Turning a 55 year old suburban split-level into a LEED platinum home

A couple in Arlington Heights is committed to a green home for the upcoming decades of its lifespan:

Amy Myers and Mike Baker could have torn down their 1964 split-level home in Arlington Heights and replaced it with a McMansion…

It will be the first LEED Platinum home renovation in Arlington Heights. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is governed by the U.S. Green Building Council and serves as the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

The house has been designed with such features as net zero energy consumption, smart stormwater management and integrated rainwater storage. Plans include wrapping it in a tight thermal envelope and utilizing materials like airtight drywall to maximize the home’s energy efficiency…

“We’re really trying to do everything we can to make his a model of how you can recycle a 1960s home into something for the future,” Kollman said.

A Google Street View image of the home in question:


This is a serious commitment to a fairly nondescript suburban single-family home. I would guess few suburbanites would make such an investment. At the same time, this does hint at possibilities for the many postwar suburban homes. Rather than being torn down for better homes, there might be relatively cost-effective ways to such homes operating as improved dwellings. (And this could apply to ranch homes as well as McMansions which are maligned early in this story.)

Does the green retrofitting of such homes help wipe out the more destructive aspects of suburban sprawl? Even if this house achieves LEED Platinum status, it is in a setting revolving around the car. The owners might have an electric or hybrid car – but driving is still required and making those vehicles is not all good for the environment. Would the reduced heating and energy costs be more efficient than living in a multifamily building? Do landscaping changes offset the changes subdivisions made to the landscape there beforehand?

I would be interested to see the possibilities of more LEED suburban homes, particularly if the costs are reasonable enough for homeowners to consider this as opposed to moving or tearing down the home. In the end, this would require more homeowners to think about keeping a home for a much longer scale and investing money in a way that might not lead to a huge return in their property values.

Can a “gigantic luxury house” meet LEED standards?

Kain Benfield recaps an argument that LEED standards may really no be up to par if they big houses can obtain the awards:

In particular, did you know that this latest LEED-Platinum home – the highest rating bestowed by the Green Building Council, in theory only for the very greenest of green buildings – is nearly three times the size of the average new American home?  Would you be surprised to learn that it sits on a lot occupying two-thirds of an acre, consuming nearly twice as much land as the average new-home lot in a US metro area?  How about that it is located in a “gated community” on the far outskirts of Las Vegas (Mike Tyson is a fellow resident), 1.2 miles to the nearest transit stop?  Or that its Walk Score is a miserable 38 out of a possible 100 points?…

The building in question is the latest in a series of showcase homes featured by The National Association of Home Builders every year during its annual trade show.  It’s called “The New American Home” and the idea is to celebrate and publicize the state of the art in American homebuilding.  This one has 6,721 square feet of floor space, nine bathrooms (but only three bedrooms, plus a home office and library), and extensive “water features.”  The house also includes 17,261 square feet of “outdoor living space.”  (The average size of a newly completed American, single-family home in 2011 was 2480 square feet.)…

All this means that a household living in the New American Home, all things considered, is as likely to be brown as green in its environmental performance if the measure of that performance is determined by a full accounting of the home’s characteristics, no matter how many efficiency gizmos are built into it…

In other words, since we can’t stop people from building trophy houses in the desert even if we wanted to, we should at least encourage them to build those trophy houses a little better:  if you’re determined to build a house almost three times bigger than the average American house, in a gated luxury subdivision where you have to drive long distances to do anything, it’s better to do so with green technology than not.

But, come on, platinum?  The Seven Hills development wouldn’t come close to qualifying for a certification under LEED for Neighborhood Development, which takes location and neighborhood design into account as well as building technology.  LEED-ND includes a prerequisite that a development applying for a rating, even at the lowest level, include certified green buildings.  As a leader of the environmental groups involved in constructing that system, I supported that prerequisite.  I wanted us to create a system that defined and encouraged smart growth; it’s my belief that, in this day and age, smart growth isn’t really smart unless it includes green buildings.

I’ve wondered about this myself – it seems like the context in which the house is located should matter.

But, I still think there is a bigger issue here that bothers some people: how can a really large house, in this case just over 6,700 square feet, ever really be considered green, even with all of the green bells and whistles as well as the greener context, when that amount of space is simply unnecessary and wasteful.

Report says green housing market expected to grow rapidly

A recent report says the green housing market in the United States is expected to rapidly grow in the coming years:

Regardless, a new report says the value of green residential and non-residential buildings in the United States is rapidly accelerating from only $10 billion in 2005.

McGraw-Hill Construction’s 2013 Dodge Construction Green Outlook says the value could reach $106 billion next year and go as high as $248 billion by 2016.

Based on the forecast for construction of single-family homes, the residential portion of U.S. green building could reach $116 billion by 2016, the report says.

Green building is a bright spot in a still-shaky economy, added the report, which was released Nov. 15.

A green structure is defined as one built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards, or one that is energy- and water-efficient while improving indoor environmental quality.

So there is at least one bright spot in the housing market. The demand for green homes could grow and I suspect builders might be able to charge a premium for these homes. There could be several areas in which builders could up the price: more expensive materials, the energy efficiency and savings of the home over the years, the special design a green home might require, and the status that comes with owning a green home. The example home in the story illustrates this: it is a 3,100 square foot home that will cost around a million dollars.

And note, the opening sentence of the story notes the difference between this green home and McMansions. There seem to be both similarities and differences between this green home and McMansions: it is still expensive and in the midst of sprawl even as it is a greener home, has a modern design, and is located on a one-acre lot.

Goodbye, McMansions with granite countertops; hello, pre-fab green homes with LEED ratings

Author Sheri Koones thinks the new housing trend is green homes:

The way Sheri Koones looks at it, the next real estate status symbol will be a minuscule heating bill.

“It’s the new bragging rights,” said Koones. “People used to brag, I have granite countertops. Today I think it’s going to be a lot more substantial to say, ‘I pay hardly anything for energy. I’m LEED Platinum” (a certification of residential energy conservation).

Granted, with the housing market still wounded, green construction is hardly likely to dominate cocktail-party chatter anytime soon. But Koones is mindful of our newfound economic sobriety. Declaring “the whole McMansion thing is over,” she’s become a champion of an unlikely-sounding candidate for the Next Big Thing: factory-built housing…

But she doesn’t mean like trailers. She means homes that aren’t constructed start-to-finish on someone’s lot, but largely in manufacturing facilities, sometimes on assembly lines. She’s become such an advocate of these processes that she’s out with her third coffee-table book on the subject.

There does seem to be a growing interest in green homes, partly for their earth-consciousness and partly because of an interest in reducing utility costs. However, I wonder about two things:

1. A granite countertop is a more obvious status symbol than “a minuscule heating bill.” So is a McMansion compared to a pre-fab green home. Of course, one can have less obvious status symbols but then the owner has to do more work talking it up and pointing it out to people. I suppose LEED homes could start displaying plaques or signs that highlight their green status. Plus, is the LEED rating of the pre-fab home enough to overcome people’s conceptions about pre-fab homes?

2. As I’ve wondered before, how do green homes compare in cost? Cutting down heating costs is good but there must be some cost to this up-front. What about resale value, particularly for a pre-fab home?

A $1.1 million eco-home that is not a McMansion

A new house on the Parade of Homes tour in the Twin Cities area is made out of repurposed materials, is not a McMansion, and cost $1.1 million:

“With Excelsior one of the oldest communities in the state, we wanted the house to fit in the neighborhood. This looks like a 1910 farmhouse but it has the energy efficiency of 2012. It’s only a two-bedroom, 2,500-square-feet house; it’s not a McMansion,” he said.

It was built with as many recycled, reused, repurposed materials as possible. The floors, walls and ceilings are made of wood from an 800-square-foot fallen-down cottage that was on the property and from wood salvaged from another dismantled house. The roof is made of old tractor tires and sawdust, although it “looks like wood shingles,” said Shelby.

“It’s triply certified: USGBC Green Building Council LEED Platinum, Minnesota GreenStar and Builders Association Twin Cities,” said Shelby, who noted the residence has a HERS score of 18. “HERS, Household Energy Rating System, benchlines a house built to 2012 code at 100 for energy efficiency. … My house has a HERS score of 18, so it is 82 percent more efficient than a standard house.

“It’s geo-thermal, with electricity coming mainly from solar panels on the garage roof. I’m going to have very few bills; in fact, I become a utility with my solar because when I’m not there and not using electricity, it’s producing electricity and sending it back into the grid, and then they have to pay you the same prices they charge for a kilowatt hour.”

This sounds like an interesting house but several things stand out:

1. A 2,500 square foot home for $1.1 million? I assume that someone might want to buy it for its green features but it reinforces the idea that truly being green is only attainable by people with money.

2. It is intriguing that the owner wants to be very clear that this is not a McMansion. Why would he feel a need to do this? It sounds like he wants to emphasize that while the house was expensive and has some upscale green features, it doesn’t stand out in the historic neighborhood.

3. The owner later says later in the story: “This is not just some fancy home. This is a statement of an ethic…Truthfully, I’ve been standing on my soapbox 15 years talking about these things. I thought it was about time to walk the talk.” This home is not just a place to live; it is a personal statement, one couple’s testament to how they think they and others should live. This feeds into the larger American idea that your house (and many other consumer objects) should express your individuality and your ideas.

Gisele Bunchen defends her eco-friendly, 22,000 square foot home

I’ve wondered this before: can you have a truly large house that is really eco-friendly? Gisele Bundchen tries to make such a case for their new home:

While Giants fans have been rabble-rousing Tom Brady over the upcoming Super Bowl XLVI, environmentalists are giving the Patriots quarterback and his supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen the stink eye for a different reason – their brand new, 22,000 sq. ft. mega mansion in Brentwood, CA. The celebrity couple recently moved into the $20 million home with their young son, and one has to ask why a two and a half person family needs such a ginormous space (if you do the calculations, that’s about 7,333 sq. ft. per person). Bundchen, who is known for her eco-activism, rebutted people who questioned how such a McMansion could be called eco by touting its sustainable features such as solar panels on the roof and rainwater recovery systems, but we wonder if that’s enough to call the ginormous home green.

The eight bedroom mansion has a six-car garage, a lagoon-like swimming pool, a spa, a gym, a nursery, a butler’s room, an elevator and a wine cellar. Apparently, Bundchen and Brady purchased the land in 2008 and had an original plan for the house, but ended up adding to it because they felt it was too small. To give you more of an idea of how sprawling the home is, the two wings are connected by a bridge.

While the vast size of the manse has many environmentalists raising their eyebrows, Bundchen is reported to have explained that the home is actually quite sustainable with solar panels installed on the roof, rainwater recovery systems, waste reduction and recycling programs, energy-efficient lighting and appliances and eco-friendly building materials. She also made the case that while the Brady clan is only three people, with all of their relatives constantly visiting, they need more space.

Perhaps it is more sustainable than the typical 22,000 square foot home (how many of those are there in the United States?) but this probably isn’t the right metric to use. Is it as sustainable as a 10,000 square foot house or even a 5,000 square foot house? Perhaps. What we need to happen is for a big star to have a huge home like this but then have it be LEED certified – would it be green enough?

Beyond the eco question, I think a typical person might ask what one even does with that much space. That must be one big family to host…but this is related to another issue: the size of a home itself and the land it requires could itself be seen as wasteful beyond the actual energy the home requires.

A LEED-certified modular McMansion

Ask and you shall receive: a few days ago, I asked whether builders could construct “green McMansions.” I came across a video of the construction of a modular, LEED-certified McMansion. Here is why this 6,300 square foot home is green:

New Classics systems-built construction has a smaller impact on the environment than traditional building methods do…

In addition to the green benefits embedded in our construction process, all New Classics homes require less energy to operate…

In addition to the advantages delivered by our systems-built construction, we’ve joined forces with a number of our trade partners to incorporate further energy management and practical green technology into the Bradley Green Home. All of our environmental management features are easy to live with and make smart economic sense…

I would be interested to see whether this home proves attractive to buyers and critics. While it is still a large home (5 bedrooms, 6.5 baths, guest cottage in the back), it also includes a lot of green features including a “geothermal heating and cooling system,” “a solar hot water system,” “The first living retaining walls in the Washington, D.C., area have been installed in the backyard to control erosion,” and “A rainwater collection system” with a “3,000-gallon underground storage tank.” Which wins out in the end: the size and design of the home or its green features? Are these green features enough to counter the fact that this is still part of suburban sprawl in Bethesda, Maryland?

Another important question: what does this home cost? To buy space, luxury, and green, I imagine it could command a premium.

Can a McMansion be rated LEED Platinum?

There are 64 LEED-certified houses in Missouri, with 51 of these built by Habitat for Humanity in recent years. The director of the St. Louis office for Habitat says, “Actually, right now, we’re the largest LEED Platinum builder in the U.S. for single-family detached homes.” But within this discussion, the St. Louis director talks about why it would be difficult for larger homes to be certified as LEED Platinum:

Hunsberger said the investment for Habitat is fairly minimal. He estimates LEED adds about 5 percent to the cost of a standard home.

He said some of the organization’s costs are offset by partnerships with providers of energy-efficient products. Plus, there’s an advantage to Habitat’s houses — size. LEED applies a home-sizing ratio that makes Platinum certification easier to achieve for smaller structures.

“In essence, they don’t want McMansions,” Hunsberger said. “They don’t want 10,000-square-foot single family homes that may have two people living in them to reach LEED Platinum because it’s kind of anti what the movement is.”

This is interesting – so I did a little checking into LEED certification. According to “LEED For Homes Ratings” (a PDF file) from the US Green Building Council, the square footage of a home does factor into its ratings. There is a neutral home baseline and smaller homes have lower thresholds to reach certification levels (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum) while homes larger than the baseline have higher point thresholds to reach. The neutral home size is 900 square feet for 1 bedroom or less, 1,400 for 2 bedrooms, 1,900 for 3 bedrooms, 2,600 for 4 bedrooms, 2,850 for 5 bedrooms, and 250 square feet for each bedroom after this. The rationale behind this is explained on page 42 of the PDF file:

These data were simplified and generalized to the assumption that as home size doubles, energy consumption increases by roughly one-quarter and material consumption increases by roughly one-half; combined, these amount to an increase in impact of roughly one-third with each doubling in home size. Thus the point adjustment equates to one-third of the points available in the Materials & Resources and Energy & Atmosphere categories combined for each doubling in home size.

So it is not as if larger homes can’t be LEED certified but they have to meet stricter guidelines. Ultimately, I want to know whether a McMansion, say a home of 4,500 or 5,000 square feet, be LEED certified by making up for its size sufficiently elsewhere?

(I am also intrigued by this Habitat director tying the size of a McMansion to 10,000 square feet. That is not just a McMansion: it may very well be a real mansion. How exactly how large a home has to be in order to be deemed a McMansion is unclear but 10,000 square feet seems on the high end.)