May 27, 2008
A signature feature of the unfinished home of Sue and Paul Goldstein, due for early 2008 completion in the Aspen Glen development outside Carbondale, is the 16-foot-by-14-foot great-room picture window pointed directly south at Mount Sopris.
“Coming from Florida where we have no mountains, we are just in awe. We really wanted to bring the outside in,” Sue says. ¶ The picture window’s function is not merely aesthetic. Its passive-solar effect and low-emissivity (“low-E”) rating can help the Goldsteins score points ” literally ” in their quest to build a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified home. Paul describes a Thanksgiving trip to check on the construction. “The temperature was around 10 degrees. But when we were in that house in front of that window and the sun was beating in, it really warmed up the room. There was one small space heater going for the entire house, and it was very comfortable to be in there.”
¶ Wintertime warmth, though, is just one of the numerous impacts of that picture window, and the Goldsteins must weigh all of them to gain the points they need for LEED certification.
The all-important checklist
Established in 1998, LEED certification is the gold standard for environmentally sustainable construction, for years applied solely to municipal and commercial building but now available to homebuilders. If certified, the Goldsteins’ 4,510-square-foot home (3,900-square-foot living area) will become one of just a few hundred LEED-certified homes in the United States. The couple is aiming to demonstrate that one can build sustainably and responsibly without sacrificing amenities, comforts, or (to the chagrin of hard-core environmentalists) square footage.
Building a home is complex to begin with, but homeowners seeking LEED certification pursue a planning process akin to staging a war. They must assemble a team of LEED-registered consultants, bone up on sustainable-building practices (starting with, and going beyond the 184-page “basic guidelines”), and document each construction stage for third-party raters.
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In the end, LEED certification comes down to simple math, based on a master “checklist” with 18 mandatory measures, 129 potential points and four rating thresholds from Certified (30+ points) to Platinum (90+ points).
The Goldsteins have lived and breathed the checklist for months. At the project’s mid-2007 outset, they consulted with Steve Byers, principal of Berthoud-based EnergyLogic, to sketch out which points would be attainable, and which beyond their reach. Their initial draft of the checklist included some points the Goldsteins knew they’d get, some they knew they wouldn’t, and many more in the “maybe” category that would require research, cost/benefit analysis, and testing to suss out further.
The Goldsteins score well in terms of efficient appliances, indoor air quality and sustainable building practices. They expect at least 15 points ” one-third of the total they’ll need for minimum certification ” for energy efficiency. Energy Star’s home-efficiency standard (15-20 percent energy savings) is a mere baseline for LEED, which awards points only for exceeding this standard. This Energy Star standard alone requires successful completion of a separate, 23-point Thermal Bypass Checklist Measures that help the Goldsteins achieve such energy efficiency including Energy Star appliances, low-flush toilets, stalwart insulation, and low R-value walls. “It’s such a tight house,” says builder Tim Lucas of Crawford Building Design.
Their open floor plan ” with the great room, dining room and kitchen in a single unit ” conserves on materials, as fewer interior walls are needed. Advanced air ventilation (including air-to-air heat exchangers in the house and the crawl spaces), sealed-off ducts, and garage exhaust fan (the HVAC upgrades were the biggest LEED-related expense) score points for indoor air quality.
Lucas pursued sustainable measures in literally every corner, implementing a method to remove the need for studs in corners, saving on materials while improving insulation (conventional framing can leave insulation “dead areas”).
Outside the home, the Goldsteins are landscaping with drought-tolerant, native plants. They considered multiple models for siting their landscaping, as subtle changes alter the sun’s exposure on the home, which affects how hard the heating/cooling systems must work. The home exterior is barnwood and farmer’s stone, more sustainable from two perspectives. “One, we’re buying used lumber,” Paul says. “Two, if we were to buy new lumber, it would have to be painted and stained. All the nasty chemicals that go into those products didn’t go into our siding.”
Snags in the sustainability quest
Making the Goldsteins’ LEED pursuit more difficult is the home’s 4,000-square-foot size ” “a huge deterrent to energy conservation,” Sue says. “When you build more than 2,000 square feet, you find you’re losing points left and right.” While the Goldsteins’ house is 60 percent larger than the average new home, Byers says that compared with their LEED-pursuing peers, “it’s potentially on the smaller side. LEED is new, so you tend to get early adopters, and those tend to be people building larger and more expensive projects.”
Building sustainably at the highest level, LEED Platinum, is beyond reach for those who seek to build within upscale, remote developments. For example, siting within the sprawling Aspen Glen golf community excludes them from points for locations that are high-density or within ¼ mile of community infrastructure such as post offices, places of worship and public transit. Infill developments or previously developed sites are preferred, and Aspen Glen (sited on 600 acres of virgin land) scores poorly in this regard.
Certain LEED points are simply not worth chasing for your average homeowner due to cost, complication or circumstance. A full-day design charrette involving the complete project team, for instance, is a logistical and expense challenge for small projects. The Goldsteins looked into rainwater harvesting, but the Western Slope’s rainfall blunts the benefits of this.
Costs have been kept in line, despite an unexpected overrun with the HVAC system. Down the line, the Goldsteins will reap energy savings and tax benefits, though at this point, “If you aren’t driven to build LEED on your own, [the tax credits are] not going to set you over the tipping point to build that way,” says LEED expert and attorney Shannon Sentman.
Considering the nuances
The Goldsteins have relished the management of the certification process, monitoring it from 2,000 miles away on a nearly daily basis. “Today, I probably spent three hours on the home, going over stair-rail dimensions, ordering the master-bathroom tub, and a few other things that we’re providing,” says Paul, himself a builder and therefore able to dodge certain construction markups.
Hands-on client involvement can drive a builder batty, but Lucas has taken the process in stride. “I have to admit, I was a little bit skeptical at the start because I didn’t have any experience in LEED,” Lucas says. “It takes more time, verifying that what was required by LEED was actually installed. It’s keeping an eye on those subcontractors to see that they followed through on what they were supposed to do.”
Much of the Goldsteins’ challenge has been that LEED requires more specificity and “attention to the whole” than typical homebuilding. “The materials have to be appropriate to the room size, so one size does not fit all,” Sue says. “It is much easier to order one specific-sized part that will be used for the entire house. For instance, air vents are usually ordered in bulk and placed in each room. No attention is paid to the fact that rooms are different sizes or the airflow in one room needs to be different in the next room. With LEED, you treat each room individually to complement the whole house.
And LEED considers residual impacts of green features ” including the change in seasons. That huge picture window facing Mount Sopris that keeps the place warm in the wintertime? In summer, the same “solar effect” could make the air conditioner work a bit harder. “LEED uses a ‘window-to-floor-area’ that doesn’t allow windows to exceed a certain size,” Sue says. “We may lose a point there.”
Next in the series: In order to look back at the finished home and the process of achieving certification, we’re waiting until the fall issue, when the home is completely finished.