Builder John Plichta, of J.R. Construction Building and Design in Petoskey, was honored when his cottage on Crooked Lake was chosen a 2010 Project of the Year in the National Green Building Awards Competition. He was just as gratified when a visitor to the freshly finished cottage said, “This doesn’t smell like a new house.”

The 1,900-square-foot cottage north of Petoskey is a poster child of green efficiency, with energy bills averaging less than $40 a month. Equally important, it is a healthy house, free of off-gassing fumes from synthetic carpeting and upholstery, formaldehyde-soaked wood, and chemical-laden paints and caulks. It smells only of fresh air, Plichta says.

Building a house this green was a painstaking process and a huge learning experience. Plichta had taken a number of courses in green building, but the Crooked Lake cottage was the first time he hired a certified inspector to verify compliance with the National Green Building Standards adopted by the National Association of Home Builders. The inspector checked the cottage at every stage of construction, ultimately awarding it the NAHB’s Emerald level for highest achievement.

“These are very rigorous standards,” Plichta says. “This isn’t any sort of green washing where everyone does the minimum and calls themselves green. We are a company trying to do the maximum. We are always trying to raise the bar.”

The National Green Building Standards put heavy emphasis on energy efficiency, and the cottage’s walls of insulated concrete form blocks, its low-e windows, and its geothermal heating and cooling system are all super efficient. However, energy usage is affected less by those systems than most people realize, Plichta says. The surest route to efficiency is eliminating air leaks by sealing around windows, doors, vents and other joints, with the goal of building a house as tight as a boat. “We used 148 tubes of caulk on this house,” he says.

Houses this tightly sealed are often plagued by moisture problems. Moisture passes through the walls of homes, coming in from the outside and moving out from the inside, Plichta explains. But if it is stopped inside a wall cavity by an impermeable barrier like plastic, the moisture can accumulate and cause rot, as Plichta has seen on repair jobs of relatively new homes.

Now, however, the industry is “learning the science of energy e­fficiency versus the idea of it,” he says. Building engineers have come up with new ways to limit moisture infiltration and exfiltration, such as creating space underneath the outside siding and sealing the interior drywall before painting, strategies Plichta used on the cottage.

Tight houses also have trouble meeting the minimum ventilation levels, so Plichta installed an energy recovery ventilator that exchanges air in the house as often as three to five times an hour. Unlike older homes, where not-so-fresh air leaks in through musty attics or moldy basements, “we control the source and amount of fresh air,” he says.

The energy recovery ventilator uses electricity, but the cottage uses remarkably little power overall, thanks to Energy Star appliances, lighting timers, and an LED kilowatt usage meter that sits by the back door. Dan and Julie Plichta, John’s son and daughter-in-law, who ended up buying the cottage, say they check the meter every time they leave the house. If it says their usage is anything more than two cents per hour, they know something unnecessary has been left on.

One of the best ways to conserve electricity is to conserve water, because well pumps are the least-e­ cient appliances in most households, says Dan. So the cottage has a cistern system that collects rainwater from the roof for use in the lawn and garden, in addition to low-flow fixtures and dual-flush toilets.

Conserving water is second nature to John Plichta, a Michigan native who lived for many years in arid California. He notes that California recently adopted green building standards for all new construction and says such a move would make even more sense in Michigan, where energy bills are higher.

Yet Michigan clients are greening up on their own, says Dan, who works with his dad and helped design and build the cottage. While not everyone has the budget or desire to go “Emerald green,” he sees an overall greater demand for products that are healthier. ?The company gives its clients a range of green options, but Dan says there are certainfeatures they’ll include no matter what because they want to build good homes and do the right thing.

“Our company motto,” adds John, “is to be good stewards.”

Janet Lively writes and teaches in Traverse City.

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Resources for this Crooked Lake home

BUILDER: John Plichta, J.R. Construction Building and Design
Petoskey, 231-347-6503,

Petoskey, 231-347-8785,

Petoskey, 231-347-1340,

Petoskey, 231-348-5959,

INTERIOR DESIGN: Amy Darooge, Villa DécorGrand Rapids, 616-901-7372

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Susan Letts, Letts LandscapeLLC, Harbor Springs, 231-330-3681

MICHIGAN NATIVE PLANT MATERIAL: John Hoffman & Sons Landscaping and NurseryPetoskey, 231-347-9854

Pellston, 231-539-8941,

MARBLE COUNTER TOPS: Capital Granite Inc.
Petoskey, 231-347-1542,

Holland, 616-738-8440,

METAL ROOFING: Metal Sales Manufacturing Corp.
Bay City, 989-686-5879,

LOW-V.O.C. PAINT: Sherwin-Williams
Petoskey, 231-347-2984,

ALL-WOOL CARPETING: Stanton Carpet, Builders FlooringHarbor Springs, 231-348-8229