Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

Growing a Green Home

Linda Lessner describes herself, her husband Michael and their four children as “central Austin folk.” And being that green building has been central to Austin for more than 20 years, it’s little surprise that the Lessner’s home is in all probability the greenest one on their block.

In 2004, the Lessners decided they needed a bigger home to accommodate their growing family. They found a property they liked, in a desirable location, although the existing home on the property was too small to fit their needs. But rather than bulldoze down the existing home just to build a new one, they asked architect David Webber of Webber+Studio in Austin to remodel and enlarge it.

In addition, the Lessners asked the architect to integrate several energy-efficient technologies into the remodeled home, and adhere to the principles of green and environmentally conscious building practices during construction. “Building smart is very important to us,” Lessner says.

The result was a remodeled five-bedroom, three-bathroom home at just under 3,500 square feet in size. The home includes a myriad of recycled and reused materials and energy-saving technologies — so much so that the home received a five-star rating (the highest possible) from Austin Energy’s Green Building program.
The Proximity Principle
The home the Lessners purchased is off Beverly Road, a tree-lined residential street in central Austin. This location was and remains the most advantageous for Lessner and her family, as the kids’ school, her husband’s workplace and just about everywhere else she needs on a daily basis is located within less than a mile from the home. “Proximity was a big thing,” Lessner says. “It’s one of the green principles.”

In fact, many green building programs, including Austin’s, now take into account how close you live to bus stops, parks, shopping, restaurants, recreational activities and other destinations homeowners regularly visit. But features other than location attracted the Lessners to the property. “It’s a nice neighborhood and a quiet street,” Lessner says, adding that her kids can ride their bikes or play outside without her having to worry about them.

As far as the house itself, Lessner was drawn to not only its big bones and strong forms, but also to the sense of hominess she felt while walking through it. “The house had a good family vibe to it,” she explains.

Webber was happy to carryout the Lessner’s vision. “Basically, they came to me and said, ‘We want a two-story house, with a possible attic play area, that fits into the neighborhood [design-wise],’” he notes. Webber+Studio, he adds, “treats each project as an experiment in marrying [the] client’s objectives with the characteristics of their program and site.” In tackling the Lessners’ new property, Webber and company would turn a home with “not a lot of style to it” into a “modernized shingle-style” home with a large, steep roof. But before the remodel could begin, they had to tear down part of the existing home.
Hands-On Approach
For the deconstruction of the original home, the Lessners and Webber called on Austin Habitat for Humanity. “Habitat does their deconstruction in reverse order, which takes a little longer,” Lessner explains. However, this technique provides the opportunity to carefully remove building materials so they can be recycled and reused in other (or in this case the same) construction projects. It also means less waste is deposited in local landfills.

Webber explains that Lessner had a very hands-on approach as far as choosing which recycled materials were to be used in the remodel. As part of her contract with Habitat, she actually had to buy back some of the pieces that were removed from the home during deconstruction. In addition to frequenting Austin Habitat’s ReStore on a weekly basis, she cherry-picked from other Habitat deconstruction sites in the neighborhood to get everything she needed. For Lessner, though, this was a small price to pay: “It just feels good to do it right,” she says.

Austin Habitat notes that 90 percent of materials deconstructed from a home can be salvaged for reuse. For the Lessner’s home, nearly all of the materials used in the remodel were recycled or reused in some way, including the tile, lighting, doorknobs and exterior doors. And despite the fact that the upstairs and downstairs doorknobs don’t match, Lessner isn’t worried. “Who’s really going to notice?” she says.

Lessner chose to reuse the home’s original cabinetry, although in the laundry room rather than in the kitchen. In addition, nearly 100 percent of the smooth, elegant wood flooring installed in the remodeled home was reclaimed, from both the existing home as well as from a home down the street. “It creates a nice look,” Lessner says of the reclaimed wood.

There’s also an aesthetic value when using reclaimed wood flooring, Lessner and Webber both point out. “Wood flooring is much more durable and lasts longer than other types of flooring,” Webber says. The principle of using long-lasting materials is sometimes overlooked when building green, yet it’s a crucial component, as it reduces the material consumption and man-hours that come with recurring maintenance.
Deflect or Collect
Webber uses engineered lumber in nearly all of his projects, including finger-jointed wood, which is made by gluing smaller pieces of lumber together to form standard-sized studs. Finger-jointed studs “are resource-efficient” and “are as strong as, but straighter and more stable than solid-sawn studs,” according to Austin Energy Green Building.

Austin Energy’s Green Building program started in 1991, having evolved from the Energy Star program created by the Austin City Council in 1985. The Lessners received a five-star rating from the Green Building program as the result of several energy-efficient features integrated into the remodeled home’s design.

The most apparent of these features is a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) system consisting of 18 solar panels. The PV system was surprisingly affordable, Lessner notes, since 80 percent of the total installation cost was paid by the city of Austin in the form of rebates. Even though she doesn’t check the meter every month to calculate her total energy savings, she knows something’s working right. “This home is 500 square feet larger than our last home, and our energy bill is less,” she says.

Webber puts it best when he says that a roof will either “deflect or collect” heat. This can be a deciding factor in energy costs, especially in Southern states like Texas that see a lot of sunshine throughout the year. The roof on the Lessner home is made of reflective metal, adding yet another dimension of energy efficiency. In addition, metal roofing is often composed of recycled material, adding a green component. According to Austin Energy, some aluminum roofing products are made up of 100-percent recycled content.
Creative Insulation
Insulation can be a huge factor in energy efficiency, so Webber and the Lessners approached it in three different ways. First, they installed double-paned, insulated windows throughout the home. According to the Department of Energy, the lower a window’s U-value, the higher its insulating ability. Windows that have a low-emitttance (low-e) coating have low U-values and come in two forms: high solar transmitting and low solar transmitting. The Department of Energy suggests that you use high solar transmitting, low-e glass if you live in a climate where your utility bill is higher in the winter, and low solar transmitting, low-e glass for those homeowners, like the Lessners, with higher utility bills in the summer.

Next, the Lessners applied spray-in foam insulation in-between the outside walls. “Spray-in foam stops so much air infiltration,” Webber says, who prefers this type of insulation almost exclusively. Only a licensed professional can apply spray-in foam, which expands when applied and can fill voids that traditional batt-and-roll insulation sometimes cannot. In addition, spray-in foam has the added benefits of being “fire proof, insect proof and nontoxic,” according to Austin Energy.

“When you’re in the thick of building green, all sorts of ideas spring up,” Lessner says. One such idea turned out to be the third (and most unique) method of insulation in the Lessner’s home. Batting made from recycled blue jeans was used to insulate the inside walls, as well as around water pipes and the like. Blue jean batting, like other cotton battings, is soft to the touch and easier to handle than its fiberglass counterpart. And if there was any doubt that the batting was indeed made from second-hand jeans, it was quickly dispelled when Lessner and company found a loose rivet belonging to an old pair of Levis.

As is customary in most green homes, the Lessner’s home is equipped with Energy Star appliances. The home also has a Bosch tankless water heater, which cuts down on energy costs by only heating water as it is need rather than constantly heating and re-heating stored water. It’s among the many energy-efficient, eco-friendly features the Lessners specified when remodeling their green home in Austin.