All this week, the Eco Women will be investigating eco construction in the U.S. and abroad. How hard or easy is it to build green? What are some of the materials and techniques available?
Part 2 of 5
When Mr. D and I built our dream house, we’d had the blueprints for over five years. Every now and then we’d tweak things — move a wall, add a closet, change out a window. When it came time to build, we had the floorplan down pat. The big challenge was choosing a lot and then find the devil…in the details.
We first bought a 5 acre plot because Mr. D wanted to live in the country — but neither of us were “sold” on it. About 4 years later we came across 17 acres located next door to an elementary school and a mere 7 minutes from the major highway running through the Fox Cities. Mr. D could be to his office within 7 minutes, I could be anywhere else within 20. Short driving distances was a major factor in choosing our lot — driving is (DUH!) a major polluter and our quality of life is better when we’re not sitting in a car for hours every day. The boys being able to walk to school is a total bonus.
Our 17 acres was partially wooded with a creek running through it. We knew immediately we’d restore lots of natural habitat, including a prairie and native tree species. We wanted “country” acreage so we could create a green space full of wildlife — bugs, birds, critters and creatures.
Positioning our house on the lot was an easy choice, our builder advised us on maximizing the heat of the sun for cold Wisconsin winters and placing the garage on the west side to take the first gusts of wind. Fortunately, our builder puts a lot of stock in quality over quantity and wants the 8 or so houses he builds each year to last for centuries — he framed our house with thicker than usual beams, added extra insulation and made the basement walls extra thick. We’re far above the flood plain (it’s illegal to build in one in Wisconsin anyway) and connected to electrical, phone and cable through a trench dug up to the main road. This is both safer for air traffic (birds & bats) and for us (no windstorm can down any lines on our property).
Since Wisconsin has bitterly cold weather for 6 months of the year, we opted for brick — it holds heat and never needs replacing like other siding. We also installed a radiant heat system instead of a conventional forced air system. A huge boiler in our basement heats water that runs through tubing in our floors. The heat rises and keeps us comfortably warm more efficiently than a forced air system. It uses less energy since we’re able to keep our thermostat at a lower setting and heating a house with hot water is more energy efficient. This was a huge battle, however, because radiant heat costs three times as much as a forced air system — but the savings are recouped within 5 years. We figure we recouped ours within the first 3 years of living in our house based on the cost of our propane bill versus our neighbor’s.
A radiant heat system has no duct work which means no blowing dust and no worrying about where to put furniture since there’s nothing we can block. This also means installing central air is an additional expense. We put in a partial duct system to blow the heat around the 2nd floor of our house in the winter and cool with an air conditioner in the summer if we wished. So far we’ve used the air conditioner less than 3 weeks in the last 4 years because ceiling fans in every room combined with wood & tile floors, window blinds and cross breezes have kept us very comfortable. Our heat/cooling system is hands down a huge money and energy saver.
We went with tile and wood floors with very limited carpet because, like the brick outside, we don’t want to replace flooring. Every replaced floor means junk in a landfill. Our choice of durable, classic materials means a room redux mostly consists of new paint and furniture.
Country living means privacy so we have no window treatments except in bedrooms where we need to block the sun and in the living room because huge windows, no matter how well made, let in summer heat and winter chill. We again opted for a one time only investment in wooden blinds and waffle blinds — they may look bland, but they won’t clog a landfill and they’re easy to clean in addition to being made from renewable resources.
Our appliances were all Energy Star rated. We have water-saving faucets in the showers, toilets that use less water to flush, and a urinal that requires a half gallon per flush. Again, Wisconsin weather requires excellent insulation and our builder only buys Anderson windows, so we we’re weatherproof.
The other environmentally conscious consideration in building our house was size. In a time when most McMansions measured 3,600-4,000 square feet, Mr. D and I built a house that measured 2,600. We eliminated “wasted” space in our house plan by eliminating a huge entryway and all but 2 hallways. Pocket doors and reducing the size of 2 bathrooms gave us more square feet to add to our living room. Our house has no “extra” rooms — the formal dining room became a library. We have no den, study or sewing nook. The “breakfast counter” became my “office” when I converted the space into a built in desk (I want my computer in the middle of the traffic flow when kids are using it, I can keep an eye on the stove and the laundry from my centrally located perch). What I lost in privacy and space I make up for in having one less room to clean. Less house means less to heat, clean and repair — instead we invested our money when we built in quality materials.
Looking back, I would not change a single thing about our house — except I wish I’d have bought a stainless steel kitchen sink. It’s the perfect size & temperature year round while staying durable enough for Team Testosterone to tear through. We did our best to build an energy efficient house with siding, flooring, window treatments and cabinetry that would last our lifetime. We might not have bought the most “eco-friendly” products available, but we’ll only buy them once. And since we have everything we want in a house, our next “project” will be switching over to a different power source for electricity — but we’re still researching whether to choose a wind turbine or solar panels.
Tomorrow, the Eco Women go out to the Wild West!