Fall Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, October 12, 2007

Building green
Everything from insulation and resource monitoring can assure less future energy use

by Rotem Ben Shachar

Reduce, reuse, recycle. For Susan Davis, of green-certified Spectrum Fine Homes of Mountain View, these three words epitomize how she approaches green building and design.

"It's important to not just be a mass consumer, but to have pieces in your home that have a sustainable life cycle, and last for at least 50 years," she said.

Iris Harrell, founder of green-certified, Mountain View-based Harrell Remodeling agrees.

"Part of green is making things last for a long time with little maintenance," she said. "It's a myth that green building doesn't last as long."
According to Harrell, people are often looking for high-tech solutions when simple ones will do.

"Putting a clothesline in the laundry room and using the dryer less is an effective, easy way to go green," she said. Remodeling, as opposed to building a new house is another green step, according to both Davis and Harrell. "In my 22 years working as a contractor there were less than eight houses that I recommended to tear down," Harrell said.

Davis stresses the importance of good insulation, orientation of the house, and location of skylights in increasing energy efficiency. "Just by building a small home that is designed well, you can decrease the amount of energy you use dramatically," she said.

Insulation was an important factor for management consultant Amanda Miller, when building her family home in Atherton. Though she does not consider herself a huge environmentalist, after reading about structured insulated panels, she thought they seemed like a great way to build a house.

The panels are made of oriented strand board, a structural panel that is engineered and can be custom manufactured to meet requirements in thickness, density, surface texture and strength. They are filled with extruded polystyrene, a rigid plastic foam insulation, similar to Styrofoam. Extruded polystyrene is known for having great moisture resistance and high resistance to heat flow, important for insulation.

As opposed to conventional framing, structured insulated panels create less waste because they are made to size in a factory. The panels are more energy efficient than regular stick framing because they have a high insulation value, Tambi Harwood, of Harwood Constructions, Redwood City, said.

"There is no air space because the entire cavity is filled, preventing air wells, which cause leaks," she said. "Because the panels are sealed much better, it makes for a much more efficient home which cuts down on energy costs."

Though Miller said the panels are not as necessary in the Bay Area because the weather never reaches extremes, she thought they would give her house a stronger foundation.

"The reason I think green building is catching on is because it's becoming much more available to the average person," Miller said. "When it's easy, why not?"

According to Harrell, even for larger problems such as air circulation, there are simple solutions. In 1978 homes began to be built tighter because of Title 24, which enacted energy-efficiency standards for both residential and nonresidential buildings in California. But as homes' structures improved, it became difficult for fresh air to enter. Without air exchange, people were inhaling out-gas from furniture and other materials in their homes.

An easy solution to this problem, Harrell said, is to place a fan in the attic that circulates fresh air into the home from a skylight, preventing the need for an air conditioner.

"The house is a living system. If you do one thing to one part of the house, it helps or hurts the other parts," she said.

For Davis, going green means being aware of the impact of the things people put in their homes.

"It's important to not be tempted to throw stuff into a project because it has some sort of green aspect, but to think deeper about how it affects you and your community," she said. "Taking accountability is crucial."

Peter Sharer, CEO of AgileWaves, a sustainable technology company based in Palo Alto, agrees with Davis. He believes that if people become aware of how they are using their resources, they will make smarter, more informed decisions about them. This is the idea behind AgileWaves' resource monitor, a data system that measures the current rate of the energy cost and carbon footprint, or the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide, in a property.

The information is displayed on a touch screen and is also available from a standard Internet browser, so users can keep track of their property from any location.

"I like to think of [the resource monitor] as a dashboard in a car. It has the same level of detail, but about someone's home," Sharer said.
The device monitors electrical circuits, water, gas and temperature in key locations in the house. It also tracks major appliances' performance and calculates resource consumption by room and by floor.

Users can set a budget and the resource monitor will track their progress. Rooms and appliances are marked in different colors corresponding to the system's health: green if it is on target, yellow if it is going off-target, or red if it has exceeded the budget. AgileWaves has installed its first device in a new home on 120 Waverley St., which contains more than 120 sensors including 35 water sensors and 70 electric sensors. The company's goal in the next six to nine months is to install the resource monitor in 10 to 20 homes, beginning with single-family homes and eventually moving to larger properties.

"Feedback is what motivates people. If someone who always takes long showers sees how much water they have used and how much that costs, hopefully, they will take shorter showers," Sharer said.

Harrell stresses that going green does not mean depriving oneself. "If you want air conditioning, get solar paneling on the roof, then you can use as much electricity as you want," she said. "It's deciding what you want most and finding the best way to meet your needs and at the same time benefit the environment."

"It's more than just putting in bamboo floors because you think they are green, but finding what works best for you home," Davis said.