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Category: OWNER-BUILDER’S JOURNAL | Green Home Chronicle


Retrofitting the renovation

Carl Seville took a quick look at the floor plans I rolled out for him one afternoon last year, looked up over his glasses and fired out the kind of blunt comment (paired with textbook snicker) that is his trademark.

“It’s a nice house, but I don’t know why you have that courtyard in the middle of it,” he said. “If you really wanted it to be energy efficient, you would have just built the second floor on top of the first floor. It’s not rocket science.”

Carl’s been at this a long time. In the early 1980s, he founded Sawhorse Inc., an Atlanta renovation and custom design-build company that pioneered energy-efficient construction  in the Southeast. In the mid-’90s, he helped Southface Institute and the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association put together the EarthCraft House, which is now one of the most successful regional green-building certification programs in the country.

Now, Carl has written numerous manuals and training papers on green building, and last year co-authored a textbook on green homes. About seven years ago, he sold his share of Sawhorse and founded Seville Consulting, where he specializes in helping to get both single-family and multifamily projects get certified under various green building programs. He also writes a blogs for a national website on green construction, which appropriately enough is called the Green Building Curmudgeon.

Carl has a gift for cutting through the bull. So I was ready to swallow my pride when I rolled the plans out for him.

He immediately honed in on three issues. The first regarded a pretty basic principal in energy-efficient design: Minimize your roof and exterior wall space. So, for example, if you’re adding to a rectangular house, put your addition right above that. That way your roof will be the same size as it was on the smaller, original house, and you won’t add a bunch of walls that you didn’t have to. Aside from saving on material use and costs, the energy-saving part of this theory is pretty simple, the less surface area exposed to the elements, the less your hot or cold conditioned air has an opportunity to escape to the outside.

One problem with the theory is that a big square block may not be the best shape for your location. Silvia and I had made a commitment to each other early on that our new house wasn’t going to tower over the street — that instead we’d have stepped-back feel that would allow it to scale to the entire community.

In addition, there’s a very specific reason that the addition turns the new house’s footprint into a sort of rambling U-shape. Our 50-foot-wide lot is served by a driveway owned by our neighbors but accessed by us through an easement. Putting a garage right behind the house would effectively block the view from the first floor to the forest behind and make for a glum dark first floor.

So we decided to insert a small courtyard between the living space on the first floor and the attached garage that was to be behind the house. If Carl had been part of our team from the start, making his case for a smaller exterior “envelope,” maybe we would have worked harder to adjust the design so that we didn’t have as much exterior space. If, if, if, if, if … for better or worse, we made a decision not to revisit that issue because we were so far down the road on the design.

Carl’s second big catch was an easier of a call. He pointed out that our design called for a full bank of clerestory windows facing on the house’s west-facing facade. Those clerestory windows were exactly the kinds of architectural feature that pits designing for aesthetics against building science.

They would be a beautiful feature from the outside, and they would bless our living space with bountiful natural light. From an energy-efficiency standpoint, however, they would have been incredibly wasteful.

The solar heat gain of a bank of clerestory windows across the unshaded, western face would be enormous. You basically can’t invite that much hot sun in and still pretend your building a “green house.” Even seriously green windows like these don’t keep direct solar heat gain out the way a good wall can.

We opted not to the change the house’s layout, and Carl didn’t really expect us to, because it would require pretty much ripping up the existing plans that we spent so much money on. Before we even got our permit, we’d have more reasons to wonder whether ripping up those plans might have been the right decision.

The second issue — the west-facing clerestory windows — made it very clear that we’d need to hire another architect. There were other issues we’d end up asking Lori Bork Newcomer to deal with, but reconfiguring the facade so that it will make sense both visually and structurally without the clerestories was the one issue for which we truly needed to hire an architect.

Team building equals green building

When Silvia and I resumed the planning for our house after a four-year hiatus, we knew we’d need to surround ourselves with a competent team.

That was partly because we’d parted ways with our architect, and knew we still needed professional help. But you could say it’s mainly because I needed professional help of a very different sort — that is, I got the crazy idea to act as our own general contractor.

Lori Bork Newcomer, LEED for Homes, Athens, Georgia, Platinum

Lori Bork Newcomer designed this LEED Platinum house for her family in Athens, Ga. (Photo by Elizabeth Maves)

(Read my previous journal entry.)

Green building science geeks are big on cooperation and collaboration. In fact, LEED for Homes — the certification program we’re using for our project — encourages any builder seeking certification to meet to put together “Integrated Project Team” and to meet with that team regularly from very early in the design phase through construction.

This makes a lot of sense and not just for green projects. Building a house in a thoughtful way requires planning for all the materials and systems to complement each other.

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I am not a DIY idiot

An HGTV show called “Disaster DIY” showcases the bad ideas, money pits and utter failure of people who thought they were smart enough to do what contractors do professionally.

I really don’t want to be on that show. In fact, I brace myself for what goes through people’s minds and, even worse, is liable to pass through their lips when I tell them I’m my own general contractor.

(Read my previous journal entry.)

Homebuilders serve up the most unsettling comebacks. One custom builder — a guy I respect a lot — barely veiled his attempt to change my mind.

“Call me when you need help getting your job finished,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is the hardest part of contracting and I can guarantee you, while it may seem straightforward and simple, it is a huge undertaking — just speaking from 35 yrs. experience. Good luck.”

Note the “when” I need help, rather than “if.”

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Good architects, bad fit

Our first decision turned out to be our first mistake.

We were hunting for architects, and were wowed by a prominent husband-and-wife team. He’s a professor with an Ivy League degree. They’d just won a local contest to design an affordable green house.

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, Wikimedia Commons

Frank Lloyd Wrights masterpiece, Fallingwater, fits nicely into its natural setting, but wouldn’t meet anyone’s current definition of “sustainable.” Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

(Read my previous journal entry.)

They took us on a tour of the lovely home they’d created for a retired engineer and his wife in an upscale neighborhood. It had been a typical ranch-style house. They turned it into a refined-yet-comfortable, classical-yet-modern two-story villa. Although more extravagant than anything we could afford, it struck the balance we’d hoped to find between traditional and contemporary styles. And it was beautiful.

We signed the standard contract: Around 10 percent of the project’s overall costs, and they would hold our hands all the way through.

The truth was we weren’t a good fit. I’m sure we were a disappointment to them: Not the wealthy retirees with plenty of budget flexibility, nor the hands-off customers who just wanted talented architects to do their thing. In fact, I’m probably the most frustrating kind of client an architect could have — the wannabe, with lots of precious ideas and idiosyncratic priorities.

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Our forest in the city

Two strains of environmental thinking could pull you in opposite directions when it comes to the preferred location for a green house.

The dominant idea nowadays is built on the assumption that the really big environmental problems — climate change, land use, water quality, transportation — get worse as people spread themselves thinly.

green home chronicle, native species, trees, landscape

Restoring our lot with native species and trees gets us LEED points.

(Read my previous journal entry.)

On purely analytical terms, the Smart Growth Approach is hard to quibble with. There are a lot of us, and for the most part, we live in cities. Once we start commuting to work or looking for a place to put our waste, the environmental benefits of short distances, mass transit and sewer lines start adding up. At least when it comes to single-family homes, small lots in walkable neighborhoods, close to our jobs, with bus and train service, are the best recipe for reducing our impact.

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A green sense of place in North Georgia

I’ve been arguing with my friend Ned for years about the environment in general and climate change in particular.

Nowadays, Ned’s an oilman. But we grew up together in Atlanta, and he introduced me to the cozy magnificence of North Georgia.

We paddled rivers. We hiked up mountains. We crawled through cramped, dank caves together. We gathered enough wood to build ridiculous fires. We listened from our tents to owls, frogs, whippoorwills and raccoons. Usually, the raccoons were loudest because they were spending the night rummaging through our food.

(Read my previous journal entry.)

Hahn Wood, Hahn Woods, Emory University, Green Home Chronicle, Peachtree Creek

The natural terrain in Hahn Woods, just two miles from our house, doesn’t seem all that different from North Georgia’s mountains.

One day, when we were 15, Ned, two companions and I decided we were just too hungry. For 10 or 11 days, our little party had been hiking up the southern end of Appalachian Trail. We were looking forward to our end-of-the-trip feast.

Before we left town, Ned had noticed on a topographical map a side trail that left the Appalachian Trail about 110 miles from where we were going to start our trip. The side trail emerged at a place called Andy’s Trout Farm. It would serve as the end of our hike.

Ned’s mother agreed to pick us up at Andy’s Trout Farm and drive us over to our favorite family-style restaurant.  There, at Louise’s in Clayton, Ga. (a bed-and-breakfast made famous by the movie “Deliverance,”), we planned a glutton’s ball of fried chicken, cornbread, mashed sweet potatoes, green beans, apple cobbler and other Southern goodies.

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Why wreck a perfectly good home?

There really isn’t anything wrong with our 1929 bungalow.

Except that it’s too small for the three of us. And the dog. And the cat.

And the roof’s beginning to dip in one spot because the foundation’s slipping. And there isn’t a bathtub. Plus the dishwasher stopped working a few years back, there’s dry-rot under the fridge, and the water pipes keep springing leaks.

Green Home Chronicle, LEED, Atlanta

Ken and Peanut on our cozy porch.

A few years ago, I tested the water for lead. There was plenty of it. Plus there’s got to be lead in some of the paint on the walls and trim. Not to mention a bit of radon in the basement.

(Read my previous journal post.)

Oh, yeah: The house isn’t air conditioned, and this is Atlanta, where it’s hot and muggy (and seems to be getting hotter).

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Bricks, mortar, carpentry and a touch of insanity

Can a lifelong desk jockey build an energy efficient, environmentally correct house in the Deep South?

OK, then: Can he build it without getting taken for a financial ride?

Since tooling around in my dad’s basement shop as a kid, I’ve swung a hammer about as well as your average orangutan. That’s probably why I ended up wielding a computer keyboard — first for my college newspaper, then as the environmental reporter for a daily newspaper, and finally as editor of Atlanta’s alternative newsweekly.

Lori Bork Newcomer, Green Home Chronicle, LEED for Homes, Atlanta

Lori Bork Newcomer’s front elevation drawing of our green dream house.

But I’ve always envied people who could build things. Maybe, it’s that I shared with them a deep desire to move some dirt, to change the face of the Earth, to create some physical evidence that would last after I was gone. What is it with guys and bulldozers?

Then, a few years ago, I got help from Kennesaw State University’s Center for Sustainable Journalism in starting up a web publication (now on ice) called GreenBuildingChronicle.com. It was a one-man shop. I covered residential and commercial projects. The bigger story underlying all the stories that I wrote was that metro Atlanta’s once-colossal, grandiose construction industry had been chastened by the Great Recession, and was showing modest signs of bouncing back, strangely enough, as a more sustainable, green machine.

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