Green's Anatomy

Evan Visser

If not for the wind generator in the backyard and the solar panels on the south wall, this five-bedroom house would hardly stand out in its start-up subdivision outside Onekama. Yet underneath its ubiquitous earth-tone siding and suburban-contemporary design is an innovative infrastructure that’s shaking up the world of green construction.

The house draws on technologies from two green-building philosophies that are sometimes at odds: efficiency, focused on cutting utility bills, and sustainability, concerned with minimizing the environmental and social costs of construction. In this "hybrid" house, the mix includes everything from high R-value Styrofoam insulation to floors made of quickly regenerating bamboo. So impressed was the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association that it awarded the house its 2008 Exemplary Project Award. Even bigger news: this spring, the home won the prestigious platinum rating certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council. The home is only the second in Michigan to win the award.

Homeowner Steve Szilvagyi, an energy conservation advocate since the sweater-wearing 70’s, says what started out as a retirement house evolved into a showcase project. "Along the way, I realized our home could set a good example," he says.

Here’s what makes it so green:

1: Passive Solar Design

Eric Hughes of Image Design calculated seasonal sun angles to site the house and determine the optimal depth of roof overhangs. At approximately three feet, the overhangs are wide enough to block direct sunlight on summer afternoons, while allowing winter sun to stream through the south-facing windows and provide extra warmth. Andersen 400-series Energy Star windows and Triad Cell Honeycomb Shades from Smith+Noble prevent heat from escaping on winter nights.

2: Insulated Concrete Forms

Exterior walls are made from six inches of poured concrete and re-bar sandwiched between 21⁄2-inch layers of Styrofoam. The thermal mass of the thick walls stabilizes the inside temperature, lowering energy usage substantially. Special concrete from Team Elmers contains 40-percent fly-ash waste from coal plants instead of the usual sand. The floor plan was adjusted to the dimensions of the concrete forms, keeping waste to a minimum.

3: Solar Hot Water

Solar panels heat a nontoxic, freeze-proof fluid that is pumped through pipe coiling inside an insulated water tank in the basement. The solar system from Shuco USA, which heats water up to 180 degrees on even a 20-degree winter day, provides about a third of the hot water needed for the radiant floor heating system and household use. A natural gas water heater supplements the system.

4: Reflective Shingles

Long-life shingles from the Prestique Cool Color series by Elk Building Products are manufactured with reflective materials that "bounce back the sun’s rays" and reduce rooftop temperatures. The shingles, along with the thick walls and deep overhangs, keep the house comfortable in summer despite a dearth of shade trees. A wall-mounted Mitsubishi Electric unit provides emergency air conditioning for those few days when it gets just too darn hot.

5: Wind Generator

Less obtrusive than an old farm windmill, this Skystream 3.7 wind generator is just about as simple. The “residential power appliance” feeds electricity into the house, which stays connected to the grid and draws utility power as necessary. Cheaper than an off-grid system with storage batteries, Skystream is estimated to provide between one-third and one-half of the household’s power needs. (It runs even when the homeowners are away, selling excess power to Consumers Energy.) The pole is relatively short and sleek—about 35 feet with no guy wires—and the three-blade generator sounds like quietly buzzing bees.

6: Fiber Cement Siding

Low maintenance without a high price to the environment, CertainTeed WeatherBoards FiberCement siding is a no-brainer alternative to wood or vinyl. It contains 30 percent recycled fly ash, a waste product, and is guaranteed for 50 years, the pre-finished color for 25 years. Choosing durable products conserves resources, while saving time and trouble down the road.

7: Sustainable Flooring

Although not local, bamboo and cork claim environmental "cred" because of their sustainable and durable nature. Bamboo matures in about five years; Yanchi’s high-power, low-formaldehyde lamination process produces flooring even harder than oak. Cork bark is peeled off without hurting the tree, so it’s a little more like harvesting cherries than logging a forest. Lisbon Cork flooring from Lumber Liquidators is durable and easy to install.

8: Water-saving Plumbing

There’s flushing, and then there’s flushing. The Dual-Max Flushing System in the TOTO Aquia toilets allows users to select between 0.9 gallons and 1.6 gallons per flush. Low-flow faucets from Moen and Price-Pfister are rated at 2.5 gallons per minute.

9: Lifetime Design

From a step-free front entry to extra turning space in the kitchen, the floor plan accommodates residents and visitors with mobility limitations. A bathroom and bedroom on ground level allow one-floor living, while the front door, custom made by R & J Raven of Grand Rapids, is wide enough for a wheelchair. All doors have lever-set handles instead of knobs, easier for older folk, little kids and everyone in between.

10: Wine Cellar

The footings under a front porch or a garage represent wasted space and resources to Hybrid Homes’ Adam Bearup, so he turns them into rooms. The room under the garage will be heated for a home woodshop, but the room under the porch will stay at a ground temperature, making a perfect wine cellar. The homeowners, amateur winemakers, plan a mini-vineyard for their three-acre lot.

11: Energy Recovery Ventilator

Insulated walls and sealed openings save energy but also block fresh air. A RenewAire EV-200 unit in the basement draws in outside air and efficiently warms (or cools) it to house temperature before blowing it through a ductwork system. The unit sucks in and expels an equal amount of used, humid air to eliminate the moisture buildup that plagues tight houses in winter.

12: Energy Star Appliances

A front-loading washer from Frigidaire uses less water, while a bottom-freezer refrigerator from Amana and a quick-cooking convection oven from GE use less energy. All come from Max’s Service Appliance and TV.

13: Engineered Lumber

Finger-jointed studs and engineered floor joists supplied by Standale Lumber are made from small pieces of lumber that otherwise would be waste. Another benefit: The floor joist is squeak free.

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