Green building has progressed to the point where looks can be deceiving: An energy-wise home can be traditional, cutting-edge, or in between. Thanks to certification programs such as Energy Star, NAHBGreen, Passive House, and LEED for Homes entering the mainstream, eco-smarts are becoming a simple fact of building, more common-sense pragmatism than tree-hugging dogmatism. One of the reasons is that green is starting to be less of an absolute and more of a spectrum, says Peter Yost, residential program manager at BuildingGreen, who doesn’t much like the term green. “Any home, existing or new, can be made more resource-efficient—it’s relative, not absolute.”
That eco-sense-as-common-sense is easing its way into common practice is good news: It trickles down to more accessible and easier methods, lower costs, and more experienced subs. It means that a house no longer has to wear its greenness like a badge of self-righteousness or defensiveness. “We’re always thrilled to be able to meet certification standards, but our practice has become much less about point-mongering and much more about assessing how the house performs,” says architect Daniel Gehman of Harley Ellis Devereaux in Los Angeles.
Progress like this also means that an energy-smart house can be whatever you want it to be, even in parts of the country where climate presents challenges. On the pages that follow, you’ll see an ultra-modern home in the Utah desert (LEED Silver), a contemporary cottage in Maine (certified Passive), a gambrel-roofed home in the Carolinas that looks 100 years old but was built last year (NAHBGreen Bronze), and a Prairie-style rambler in Minnesota that the builder didn’t bother to certify because he knew it was an energy miser. All four homes are handsome proof that green comes in all shapes and sizes.
The GO Home
Location Belfast, Maine
Architect/Designer/BuilderG•O Logic, Belfast
Size 1,300 square feet
With a HERS score of 23 and a LEED for Homes Platinum qualification, Maine’s first certified Passive Home means business. So do its designers. In the bone-chilling climate of coastal Maine, the designers at G•O Logic were intent on building a zero-energy model that would cost the same as a standard home. “At first the Passive House idea seemed unattainable, even absurd,” says architect Matthew O’Malia, a principal of G•O Logic. “But once we got into it, we found that it can be done cost-effectively,” he adds.
Maine winters may be brisk, but they’re also sunny. Triple-glazed, south-facing windows keep the house toasty, and an open plan ensures that shared spaces are the sunniest ones. Per Passive House standards, the building’s shell reduces the space heating load by almost 90 percent (thank you, SIPs); a small solar array on the roof takes care of the rest (last winter’s energy bills were a whopping $30). The GO Home is so tight that the occupants’ body heat, not to mention cooking, provide warmth. “One client, an elderly woman, mentioned last winter that the inside temperature drops to 70 when the sun goes down,” recalls O’Malia. “But she says it gets to 72 again when she bakes cookies.”
“We started out to prove that it could be done,” says O’Malia of the super-eco, cost-effective model home that he and his partner, Alan Gibson, built. Proof positive: The GO Home prototype is a part of Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a 36-unit project with phase two well underway.