishes with darker pigments were difficult to find, so he chose a standard paint for the dark trim. Reducing toxic materials is the first step toward a healthy indoor environment. The house also uses a central fresh-air ventilation system with heat recovery to control moisture, odors and contaminants generated by the occupants.


Architect Thallon and Givens describe their process as "site-based, builder-tailored and driven by the desire to create beautiful, useable and flexible spaces."

Instead of drawing plans containing all the minute details, they prepared minimal working drawings for permit approval. This enabled on-site decision-making with the builder.

"Weekly meetings were held to evaluate the emerging qualities of the place, continue design and detailing, anticipate problems and make necessary changes in a timely and economical fashion," says Givens. A key environmental design feature is small size. The home is about 1550 sq. ft., much smaller than most new homes. A detached studio adds 200 sq. ft.

"We used fewer, larger rooms to allow flexibility and promote a generous feeling in a modest square footage," says Thallon. The kitchen, eating area and living room flow together along the sunny south wall. The living room drops three steps for a sense of separation.

One large children's bedroom contains two built-in bed alcoves. The room can be subdivided to create separate bedrooms.

"Nothing meets all the environmental requirements, except building smaller," says Thompson. "It's the best thing you can do to save materials, lower costs and conserve energy."

This article appeared in Energy Source Builder #40 August 1995
©Copyright 1995 Iris Communications, Inc.


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