The many hues of green building
July 6, 2010
Steamboat Springs — When it comes to sustainable homes in North Routt County, it turns out there are several shades of green.
For Stephanie and Jim Finegan, of Willow Creek Pass, the goal was to wrap their new home in the best-insulated shell possible.
Leslie Lovejoy and her husband, Mark Ensner, of Columbine, emphasized the avoidance of toxic substances — in floor coverings and adhesives, for example.
"We were tired of living in a toxic environment and wanted to avoid off-gassing from chemicals like formaldehyde," Lovejoy said.
Steamboat Springs is known for its wintry climate, but 25 miles north of the city on Routt County Road 129, residents in the Steamboat Lake area know a different climate. The snowbanks were just beginning to disappear from the north side of homes there June 4.
The Finegan home, set well back from the county road in a stand of aspens, offers views of Dome Peak and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness from its east-facing deck. The elevation there is 8,000 feet, compared with Steamboat's 6,700.
The Lovejoy/Ensner home, above 8,000 feet and also facing east, is even closer to Wyoming. It has views of Hahn's Peak.
Angela Ashby, a Realtor with Prudential Steamboat Realty and chairwoman of the Routt County Sustainability Council, is excited to see two more rural Steamboat homes that reflect an outstanding commitment to sustainability.
"It's very cool that people like Stephanie and Jim, and Leslie and Mark are doing this without being told they have to," Ashby said.
She is working through the Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors to establish a standardized nomenclature that soon will be incorporated into the Steamboat Springs Multiple Listing Service so that Realtors and homebuyers will be able to quickly see a reliable guide to the sustainable qualities of homes for sale throughout the valley.
Although the owners of the two homes in North Routt approached their building projects from different points of view, they share several sustainable qualities, including the use of locally harvested beetle-killed pine. Both sets of homeowners will take advantage of the availability of seemingly unlimited dry wood in their neighborhood by incorporating wood-burning stoves.
Both homes also have very appealing aesthetics. Jim Finegan, whose skills include sheet metal work, installed custom stainless steel panels behind the wood stove. And he added a stamped tin ceiling in the main-level office.
Stephanie Finegan is proud of the door-less master closet that admits natural light via a wall cutout near the ceiling that functions like an un-glazed clerestory window.
Like her husband, she is employed in a construction-related job — she works remotely on publications for Boston-based Building Science Corp.
Ensner was the force behind a large foyer and mudroom that does double duty as a ski-tuning bench in winter and a workbench in summer. He runs his own painting contracting business, Picante Painting. Lovejoy got the loft-level art studio she coveted.
The couple practices Buddhism, and the floor plan of the home is driven by a loosely spiraling staircase in the center of the rectangular walls that inspires feelings of well-being among visitors without their really understanding why.
Equally important to using building materials that support human health, Lovejoy said, was employing local professionals in the construction of their house.
Paths to sustainability
The two homes also reflect some significant differences in the materials used in the building envelopes.
The Lovejoy/Ensner home employs straw bale construction, overseen by general contractor John Randolph, of John Randolph Construction, who has developed a specialty in the technique after building his own home. The straw bale walls are plastered with local clay dirt.
Lovejoy said the straw exterior walls (interior walls are framed with dimensional lumber) give them an insulation factor of R-50.
She leaned heavily on the expertise of Jan Cohen and the good nature of volunteer workers in the plastering process. Lovejoy likes to joke that it turned her and her husband into "sustainable winos."
"It took a lot of bottles of wine to finish the house, and we're still married," she said with a grin.
Peak Construction framed the Finegan home in the traditional way under the supervision of general contractor Bradley Bartels. However, the work of building an exceptionally tight house began before the first 2-by-6 was in place.
Jim Finegan is a heating contractor and brought his own knowledge of building systems to the project. He insisted on insulating both sides of the foundation, including underneath the slab.
"That was driven as much by comfort as it was by efficiency," he said. "Many people spend $20,000 on kitchen cabinets in their home, but we spent $10,000 on cabinets and $20,000 on insulation."
Keeping it tight
The Finegans required that before the framers bolted the first lumber sill plate to the top of the foundation, they run a continuous bead of caulking beneath it. They also introduced the dry-wallers to a new construction technique, insisting that they run caulk on the framing studs before placing the drywall.
However, before they ever installed the drywall, they called in Chad Feagler, of Mountain Energy Consultants, to do a blower door test to determine how much leakage they had.
Only by doing that, Feagler said, can a home-building team and the owners make economical adjustments.
"Otherwise, you can apply a Band-Aid, but you won't be able to really fix the problem," he said.
The Finegan home, with R-45 walls and an R-75 ceiling, has less than half the unwanted air exchange of a typical home, according to Feagler's testing. Not surprisingly, Finegan installed a highly efficient boiler in the lower level of the home. The concrete slab has in-floor heat, which substantially augments the heating for the home.
The interior trim in the Finegan home is beetle-killed pine milled in North Routt, and the exterior soffits beneath the roof overhangs are made of beetle-kill from Utah.
The Finegans' wood floor is Australian cypress. One might think hardwood flooring that was shipped across the Pacific Ocean doesn't pass the green test. But Jim Finegan counters that forests can be managed sustainability and that his new floor is more durable than, say, local pine and thus does not need to be replaced as frequently. Similarly, he says the steel roof will outlast other roofing materials.
Randolph said the Lovejoy/Ensner straw bale home essentially is built with post and beam construction — the skeleton is composed of 8-inch-by-8-inch Douglas fir posts harvested in Utah and finished by a structural engineer.
The straw bales were imported from the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado, but he is engaged in conversation with the Community Agricultural Alliance of Routt County about baling more straw for use in future homes. Lovejoy's building materials included kitchen cabinets salvaged from someone else's remodel and spruced up with attractive new drawer pulls and cabinet knobs.
The sustainable materials in her home include a Paperstone kitchen countertop, a carpenter area in the loft with nontoxic pad and wool carpet, a ground-level concrete floor with in-floor heat and tinted with water-based Soycrete and Trex decking.
The landscaping is all indigenous xeriscape.
Lovejoy and Ensner decided they could do without an energy-consuming dishwasher.
The architect for the Lovejoy/Ensner home was Todd Young, of Steamboat Springs. The Finegans relied on Steve Baczek, of Reading, Mass., a registered architect who specializes in green building.
Pro turns to other pros
Jim Finegan said even though he has many years of experience in heating systems, it was important to him to involve professionals like Feagler and Bartels.
"Brad was involved from the word 'go,'" he said. "The architect was on board, too. This is the most difficult job I've ever done, but the most rewarding, too."
Bartels said he learned a good deal from his clients.
"Building a high-performance home requires a genuine team effort, from the architect to the trim carpenter," Bartels said. "Everyone must be open-minded and willing to learn. Gone are the days of, 'I've been doing it like this for 25 years, and it works fine.'"
Ashby said assembling the design and build team from the beginning is a plus for any construction project but particularly important for sustainable homes.
"Everyone should be at the table in the beginning," she said. "You'll save money in the long run if it helps you avoid change orders."