Don’t Judge a Green House by its Cover

By Patsy Stadelman, AICP, Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Shreck, LLP

By now most people who have been paying even a little bit of attention have heard of LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and a lot of land use professionals may even know that LEED is a set of green building rating systems established by the USGBC which promote the design and construction of sustainable, high-performance buildings.  LEED has rating systems for various building types including commercial buildings, schools, retail spaces, renovations of existing buildings, single and multi-family homes, and – especially exciting for the planning geeks out there – a rating system for designing and building sustainable neighborhoods.

LEED is commonly used for commercial construction and meeting LEED or similar standards is increasingly becoming a requirement for many government funded projects.  Another program called LEED for Homes provides an avenue for residences to be certified as LEED buildings.  The program can be used for new construction or total rehabs of single-family homes and multi-family projects up to six stories high, including individual custom homes and large development projects.

This story offers an inside look at building a LEED home on the Central Coast.

I began working with John Maienza and Gregg Wilson about three years ago when they first began to envision their next project.  John and Gregg have worked as a design/build team on many residential projects around the country and have long been incorporating sustainable features into their homes, but this was their first foray into the LEED certification process.

The property on Hill Road in Montecito offered a great opportunity to take on this challenge.  We set our sights high and targeted the highest level of certification available, LEED Platinum.  Couple that with the usual challenges of building in coastal Santa Barbara and we had our work cut out for us.  It was an adventure but the result is a beautiful and sustainable home and a lot of knowledge about what it takes to build a LEED home.

Many of the home’s features include no-VOC paints and hard flooring throughout which reduces the potential for trapping environmental contaminants. Other green features include LED lighting, Energy Star labeled appliances, FSC-certified cabinetry and siding, and a green roof.

Green inside, outside, underneath and on top

LEED for Homes is a comprehensive set of criteria that addresses everything from site selection to water efficiency to indoor air quality and more.  Inside the Hill Road House includes sustainable features like 100 percent LED lighting (including dimmable LED bulbs), FSC-certified cabinetry, low flow faucets and Energy Star rated appliances.  The house has entirely hard flooring and we’ve included a “shoe removal” area at the front door to reduce the amount of contaminants tracked into the house, which helps to improve indoor air quality.

Outside, the house includes FSC-certified ipe siding and decking (it is a prerequisite that any tropical wood used in a LEED home be FSC-certified).  A graywater system takes rainwater from the roof and deck to a 5,000 gallon underground cistern where it is later used for irrigation.  And there are even green features on the rooftop.  In addition to solar water heating and photovoltaic panels that provide most of the power needed to run the home, the flat roofs over the cabana and garage are green roofs planted with low-water grasses to provide passive cooling and increase the permeable surface on the property.

Installing the 5,000 gallon rainwater cistern which will be used to store rainwater to be used for irrigation.

The stuff you don’t see

LEED criteria are not just about what you can see.  A major component of the rating system relates to the function and performance of the building systems, with the goal of encouraging energy performance much higher than Title 24 minimum standards.  The best way to make a home more energy efficient is to use a three-pronged approach.  First, reduce the amount of energy the home needs to operate. Second, install highly efficient systems to run the home. And finally, produce as much of the energy needed as possible on site.

To reduce energy demands, the Hill Road House includes Energy Star rated appliances, dual pane windows, and is insulated with spray polyurethane foam insulation which expands to fit into gaps, providing much better insulation than traditional batt insulation.

Heating is provided by a radiant floor heating system.  Radiant heating has a number of advantages: it is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts.  For water heating, the owners chose an air-to-water heat pump.  Heat pump water heaters use electricity to move heat from one place to another instead of generating heat directly. Therefore, they can be two to three times more energy efficient than conventional electric resistance water heaters.

Finally, the solar panels are located on a butterfly roof designed to maximize the energy producing potential of the solar panels while screening them from view.  Solar energy provides most of the energy needed to run the home.  At times when the home needs more energy than the solar panels can produce (think June Gloom), the house can draw from the electric grid.  During certain times of the year solar actually produces more than needed so, since it can’t be easily stored, the extra energy goes back into the grid to be used by other customers.  As of 2009, the California Solar Surplus Act requires utilities to compensate customers generating electricity with solar and wind energy systems for any excess electricity they supply to the grid.  Even before construction was complete, the Hill Road house was selling electricity back to the electric company!

Kevin Rasmussen, our HERS Rater, and Tom Burt, our solar installer, verifying that the solar photovoltaic system is operating.

Testing, inspecting, verifying and certifying

Designing and building the house is only part of the work in earning LEED certification.  LEED requires third party verification with inspections during and after construction as well as testing of various building components, ventilation, fans and insulation.  Our Green Rater, Shellie Collier, and HERS Rater, Kevin Rasmussen, tested, inspected and documented nearly every aspect of the project.  In addition, we compiled all of the documentation to demonstrate that we meet the LEED requirements to qualify for each of the points we were aiming for.

We’re thrilled and relieved to say we made it through all of the testing and inspecting and are now on our way to the last two steps.  First verification by our LEED for Homes Provider Organization, Davis Energy Group, and finally, certification from USGBC (yes, there are more layers of oversight in the LEED for Homes program than in your average government).

We documented all of our work (on recycled paper). Photo also shows various blowers that test the home for proper sealing.

Everyone on our team agrees that it took a lot of work, but John and Gregg are very happy to have created a beautiful home that is durable, healthy and environmentally friendly…and hopefully soon to be certified LEED Platinum!

USGBC now has a self scoring tool that allows you to enter basic information about a hypothetical or real home and get a preliminary determination of how the home would rate on the LEED scale.  (Note: You’ll need to create an account to log in, but it’s free.)  It then tells you the specific steps you would need to take for each LEED category to gain LEED certification.  Give it a shot and see how green you home is or how green your dream home could be!