Heritage Park home sets a standard
Couple finds balance between sustainability and economy
February 7, 2010
Steamboat Springs — When Paul Ralston and Mariana Ishida host the first dinner party in their new home in Heritage Park this year, Ralston is sure to guide his guests to the utility room to show them his pride and joy: an exceptionally efficient boiler.
"When we decided to build," Ralston said, "we decided to build as energy efficient as possible. My biggest thing was the comfort of the home."
Showing off his new boiler, Ralston added, is the rough equivalent of asking his friends to look under the hood of a powerful new automobile (only with a different spin).
The married couple purchased a building site in Heritage Park that overlooked open ranch land more than two years ago. However, they temporarily put the building on hold as the Steamboat Springs real estate market overheated and construction prices went up. They didn't revisit the possibility of building a custom home until early in summer 2009. When they did, they were pleasantly surprised.
What they got from building contractor Jamie Letson, of Letson Enterprises, was an efficient home that was completed within six months and delivered for $160 per square foot.
"Building this home last year would probably have cost 30 percent more," Letson said.
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Highly motivated builders and subcontractors dovetailed nicely with Ralston and Ishida's desire to balance sustainability with economy in their new house.
Ishida was frank in saying she and her husband had a firm budget they couldn't afford to exceed, and they were willing to economize in some areas in order to get the mechanical systems necessary to make the home energy efficient.
"We couldn't go over budget; we couldn't have any surprises," Ishida said. "Our philosophy was to put the money where it really matters — the envelope of the house."
An example of economizing is the absence of hardwood baseboards where the floor of the home meets the walls.
"What do I really need that for?" Ishida asked rhetorically.
The couple also installed modest kitchen cabinetry and countertops. They splurged on a handsome stone backsplash that adds flair to the kitchen. The second-story floors built of local blue-stain beetle-kill pine manage to be distinctive and sustainable at the same time. The two plan to apply the seal coat to the wood flooring themselves.
Ishida's taste in flooring tends toward tinted concrete anyway, and perhaps to a degree because a concrete slab floor also could be shown to be energy efficient, Ralston shared her preference.
The orientation of the home gives it full southern sun in winter, and large windows admit the passive solar heat, which is stored in the slab.
Instead of pouring footers and installing floor joists over a crawl space, Letson said, the home has an entirely concrete floor on the main level, making the in-floor heating system that much more efficient.
"This is a super insulated slab and footers," Letson said. "There's foam all the way around the perimeter, and we poured the slab over foam insulation."
Ralston said he expects to realize a return on that investment in terms of the comfort of his new home and in money saved on energy costs.
It was while exploring Routt County's green building program that Ralston and Ishida met Chad Feagler, of Mountain Energy Consultants, who did the energy rating and consulting on the home. The homeowners retained him to be their representative in the construction process.
Feagler said his role is to keep subcontractors and contractors honest, but he never encounters resistance from Letson's crews. He added that he strongly pushes for processes, such as blower door tests, that verify the efficiency of a home. The plans for the Ralston/Ishida home were designed to be 33 percent more efficient than called for in the green building code, he said.
"The house is a system," Feagler said. "It's in the high-efficiency boiler and mechanical ventilation systems."
Letson said he's been building sustainable homes for more than a decade, and the process continues to be exciting. And he expects the movement toward sustainable homes to continue to grow.
"Once we sit down with clients and explain what we do and the cost benefits, it's a no-brainer," Letson said.
Realtor Angela Ashby, a member of the city of Steamboat Springs Green Team, said she is working with the Steamboat Springs Multiple Listing Service to create a standardized system of reliably reporting the verifiable sustainable qualities of homes listed for sale.
"I have been pursuing discussions with our MLS committee on incorporating more sustainable features into our MLS system, including HERS (Home Energy Rating System), Energy Star for new homes and LEED," Ashby said. "It's been reported that a majority of individuals seek energy efficiency in home design. This is not going away and now more than ever, sellers could use tools that properly identify these features in homes."