Northern Michigan Home & Cottage Construction: Hydroelectric House

As the managing editor of Northern Home & Cottage magazine, I’m inspired by the rebirth of our Northern Michigan construction industry—after, gulp, those dark days in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession.

What I am seeing delights me: new homes and renovations that are green, efficiently designed and pushing the style envelope in sophisticated directions. Northern Michigan is developing a coterie of visionary architects and the builders who are skilled and experienced enough to execute their plans. Among this group is Michael Fitzhugh, a young architect who cut his professional teeth as the architect of record on downtown Traverse City’s State Theatre. Fitzhugh went on to add the posh 101 Park Street project to his resume.

Currently, Fitzhugh is working with Paul Maurer General Contracting on a Leelanau County home that, besides being a paragon of neo-modern style, will boast the first residential use of hydroelectric turbines in the country. Recently I toured the construction site with Maurer, then checked in with Fitzhugh for more information:

This project began with a challenging site—can you give us a word picture? It’s at the top of an extremely steep hill with a beautiful view of Lake Michigan at the top. It definitely was challenging, but it also presented a very exciting proposition.

And the plan organically grew from that site? Yes, there was a path through the woods that led up to the ridge where the view was revealed. The path continued along the ridge line. The house really grew out of the natural lines of the site. You enter it from the back of the ridge, and then ascend a stairway located pretty close to where the path in the wood was. And then the home opens up to that view. The windows capture the view. We’ll be installing two stacked windows that are 12 feet high and 12 feet wide—that makes a 24-foot tall window. The glass comes from Europe. Nobody in this country makes glass panels that large. They are low-e coated insulated glass. And they are strong enough to withstand the severe winds off the lake.

Maurer’s crew will be holding its collective breath as they install those windows, no doubt! But they are only part of the story on this home:
Yes, the homeowner is a partner in a company called Powerdigm. It provides innovations in energy asset management and procurement that allow large energy consumers to get the benefits of energy efficiency without risk or upfront capital by funding projects through private investment and managing the lifecycle of energy equipment. Powerdigm works with energy efficiency firms that have provided energy solutions to large companies like Ford, Goodyear and General Motors. One of the many systems used at industrial plants is the use of waste fluid to generate hydroelectricity as a means to offset a plant’s electrical costs.

One of the homeowner’s partners in Powerdigm walked the site and came up with the idea of collecting rainwater and groundwater expelled from the home’s open-loop geothermal heating and cooling system and using it to generate hydroelectric power to help power the home.

Sounds complicated:
It’s known technology that uses small turbines. The difference is that to our knowledge they’ve never been used on a residential project before.  Any complications actually had to do with the site layout—the home’s design didn’t have to be altered. There needed to be a water collection system and pipes to the turbines.
And could this type of residential hydroelectric system be replicated in other homes—or would you need an especially steep site like this one? They calculated that we would need between a 40- and 50-foot drop on the site. The typical two-story house is 35 tall. So any two-story house on a hill could potentially use this type of system.

How much power will the system generate for the house? The system is still being tested and we hope to have this available in early spring as the house is completed and all of the electrical loads are determined.

This home also utilizes another cutting edge construction system called rain screen siding. Can you explain? This is a new siding method popular on the West Coast—although it is approved for snowy climates. The siding is actually attached so that there is a two-inch space between the house and the siding. That acts as a layer of air insulation. It is also serves as a windbreak because it prevents the wind from actually hitting the home.

And that siding itself is worth commenting on: It’s from Europe too. It’s a laminate material with that has a wood-grain design and a lot of green qualities such as low VOC and low formaldehyde. Like almost everything else on this house, it’s not an off-the-shelf product, so we had to really think through the installation. We didn’t want to waste any, so we did shop drawings of the exact dimensions of every panel. Then each panel came with this thin coating of plastic, so here is Maurer’s crew on freezing mornings trying to peel it off. They taught themselves little tricks along the way like leaving in the garage so it would warm up enough to make the plastic come off easier.

Okay, now the grand finale. Tell me about those pools on the first floor: Yes, the hot tub and cold plunge pool. Those will also be tied to the geothermal heating and cooling system. Besides being pools, they are integrated into the geothermal heating and cooling system to act as reservoirs for storing hot water and cold water. It’s a custom system that we worked on with D & W Mechanical.

Including this spectacular home and beyond, what trends to you see in the Northern Michigan residential construction industry?

Things have really picked up lately, and clients are more aware [than they were before 2008] of how they are spending money. They are making better, more energy-conscious decisions. Before in the industry it was how fast can we build and move on to the next project. Homeowners have learned that if they don’t invest in energy efficient systems their house won’t hold its value.