Bob The Builder's Blog

Proud to Build Green Homes in a Cool City

I recently learned that the Ann Arbor area has more green buildings per capita than any other city in the U.S.  Cool city, that is, indeed!  And I am proud to be one of the area’s green-living residents and green builders making it so. 

This weekend, three colleagues and I are holding public tours of eight green homes.  Fireside Home Construction built two of those homes and I can’t wait to show them off.  It’s a chance for us to raise awareness of an issue near to my heart and to showcase what we do best. What a great way to spend the weekend!

The tours will take place June 12th and 13th in support of the national "Green Buildings for Cool Cities," a partnership between the Sierra Club and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  They, along with many groups and individuals, want to see cities adopt green building as a key component of their long-term environmental planning.  Tours are taking place all over the country and, locally, the Ecology Center is sponsoring them to help raise awareness of the environmental and economic benefits of sustainable buildings.

All of the homes we are showing are certified or registered with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program at the Platinum level, the highest possible level of achievement.  This means they are documented examples of excellence in energy efficiency and environmental stewardship and that they have been designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance in the areas that matter most:
  • Energy savings
  • Water efficiency
  • Emissions reduction
  • Improved indoor environmental quality
  • Environmental responsibility
I hope you’ll come tour. You’ll like what you see and you may learn something you didn’t already know.  You’ll have a chance to ask green building professionals about how to “green” your own home now and start making a difference today.   You’ll be talking to builders and designers who know that buildings contribute nearly 40% of global warming emissions and consume over 70 percent of electricity use in the United States and who are committed to clean energy environmental solutions and to rebuilding our local economy. 

It will be a great, green day.  

Register at www.greenhomestourmi.org now and please help spread the word.  Maybe the beauty, energy efficiency, indoor air quality and environmental stewardship of these homes will be “catchy.”  And that’s what we want.  

More green homes, after all, mean that we are going easier on our planet.

 

It's Nice to Be Powerful

Last week, when I received the first DTE Energy bill since finishing the upgrade to the solar panel array at my permanent model home and business office, I learned that my house - built using innovative green technologies, the latest in sustainable energy systems, the design excellence of a green-minded architect and a lot of TLC -  is powerful . . . very powerful.

So powerful, in fact, that DTE owed ME money last month! Ha!

I think I'm going to frame the bill.

Since I built this home in 2007, my goal has been to get to net zero energy.  We've made a lot of strides and now this 4,000 square foot shingle-style home generates more than 70 percent of its own energy needs - as well as credits from the local energy company!

It's yet another reason to love my house...AND my way of (green) building.

When it was completed in '07, my house was Michigan's very first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-rated home and as one of the "twelve greenest homes in the nation." Since then, it has achieved even more green certifications and awards.  It uses 73 percent less energy than a typical existing home its size, and generates its own energy using photovoltaic cells and saves energy using geothermal heating and cooling systems.

The update to our array added four kilowatts of photovoltaic cells to our original two. Because of it, I am less reliant on DTE Energy, specifically, and on non-renewable energy sources, in general.  The upgrade reduced our already- low annual energy expenses and also made the house a great testimony to everything I believe in when it comes to building green homes in Michigan or anywhere else for that matter.

There couldn't have been a better investment, as far as I am concerned and I recommend it to you.

By making use of sustainable energy sources, you can:

  •  Expect savings every single month because you'll use considerably less electricity from the public utility.
  • Hedge against rate hikes. I know you've been getting as frustrated as I have by unpredictable rate hikes.  By generating your own free power, no more worries there!
  • Protect the environment.  Solar electricity comes from a clean and renewable source, the sun, and geothermal systems generate heat energy from the earth.
  • Increase property value. These are smart upgrades that make your home more desirable and valuable.

 Try it.  Be powerful...like me. :-)

HERS: The Lower the Score, the Greener the Home

When you're out shopping for a car, the "miles-per-gallon" sticker is one of the first things you look for, right?  You want to know how efficient that car is and how much it costs to operate.  Did you know there is a similar number to consider when you are shopping for a house?

The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score is a number describing the energy efficiency of a home as it compares to a house built to code. The score is based on the results of tests performed - on everything from heating and cooling systems, to windows, lights and appliances, to the building envelope itself - with highly specialized equipment.  The tests include a blower door test (to test the leakiness of the house) and a duct test (to test the leakiness of the ducts), among many others. Results are then fed into an approved software program that analyzes results and provides the final number.

What to look for . . .

The lower the better.  The HERS rating has a scale that begins at zero for a home that generates as much power through renewable energy on site as it consumes. Very few homes fall into this category, though. In fact, the scope of HERS scores in the real estate world today is quite wide. For instance, a representative existing home has a score of about 130, while a typical newly constructed home comes in closer to 100. 

Homes that qualify for an ENERGY STAR label must have a HERS score of 86 or less and that's good, but there's still better.  Fairly recently, the U.S. Department of Energy posed a challenge to the homebuilding industry to go even greener and build a new generation of high-performance homes. To qualify for the program, a home must score 70 or less on the HERS. Each 1-point decrease in the HERS Index corresponds to a 1% reduction in energy consumption. 

When you think about that, what we accomplish in energy efficiency is really something to be proud of.  Fireside Home Construction recently built an affordable, custom, 1,900 square foot (finished space only) green home with a HERS score index of 50. That's 41 percent more efficient than a base Energy Star rating score!  In addition to making us proud, the low score contributed to helping us achieve a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum rating (the highest possible!) and keeps the home's operating expenses low, as well.  "M&M's Li'l Ranch's" estimated total utility (heating, cooling, hot water, electricity and service charges) bills add up to only $80 per month! 

And that's not even as low as it goes! Our 4,000 square foot headquarters in Dexter, Mich., started out with a HERS score of 37.  Recently, we added four kilowatts of new solar panels to our original two and started generating about 70 percent of our own energy needs.  We can't wait to see our new score.  It may become the number forever associated with "The Fireside Challenge." 

So find out just how many "miles per gallon" your home gets. Call a professional, let them conduct the tests and then take the steps to improve your score.  It's worth it.

The Great Paint Debate: Go Green and Breathe Easy!

There’s no question that one of the easiest and least expensive ways to give your home a facelift is to splash some new paint around. Before you do, though, think green. Paints contain a wide range of chemicals that can be extremely harmful to people and to the environment.  This makes painting an area where some forethought and a little shopping around can really make a difference.

Here’s why. Regular paint releases low-level toxic emissions into the air for years after application. This is because of the high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) needed — until recently — to ensure the paint’s durability.

Indoors, where these emissions are concentrated in sealed, virtually airtight homes and workplaces, this air pollution can be a health hazard, causing headaches, dizziness and other ailments. Outdoors, they contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone.
 
If your interior decorating needs allow and you want to avoid these problems for health or environmental reasons, shop for natural, zero-VOC paints — like lime wash, milk wash and clay paint — for indoor use.  If that’s too hard to commit to because of the limited color choices, don’t worry!  Low-VOC paints and coating options provide a very good, environmentally responsible choice, as well.

On the outside of your home, where exterior paint can contribute to air pollution and contaminate ground water and drinking water supplies, choosing to go green makes even more sense.  Look for no- or low-VOC, no-formaldehyde paints and avoid alkyd or solvent-based paints. These contain hundreds of toxic ingredients.

Don’t worry about quality issues.  We’ve come a long way and many innovative paint companies have worked hard to overcome paint’s traditional health and environmental challenges. Reputable paint companies, like Sherwin-Williams, are now manufacturing eco-friendly coatings that still look just as good, if not better, than older paint types.  They are also ensuring that those of us who care about the environment can “breathe easy.”  These paints have also been created for modern life with features that include low-sheen, easy-clean, one-coat or long-lasting…so, why debate or even think about it any longer? Just go green!

Why Insulation Helps . . . and When it Doesn’t!

Many people think insulation works the way a winter coat does. It’s true in many cases that "the thicker, the better," but it works on a different principle. You can’t just pile it on and keep warmth in and cold out, or vice versa. You have to seal it in. Air escapes and enters a home when a "thermal bridge" lets it in. A thermal bridge is a path of entry and escape created when two poorly insulated materials come together. It is a primary cause of energy inefficiency and the high heating and cooling costs that come with it. Insulation attempts to make that "bridge" disappear. The right insulation creates a "thermal break" that reduces air leaks and, in doing so, energy costs.

When we talk about insulation, we talk about "R-values," or the product’s "thermal resistance" value. While it seems to make sense that increasing the R-value of your walls and roof — the building envelope — would increase the resistance, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Poor installation often results in gaps, over-compression or settling (of blown-in insulation). The end result can be lower R-values in the installed product than what is listed on the purchased product’s label.

If you’re not sure that you can get it right, hiring a pro is really the way to go.

Don’t get me wrong. There are air sealing and insulation activities you can do yourself. If careful and precise, a homeowner can often insulate attic floors, basements, new or open walls, and crawl space walls on their own. Blown-in and sprayed-in insulation, though, are best left to the professional installer, no matter what.

If you are taking on an insulation project on your own, remember the two main ingredients of the "secret sauce:"

  • Insulation needs proper air sealing to work well.
  • Only someone with the right equipment and necessary training can identify and quantify air leakage and combustion safety problems.

If you do choose to tackle insulation efforts yourself, have an experienced and trusted third-party contractor check your work.

 

Straight Talk on Insulation

You know that insulation helps your home maintain temperature and lower your heating and cooling bills but did you know it is singlehandedly the very best thing you can do to save energy and live green?

If you are building a new house, you have a lot of great choices for insulation. My personal favorites are SIPS, structurally insulated panels. SIPs are known both for their high performance in terms of strength and durability and for their energy efficiency. The panels are made under factory-controlled conditions, usually by sandwiching a core of rigid foam insulation between two structural skins of oriented strand board (OSB), although other skin material can be used for various, specific purposes. Because of their great flexibility, SIPs can be custom designed for each home or project. I'm speaking from experience when I say they are a great product. They result in a building system that is extremely strong, energy-efficient, cost-effective and, yes, very green.

But I didn't start this blog just to promote SIPs, however worthy they are of their own blog (they EVEN reduce job site waste and time)! When a homeowner wants to build a green home that doesn't use SIPs (but, seriously, why would they?!), it is important that they understand the differences between all of their insulation choices and that they make their choice based on both their environmental philosophies and on what is best for their family's health. Homeowners upgrading their homes by adding insulation should base their decisions on the same information.

While fiberglass insulation is a traditional option, it has been criticized for its impact on indoor air quality and its resulting potential health risks. Other insulations are criticized for pollution associated with resource cultivation. Environmentally friendly options are available. Some go easier on "Mother Earth;" some are made of recycled materials. Almost all are healthier for occupants and often work better than fiberglass solutions.

These materials can help maximize heating and cooling efficiency, create a healthier space and even help your building or remodeling project qualify for energy rebates and tax credits!

If you are insulating a basement or foundation wall, rigid foam insulation is a great and very green choice. Spray foam insulation is also extremely efficient and environmentally friendly. It can also be waterproof, helping eliminate moisture!

If you are thinking about adding insulation to say, an attic, though, look carefully at options beyond fiberglass. They include foam, cellulose, cotton and wool.

 If, though, you are starting new construction or adding on, do consider SIPs for your project. After you see your --- much smaller --- energy bills, you are likely to become as big a fan of the panels as I am!

You know that insulation helps your home maintain temperature and lower your heating and cooling bills but did you know it is singlehandedly the very best thing you can do to save energy and live green?

 If you are building a new house, you have a lot of great choices for insulation. My personal favorites are SIPS, structurally insulated panels. SIPs are known both for their high performance in terms of strength and durability and for their energy efficiency. The panels are made under factory-controlled conditions, usually by sandwiching a core of rigid foam insulation between two structural skins of oriented strand board (OSB), although other skin material can be used for various, specific purposes. Because of their great flexibility, SIPs can be custom designed for each home or project. I'm speaking from experience when I say they are a great product. They result in a building system that is extremely strong, energy-efficient, cost-effective and, yes, very green.

 But I didn't start this blog just to promote SIPs, however worthy they are of their own blog (they EVEN reduce job site waste and time)! When a homeowner wants to build a green home that doesn't use SIPs (but, seriously, why would they?!), it is important that they understand the differences between all of their insulation choices and that they make their choice based on both their environmental philosophies and on what is best for their family's health. Homeowners upgrading their homes by adding insulation should base their decisions on the same information.

 While fiberglass insulation is a traditional option, it has been criticized for its impact on indoor air quality and its resulting potential health risks. Other insulations are criticized for pollution associated with resource cultivation. Environmentally friendly options are available. Some go easier on "Mother Earth;" some are made of recycled materials. Almost all are healthier for occupants and often work better than fiberglass solutions.

These materials can help maximize heating and cooling efficiency, create a healthier space and even help your building or remodeling project qualify for energy rebates and tax credits!

 If you are insulating a basement or foundation wall, rigid foam insulation is a great and very green choice. Spray foam insulation is also extremely efficient and environmentally friendly. It can also be waterproof, helping eliminate moisture!

 If you are thinking about adding insulation to say, an attic, though, look carefully at options beyond fiberglass. They include foam, cellulose, cotton and wool.

 If, though, you are starting new construction or adding on, do consider SIPs for your project. After you see your --- much smaller --- energy bills, you are likely to become as big a fan of the panels as I am!

 

Tips for Greening Your Home NOW!

Your existing home may be full of character, but it may also be cold, drafty, dusty and uncomfortable with high energy bills arriving monthly, ice dams clogging your gutters each winter, and rooms that never seem to cool in summer --- no matter how low you set the thermostat.

We can certainly help you address these problems on a large scale, with a thorough energy audit and home improvements that really make a significant impact, but you’ll be glad to know that there are many things you can do yourself for effective and immediate, albeit smaller, gains.

You can start by installing a programmable thermostat. It will help you save energy while you are away from home. Next, you can replace light bulbs around the house with Energy Star qualified compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). These are more expensive than regular light bulbs, but they are well worth it. They reduce your electric bills and pay for themselves quickly, in about six months! You can also conserve energy used for heating water by turning down the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. You’d be surprised how much lowering the temperature even just a few degrees can save.

To go further, focus on reducing air leakage and moisture infiltration. To do this really well, I advise you get in touch with us, an award-winning company with expertise in these areas, but there are some steps you can take on your own that might help a bit.

Find and seal leaks: Check around windows, doors and even recessed lights. Look for holes in attics, basements and crawlspaces and seal these leaks with caulk, spray foam, or weather stripping, until a more thorough approach is feasible. It will help.

Add insulation: You’ll have the easiest time of it --- and the biggest savings --- in the attic. Make sure your insulation covers the floor joists and go for R-38, at least!

Seal ducts: It is reported that about 20 percent of the air that moves through the duct system in a typical existing home is lost due to leaks and poorly sealed connections. You won’t be able to do much about ducts concealed behind walls or in floors, but if you put some duct tape and insulation to work in exposed ducts, you’ll make a difference!

These things can tide you over until you are ready for more meaningful changes and their many benefits --- like reduced monthly energy expenses, energy rebates and even tax credits! When you are ready, though, call us. It’s a great time to go green!

Fireside Home Construction Wins it's 4th EnergyValue Housing Award

Knowledgeable owners of older homes love the character and histories of their houses, but live in them resenting their high heating and cooling costs, and deeply regretting their very-valid concerns about how their homes affect indoor air quality and the environment.

Older homes, problematic when it comes to energy use and built with materials that may be unsafe, stand as testimony to the fact that green building must become a way of life for today's builders. In addition to that, "green" must become every homebuyer's greatest demand and expectation. After all, it is an activity undertaken in the interest of both environmental stewardship and the safety of the people who live in the homes we build.

If I were king, "green" wouldn't even be worth talking about. It would be a permanent, expected and sustainable change in the world of residential construction. Pun intended.

I have felt this way since I became a builder in 1996. As a result, I made energy-efficiency and environmentally friendly homebuilding pillars of Fireside Home Construction's business model from virtually the very beginning.

When I started out in this business, we barely knew what "green" was and I reflected on that fact last month when I traveled to the National Association of Homebuilders' International Builders' Show® to accept my 15th award related to green building and my FOURTH EnergyValue Housing Award (EVHA).

The EVHA honors builders who voluntarily incorporate energy efficiency in the design, construction and marketing of new homes. Winners are considered an "elite" group of builders, but in my opinion we are a group of builders just doing the right thing, the only thing that makes sense for the people who make their lives in - or around - the homes and structures we build.

At the Builders' Show, EVHA judges reported that Fireside Home Construction "appears to be doing everything it can (that is economically feasible) to design, build, and market an excellent home." The judges remarked on our attention to detail in site planning, pre-construction energy analyses, and the construction process and I was, certainly, very proud of our accomplishment.

The home that received the award included a wide variety of energy-efficient technologies:

  • Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs)
  • Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs)
  • Geothermal heating and air conditioning
  • Heat recovery ventilation system
  • Spray foam insulation
  • High-efficiency lighting

It met the standards and qualifications for several innovative energy/green building programs, as well:

  • Energy Star®
  • Green Built Michigan
  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) - Platinum rating
  • U.S. Department of Energy's Builders Challenge

And, thanks to the work of my employees, the quality products from my suppliers, and the expertise of the trades craftspeople who worked on the job site, this is an extremely durable and wonderful home for its owners. They enjoy lower heating and cooling costs, maximum indoor comfort and air quality and the knowledge that their home has been recognized by many third parties for high performance as it relates to energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and overall environmental stewardship. Am I proud of our accomplishment? Sure. But I can't stop there and rest on my laurels. Building "green" is a process enhanced every day by new technologies. Fireside Home Construction is committed to learning them, using them and achieving even greater "green" gains in the future - for our buyers and for our world.

 

Why Choose Fireside?