Steamboat Living: Green Building Tour offers lessons in homebuilding
November 22, 2012
Simpson/Hebert home on Maple Street
The home of Mayling Simpson and Paul Hebert offers a spectacular location in Old Town Steamboat Springs. But before the couple could feel cozy and secure in the house that has been remodeled several times, they had to unravel a complex knot of issues from the crawl space to the attic and roof.
The house originally was built in 1938 and added onto in 1976 and "both were quite leaky," Simpson says, blaming ice dams. "Paul and I tried a number of things, including closing the fireplaces," she says.
Hebert said they tried to address the issues in 1999 by tearing off an old porch and adding on a bedroom and library, but even the new cold roof didn't solve the problems. Although energy bills weren't overly high, the new bedroom was unusually cold and there still were the ice dams forming on the vaulted ceiling over the living room. Icicles even drooped from the seams between the foundation and the base of the wood-framed walls.
Simpson and Hebert brought in Ivars Mikelsons, of Greenleaf Building Performance; Scott Kemp, of New Mountain Carpenter; and Michael Roberts, of Odyssey Building Group, this year to give the home an energy audit and a fresh start. "We needed to find out just how leaky it was," Mikelsons says. "The standard blower door test that measures the rate at which the home exchanges air showed that the house had some major issues."
A blower door test measures how air tight buildings are by fixing a large fan into an outside door with an air-tight seal. The test revealed that the home gave up 10 air exchanges per hour — way too many.
Thermal imaging allowed him to pinpoint all of the places heat was escaping where elements of the older house joined with the newer one. By addressing those problem areas, the contractors were able to reduce leakage by 40 to 45 percent.
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Kemp urges homeowners undertaking an energy-efficiency remodel to hire an expert to verify the home's improved energy efficiency. "It's important to work with knowledgeable people," Kemp says. "And the collaboration between the different building trades is important. Unfortunately, there's some resistance to verification due to the cost. That's a huge mistake."
Simpson and Hebert made all the right moves, including replacing can lighting in their ceilings and replacing the old trapezoidal windows with energy-efficient glass, making the view of the Little Soda Creek Valley from their living room more sustainable than ever.
Thomas home on Lone Star Trail
When complete, the Thomas home, high above Fish Creek Falls Road, could be Steamboat's pre-eminent solar home, with a 9.8-kilowatt photovoltaic system that would allow the owners to go off the grid if they need to.
The new home, designed by Rob Hawkins, of RH Architects, with co-designer Erik Lobeck and built by Bradley Bartels, of Purebuilt, will make a design statement in its own microclimate, where junipers and Douglas thrive on a rocky bench.
"The home is oriented 5 degrees east of due south — perfect for passive solar," Hawkins says.
The home takes advantage of passive solar energy with an exposed concrete Trombe wall that serves as a heat sink in a greenhouse via a bank of tall windows.
Building the home's active solar heating system, which is designed to provide 100 percent of domestic hot water needs and 70 percent of its heating load, involved a team of consultants including Tim McCarthy, of Brightside Solar; Aaron Scarborough, of Down Hill Plumbing; Rob Orozco, of Orozco Electric; and Chad Feagler, of Mountain Energy Consultants.
The electricity generated by twin solar panels near the home's driveway entrance is stored in a series of eight 17-inch tall batteries. Although the solar system is connected to the grid, McCarthy says two of those batteries are dedicated to inverters to provide electricity in case of an outage.
The system is so robust, Scarborough adds, that there always is 200 gallons of water heated to 185 degrees available. He designed a plumbing system that mixes that hot water down to 120 degrees for the 35 percent that goes to kitchen and bathroom taps.
And there's more to the 5,665-square-foot home's sustainable qualities than its passive and active solar systems. Before construction began, a smaller home dating to 1965 was taken down. Lumber salvaged from it was used in concrete framing and other components were sent elsewhere for resale. Additionally, 85 percent of the lighting in the home uses LED bulbs, the exterior is made from beetle-killed siding, insulation comprises spray foam and recycled denim, and it has virtually no lawn, with the driveway consisting of vegetation-filled perforated pavers.
Lobeck home on Diagon Alley
The ambient heat generated by domestic human activities will contribute a large share of the energy demand for heating required by the house being built by Erik Lobeck on Diagon Alley in Old Town Steamboat Springs.
Built to meet Europe's stringent Passive House Design Standard, the super-insulated home is calculated to take advantage of a modest amount of passive solar gain and the heat generated by its occupants to stay near 68 degrees year-round — even during Steamboat's winters.
The efficient 650-square-foot house (900 with garage) will have no furnace, no fireplace and only three small electric baseboard heaters as backup. Lobeck estimates the heating cost resulting from the baseboards won't exceed $200 per year.
As designer and builder, Lobeck ran his home's specifications through Passive House Design Energy modeling software, including R-90 insulation in the roof and R-50 in the foam sub-slab and the walls. He even researched local climate data to factor into the formula. The house is so tight that an air exchange system is mandatory, he says.
"The beauty of the system is that once you build your walls, ceilings and roofs right, they don't require any maintenance like a high-efficiency boiler eventually would," he says. "It becomes a dumb system that fades into the background and quietly does its thing."
Technically, the two-story house is an accessory unit as allowed under the Steamboat Springs zoning code. Lobeck intends to rent it to tenants and someday build a larger home for his family on the balance of the downtown lot.