Green Building Tips From a Homeowner GC

29 Jan

What green building techniques and design options make sense? Which ones save you, the homeowner, a few greenbacks in the long-term? Here I’ll share my experience with energy efficiency choices while building a two-story, 40 ft. by 20 ft. home addition. But before I jump into the details, I’d like to tell you I opted to be the “Homeowner General Contractor” (Homeowner GC) for our addition project. Let me explain.

I have more than a few years of project management experience as well as an extensive environmental consulting background. I’m a registered professional geologist, entrepreneur, and the former publisher/editor for environmental magazines. For the record, I know a little bit more than your average homeowner about the environment and what “green” really means. So what do you do when it comes time to consider green building techniques and make purchasing decisions for a construction project?

For starters, I did my homework and extensively researched building methods and the science behind numerous green-building recommendations. Once I understood how certain things worked (or didn’t work), it was a lot easier to evaluate not only the building design choices but also the sub-contractors bidding on the tasks at hand. One more thing, before making the final decisions I loaded up the spreadsheet and ran the numbers. I wanted to know the potential return for the green investment (ROI). After all, green is the color of money as well.

Below I’ll explain a few green building techniques I went with for our addition project based on my findings. And in addition to that, why the investment was made to upgrade beyond local building code requirements, in certain cases.

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) – Walls only (not the floors or the roof): Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) were chosen for the walls. I went with 6 1/2 inch SIP walls with an R-Value of 24. In our area (Central Virginia), this exceeds code requirements. whole wall insulation R-values, performance of SIPs verses stick-built wallsOne important thing to note: SIPS “perform” at a much higher R-Value than a stick-built wall. For example, a 4 1/2 inch stick-built wall with R-13 insulation likely only gets you around R-9 performance. SIPS perform a lot better. You can either spend a little more for a SIP wall upfront (with respect to material costs) or pay more in energy bills month after month, after month… Several builders and General Contractors I interviewed told me SIPS cost too much compared to stick-built walls; they really don’t when all aspects of the project are considered. Below are a few reasons why.

Significantly less labor is required to put up a SIP wall compared to a stick-built wall. The SIP walls were installed in three days. A comparable stick-build 6 1/2 inch wall finished with insulation and electrical chases cut in would have taken about three weeks; according to the local builders/General Contractors that I interviewed for the job. With SIPS you generate less waste at the construction site which means less labor moving trash around and less waste disposal fees. You also save on labor when it comes time to run the electrical wires; chases are cut into the SIPS at the factory and it takes less time to rough-in the electrical. Another benefit is the fact that you need one less sub-contractor involved in the project given you don’t need to wait for the walls to be insulated once they are put up (they come insulated). I could go on but I won’t. Once you truly understand all of the construction costs involved with the walls, the numbers tell the story. SIPS are worth the investment and the ROI is hands-down better than a stick-built wall based on the true cost of construction. I have more information about SIPs here for those interested.

Conditioned Crawl Space

For our addition, I basically had to have a crawl space – the existing home my wife and I were adding on to has a crawl space. We wanted level floors going into the addition. Therefore, a conditioned crawl space under the addition was added to the project cost. If you “must” have a crawl space, condition the space.  For me it was a no-brainer; less moisture under the floors, less air infiltration, fewer rodents/insects, and a conditioned crawl space allowed me to run the HVAC ducts under the floors in “conditioned space.” I’m convinced it saves energy and maintenance costs associated with the HVAC system. For the crawl space wall insulation, I went with 2″ Thermax on the exterior walls and a 10 mil liner. I considered a 20 mil liner but the 10 mil liner was sufficient given I don’t plan to store anything in the crawl space or frequent it often; the 10 mil liner seems plenty thick to me.

Roof Trusses

Energy efficient roof trussWhen designing the roof trusses, I increased the “heal height” (where the roof meets the top wall plate) by a foot. Why? The extra foot of space on top of the wall plate (basically, in the attic) allows more attic insulation where you need it; at the pinch point where the roof meets the walls. According to several energy efficiency studies I came across while researching, homes lose a lot of energy where the insulation basically goes to zero thickness where the roof line meets the walls. This made sense to me so I had the truss engineers add the extra heal height. It didn’t add much to the costs of the roof trusses.

Rainscreen – Underneath the Siding

To lower the risk of wall rot, it makes sense to provide a ventilated air gap between your siding and your sheathing. I went with an advanced building technique for the siding known as a rainscreen. SIP manufacturers, as well as many experienced siding professionals, recommend “rainscreens” for the exterior walls under the siding. Rainscreens using furring stripes are also recommended if you are using spray-foam insulation on your walls. It is smart building science and I believe it might be code a decade from now – already is in some jurisdictions. Basically, a rainscreen allows the wall to dry out much more efficiently. Even with Tyvek house wrap (which we also used), the walls under your siding will get wet and you want them to dry. Rainscreens allow that to happen.

Rainscreens do add additional costs to the siding budget; both in material and labor. In our case, I removed the old pine-board siding from our existing home since we wanted consistent siding for the entire home. We ripped the 3/4 inch pine-board siding and used it for furring strips for the rainscreen. This reduced our material cost of construction but added more labor costs. On the other hand, the rainscreen lowers your long-term maintenance costs (less frequent painting, siding replacement, etc.) and extends the life of your walls.

Our rainscreen includes Cor-A-Vents to enhance performance. Cor-A-Vents allows the gap between the siding and the sheathing/Tyvek house wrap to vent and stops insects from getting behind the siding. The Cor-A-Vent added to the overall project cost as well. For more information pertaining to rain screens, read All About Rainscreens on the Green Building Advisor website.

Energy Efficient Water Heater

I purchased and installed a GeoSpring Hybrid Electric Water Heater (GE GeoSpring 50-Gallon Hybrid-Electric Heat Pump Water Heater – ENERGY STAR) to lower our energy costs. This water heater is a significant upgrade from your standard water heater. Although it costs more than the typical water heaters, it pays you back year after year. It is one of the most efficient 50-gallon water heaters, using 62% less energy and saving $365 a year on utility bills (SOURCE: GE GeoSpring). What makes this water heater so energy-efficient are the compressor and evaporator that are incorporated into the unit to draw in ambient heat from surrounding air, using two variable-speed fans. When in heat-pump or hybrid mode (warmer months), the unit exhausts cool, dry air; it lowers humidity and cools the room while heating the water. Basically, the water heater is an air conditioner too.

For more information on energy efficient water heaters, read Choosing the Best Energy Efficient Water Heater.

Upgraded HVAC System – Conditioned Space

I replaced our existing HVAC system which was 13-years old while building our addition. We needed a HVAC system for the addition and we needed a replacement for the old unit serving the rest of the house. During the design phase, I decided based on extensive research that the best thing to do was install the new HVAC system inside the building envelop. Therefore, we built a utility room, conditioned the room (it is heated & cooled), and subsequently located the new HVAC unit inside instead of in an unconditioned attic. Also, the majority of the ducts are now within conditioned space. Locating your HVAC system and ducts within conditioned space reduces your energy use, lowers maintenance costs, and extends the life of your HVAC system. It is a good investment if you think about it during the design phase of the construction project. It really doesn’t cost much more to do when it is considered early in the design process.

Floor Joists

Hanging Floor Joists and SIPsI found several articles that discussed the energy loss associated with second floor joists and the rim board that holds the joists. When joists are set on the wall plate the joists/rim extends to the outside of the wall. Insulating a rim is difficult to get right and it is a common area for energy loss according to energy audit results. A better way to build includes hanging the second floor joists “inside the building envelop” (joists don’t contact the outside at all – no need to try and fill every void at the end of the joists at the rim board). Hanging the joists inside is more energy efficient and results in a stronger building according to engineering data (search online, numerous articles support this conclusion). The figure to the right shows how we constructed our addition with hanging floor joists.

Energy-Efficient Dryer Vent

One of the easiest things I did to further reduce air infiltration and save energy was replace the old dryer vent exhaust seal (Energy-Efficient Dryer Vent Seals – HEARTLAND Dryer Vent Closure). I replaced the “builder grade” exterior dryer exhaust vent with one designed for energy efficiency; it seals when not in use. The old vent was basically a hole in the wall and the washer/dryer area in our laundry room was freezing cold during the winter. The new vent was inexpensive and easy to install. Basically, it lets warm air escape when open and prevents cold air (or hot air in the summer) from entering when closed. The dryer vent seal also prevents insects and rodents from entering your home. Any homeowner with basic DIY skills can install one and start saving money right away. I could not find one at Home Depot or Lowes so I purchased our dryer vent online.

How did we do?

Our electric bill received the other day (January 2014) was LESS than our January 2013 electric bill even after adding about 1,600 sq. ft. of additional space to our home. I was amazed given it was a really cold January this year and we added our energy efficient water heater to the home before January 2013.

Nest Thermostats Facing Challenges

08 Jan

Nest, the company that makes what they claim to be the “next generation thermostat” is facing a few challenges. Out-dated HVAC systems, Wifi connectivity, and vocal, unhappy customers during a national cold spell  are in the forefront in today’s news. TechCrunch discusses the situation on a recent blog post here. You can learn more about the product and read reviews on Amazon – Nest Thermostat product info and reviews.

I seriously considered purchasing a “smart” Nest thermostat when we built a large addition on our home last year. We upgraded our HVAC system throughout the home. We installed a Carrier Infinity HVAC system and Mitsubishi Mini-splits. The Carrier is a 3-zone system and 3-thermostats; the mini-splits have their own thermostats. In our case, the cost of the Nest for the potential savings appeared questionable when compared to other energy saving investments and the respective ROI (6″ walls, insulation, smart building techniques, etc.). Today’s programmable thermostats are pretty good w/o being “smart” – the stupid things have worked (always) as advertised.

On Nest’s website they claim, “Programming thermostats is complicated and irritating – but an un-programmed thermostat can waste 20% of your heating and cooling bill. So the Nest Thermostat programs itself.”

Programming our standard thermostats wasn’t complicated or irritating – it was simple. One control panel programs all three; it took about 20 minutes. I focused on energy savings when I programmed them; tweaked them during the first few months. I likely have them set for less demand then the Nest would allow based on living habits; I only turn them up/down when I feel uncomfortable in the home. They appear to be saving us money without the need for software upgrades, wifi connectivity, etc.

WRT energy conservation and saving money, the smart thing to do is focus on containing the energy you generate; over insulate the attic, stop air infiltration, etc.

Simple is a solution.

Improve Your Gas Mileage Before Holiday Travel

19 Dec

Traveling for the holidays? To improve your gas mileage consider changing your oil and air filter to improve your ride. I’m always amazed at how much better my car runs after changing the oil and air filter. What else can you do to increase your fuel mileage?

Tire pressure, improve your gas mileageMake sure your air pressure in the tires is right or slightly over-filled. Also, change your “cabin air filter” – just changed mine. It was nasty, filled with leaves, dust, etc. The automobile service center that changed my oil wanted $50 for a cabin air filter. That’s just too much to pay for a cabin air filter. I declined and picked one up at Advanced Auto on the way home for $19 and changed it in the parking lot in less than 5-minutes.

Not all cars have a cabin air filter but most newer cars tend to have one. If your car has a strange odor when you turn on the heater or air conditioner, or if it seems like the fan doesn’t work like it once did, it is likely time to change your cabin air filter.Lexus replace cabin air filter

Why change your cabin air filter?

Changing your cabin air filter (you can buy on from Amazon) does several things for you: improves the air quality inside your car, reduces strain on your heating and cooling system (less maintenance and wear), and a new air filter allows you to run the fan at lower speeds which improves gas mileage.

How do you change a cabin air filter?
It is relatively easy. In most cars, the cabin air filter is located behind or just under the glove compartment. I found a great website that includes videos on changing the cabin air filter; they had a video for all of our cars. Check out: Car Care Kiosk.  It is an excellent website for automobile maintenance and “how to” automobile maintenance videos.

Understanding Cool Roofs and Insulation For Energy Efficiency

05 Dec

Can you benefit from a Cool Roof? Or are you better off investing in more insulation? No doubt, a cool roof can help many building owners save money while protecting the environment but not everyone should rush to get one.Your money might be better spent on attic insulation depending on where you live as well as your specific attic situation.

The U.S. Department of Energy has published an excellent guidebook on cool roofs (link below). The guidebook was created to help builders and home owners understand how cool roofs work. Read more

Will You Reduce Energy Costs by Painting Your Roof White

08 Jul

My metal roof was red, hot, and desperately needed painting. After spending some time inspecting the roof, I quickly realized how incredibly hot the red paint became even on a modestly hot spring afternoon. Why repaint the roof red since it gets so hot? I thought there must be a better solution so I started investigating roof paints. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one wondering if a lighter-color roof would reduce heat gain inside the attic and save energy. Also, I quickly learned a lot about “reflective” paints, radiant heat, and the best ways to insulate the attic to reduce cooling and heating costs.

One research article I found informative and one I recommend reading is, Cool Roofs For Hot Climates by Dan Parker, a senior research scientist with the Florida Solar Energy Center (2003). The following is from the article:

Reflective roofs work because they stop the rooftop heat before it ever gets going. The sun’s rays hit the roof at the speed of light, and at the speed of light they bounce back into space. White or light-colored materials work best, but some new dark pigments reflect enough invisible infrared radiation to reject a lot of solar energy. And whether you’re applying tile, metal, membranes, or even asphalt shingles, choosing a more reflective version seldom adds cost.

The figure below graphically depicts the best solution for energy efficiency is a reflective white metal roof:

energy savings research white roof

After reading this article and numerous others, I painted my metal roof with Kool Seal® Premium White Elastomeric Roof Coating which I purchased at the local hardware store (ACE Hardward has it here in Richmond, VA).

Additional Metal Roof Information

Roof Costs and Energy Savings: According to the Metal Roofing Alliance, white-painted metal roofing has the highest solar reflectance value of any roofing product available and can save you up to 40% of your annual energy bills.

According to statistics from McGraw-Hill Construction Research and Analytics®, the number of homes with metal roofs has more than tripled over the past decade, moving metal from 3% of the overall U.S. market to 10%.

Some homeowners’ insurance programs allow discounts for homeowners with specific weather-resistant metal roofing products. Contact your insurance agent to determine if your home qualifies.

metal roof benefits fire resistant

Photo taken after the 1991 Oakland, California firestorm. Burning embers destroyed all of the homes in the neighborhood, except the masonry home that was roofed with Stone-Coated Steel Roofing.  While all of the neighbors fought (without success) to save their homes by watering down their asphalt roofs, burning embers did not ignite the steel roof. The house with the steel roof survived while all others around it were destroyed. (SOURCE: Metal Roofing Alliance: Lower Your Insurance with Weather-Resistant Metal Roofing)

Kool Seal® Premium White Elastomeric Roof Coating

(SOURCE: Provided by the manufacturer, see product description, surface prep, etc. here – PDF)

  • Energy saving up to 35%
  • Reflects 90%+ of the sun’s rays
  • Designed to be durable in any climate
  • Higher solids for better coverage
  • Forms a thick rubber-like blanket of protection
  • Expands and contracts – clings to your roof in all temperatures
  • Protects against moisture
  • Cured elastomeric film is mildew and algae resistant
  • Helps to absorb sound
  • Environmentally compliant
  • Soap and water cleanup – while wet

Energy Efficient Roofing Video by Tod Miller

Other Useful Articles Pertaining to White Roofs:

The Heat is On Energy Saving Tips by Family Circle

28 Sep

Hat’s off to Family Circle for publishing an energy saving article as fall approaches; good timing. Simple energy saving solutions can result in significant savings as we all know. The article, The Heat is On: and a Plan to Lower Energy Costs, offers a simple break-down of “Light Green, Medium Green and Dark Green” energy saving tips.

car2go First All-Electric Carsharing Fleet

19 Jul News/Source: Daimler AG: SAN DIEGO – car2go N. A. LLC, a subsidiary of Daimler North America Corporation, announced that San Diego will be the first North American city to have a 100-percent electric vehicle (EV) carsharing program. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, Nicholas Cole, President and CEO of car2go N. A. LLC, and Jonathan Read, CEO of ECOtality, made the official announcement at a news conference at the El Cortez this morning.

“We’re proud that car2go has chosen to launch the first North American all-electric carsharing service in San Diego,” said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. “car2go’s launch here further supports our efforts to make San Diego the nation’s electric vehicle capital.”

[nggallery id=1]

The all-electric car2go program in San Diego is going to start operations before the end of 2011 with 300 smart fortwo electric drive vehicles. Read more

Sustainable Drive Solutions World Future Energy Summit

18 Jan

Daimler presented a comprehensive portfolio of environmentally-friendly vehicles, including both passenger cars and commercial vehicles, in Abu Dhabi. First European automotive manufacturer at the WFES.

Abu Dhabi – Daimler AG presents the innovative drive solutions of today and tomorrow in its role as Official Transport Partner to the 4th World Future Energy Summit (WFES). The World Future Energy Summit is one of the world’s largest and most important events for the energy and environment industries.

2011 E-cell Mercedes-Benz Daimler AG is the first European automotive manufacturer to have a presence at the conference, and is making its mark with a trade stand, expert speakers and opportunities to Ride & Drive in battery-electric powered vehicles. This level of participation allows the company to demonstrate its globally unparalleled expertise in sustainable mobility – be it the smart fortwo electric drive city car, the SLS AMG E-CELL super sports car or the Vito E-CELL urban van.

Daimler also provides green solutions in the commercial-vehicle segment, including the Mercedes-Benz Econic NGT with CO2-neutral biogas drive and the Fuso Canter Eco Hybrid truck.

Ride & Drive in Daimler electric vehicles

As well as experiencing the smart fortwo electric drive, visitors can also get a taste of the mobility solutions of the future in the shape of the S 500 Plug-in HYBRID, the BlueZERO F-CELL and the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz F 800 Style research vehicle. Furthermore Ride & Drive also offers the opportunity to discover at first hand the unrestricted everyday practicality of two of Daimler’s electric vehicles, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class E-CELL and the smart fortwo electric drive, both of which are already in series production.

2011 E-cell Mercedes-BenzThe stated aim of the WFES is to serve as the platform that enables political and economic decision makers to find sustainable, environmentally-friendly, economical solutions to the challenges faced by the energy industry. It provides a forum where internationally renowned experts come together to discuss the latest developments affecting a broad range of energy-related issues, from solar energy, through alternative fuels, to e-mobility.
This conference focuses on developments and innovations that provide possible solutions to the energy issues of the future. PV Outlook 2010-2015

29 Dec

Solar Panel | Oilobit.comOverall, 2010 was a good year for the PV industry. But, the global PV industry is getting complex as it becomes more and more competitive. What’s the outlook PV technology, production and cost for the next five years?

You can find out what Greentech Media’s Senior Analyst Syyam Mehta thinks during an upcoming webinar. Mehta will discuss findings from the third edition of GTM Research’s PV supply chain report, PV Technology, Production, and Cost Outlook: 2010-2015. The webinar will cover topics such as: Read more

Energy Management Important to Healthcare Leaders

17 Dec

Energy efficiency, Wind MillWe tend to either love or hate the current healthcare industry. Rising insurance costs and outrageous healthcare bills upset us all. But, it appears the industry leaders are taking energy management seriously. According to a recent survey, energy management is more important to healthcare leaders than to executives in other industry sectors.

According to new research from the American Society for Healthcare Engineering and Johnson Controls, energy efficiency continues to grow in importance in the healthcare sector as organizations do more than ever to “go green.” (SOURCE: Johnson Controls Institute for Building Efficiency)


In March 2010, Johnson Controls’ Institute for Building Efficiency, the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), and the American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE) conducted a survey of
executives and managers responsible for making investments and managing energy use in commercial buildings across the world. As part of the Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) broad survey to look at the trends in energy efficiency throughout the worldwide business community, Johnson Controls wanted to include a separate analysis of responses from organizations in the healthcare industry. Of the 2,882 respondents polled worldwide, 288 operated in the healthcare industry, and 246 were ASHE members.

The EEI survey examines what healthcare organizations are doing in response to rising energy costs, what factors are motivating efficiency improvements, how many organizations are planning to make investments, what payback they expect on energy efficiency investments, and what technologies and practices they have been implementing in their facilities.The Johnson Controls Institute for Building Efficiency, the International Facility Management Association and the American Society for Healthcare Engineering conducted an online survey of decision-makers responsible for managing energy. The Energy Efficiency Indicator survey results included a separate analysis of responses from healthcare organizations. (SOURCE: 2010 Energy Efficiency Indicator – Healthcare Sector Report, Oct. 2010)

Here’s an excerpt of the findings reported by the Johnson Controls Institute for Building Efficiency:

The survey looked at issues such as what organizations are doing in response to rising energy costs, what factors are driving efficiency improvements, what payback they expect on projects, and what technologies and practices they are applying. Highlights of the survey include:

  • 59% of healthcare organizations believe energy management is extremely or very important, compared to 52% of respondents across all industries.
  • 66% of healthcare respondents are paying more attention to energy efficiency than they were a year ago.
  • Cost savings is the biggest factor driving energy efficiency investments in healthcare; enhancing image and taking advantage of government or utility incentives are next.
  • Nearly 50% of healthcare respondents cited energy efficiency in buildings as their top strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The average maximum allowable payback period for energy efficiency investments in healthcare is 3.3 years, down from 4.2 years in 2008.
  • The top barriers to capture of potential energy savings are lack of internal capital and inability to identify projects with sufficient ROI.

Click here to visit the Institute for Building Efficiency and read or download the complete survey report.