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Burnside's Inn: A Model Green Home

When it comes to building homes, Bob Burnside sees shades of green. “A lot of people say it’s [either] green or it’s not,” he explains, referring to today’s typical home. “Well, that’s not always the case. Let’s find incremental improvement. Let’s do it better than last year. Let’s do the best we can with the budget available.”

As president of Fireside Home Construction, a custom homebuilding and remodeling company based in Dexter, Mich., Burnside emphasizes to his customers that progress toward the green ideal is better than nothing at all — and to demonstrate the possibilities, he aimed high with one of his most recent building projects.

Last year, Fireside completed construction on a three-level, 4,000-square-foot timber-frame home that became the first residence in Michigan to achieve Platinum-level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. That’s the highest level of certification available for homes under the U.S. Green Building Council’s popular green-building rating system.

The home, dubbed Burnside’s Inn, incorporates many of the latest energy-efficient systems and green building products. It features a custom timber-frame structure designed by Marty Birkenkamp of Riverbend Timber Framing, located in nearby Blissfield, Mich., in the southeastern region of the state. Building systems such as ICFs (insulating concrete forms) and SIPs (structural insulated panels) were used to construct the home. In addition, it has a geothermal heating and cooling system, as well as a stand-alone solar energy system. The result is an energy-efficient demonstration home Burnside uses to tout the benefits of building green.

Green Pedigree
The home’s green pedigree starts with its ICF foundation. ICFs are steel-reinforced block-like building forms with rigid foam insulation on the outside and poured concrete on the inside. They are often used for structural walls, but Burnside chose to limit ICFs to the basement level and go with SIPs for the home’s walls and ceilings.

SIPs are high-performance panels made by sandwiching a core of rigid foam insulation between structural skins of various types, the most common of which is oriented strand board (OSB). The SIP panels complement the timber-frame construction, which is visible from the home’s interior and adds to its natural feel.

While concrete is inherently energy-efficient, the addition of insulation enhancements makes it more so, while steel reinforcement, in the case of ICFs, adds to the structural strength. The effectiveness of the insulating systems was never more evident than during a recent winter power outage.

“It was 5 degrees outside,” Burnside says. “We lost power for 16 hours, and during that entire time the temperature in the house dropped by only 5 degrees.”

A more scientific indicator — an energy analysis using a scoring system called the HERS Index — proves the efficiency of the home and its building systems. The Home Energy Rating System, or HERS, was developed by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) and is used to qualify Energy Star homes.

The HERS Index starts with a base score of 100. The rating is reduced by one point for every 1 percent reduction in the home’s energy consumption. Burnside Inn earned a HERS Index rating of 37 (lower is better). How good is that? A rating of 85 qualifies a home for Energy Star certification.

Remember to Breathe
The ICF and SIP building envelope excels at keeping conditioned air inside, which helps reduce heating and cooling costs, but it also results in a tight building envelope. So to allow the home to breathe properly, Burnside installed a mechanical ventilation system.

“It’s also known as a heat recovery ventilator,” he explains. “The house is built so tightly it does not breathe on its own, so we have to ventilate it. Our motto is, ‘Build it tight but ventilate it right.’ So we eliminated noisy, leaky, expensive bath fans, and in the kitchen and in each of the two bathrooms we installed vents that I call the world’s biggest vacuum cleaner.”

The ventilation system essentially sucks stale air out of the house and replaces it with fresh, conditioned air, eliminating the primary cause of mold and mildew growth in the home and lessening the risk of asthma for occupants. Burnside believes respiratory ailments like asthma have been on the rise for the past decade, in part because homes have been built tighter, but ventilation quality has not kept up.

Earth Power
An important component of the home’s energy efficiency is its geothermal heating and cooling system. The system uses the natural temperature of the Earth to chill water, which serves as the basis for air conditioning, or warm water for heating in the winter. Two thousand lineal feet of plastic piping, buried six feet underground, surround the house at a level where the temperature is a steady 57 degrees, regardless of the season. Water flows through the pipes and returns to the house to efficiently cool and heat it. A Freon compressor provides supplemental heating. The geothermal system keeps the cost of heating and cooling the house to less than $100 a month.

Burnside also installed a 2 kW Philips solar photovoltaic energy system in the yard adjacent to the home. The system provides approximately 20 percent of the home’s power requirements. During periods of peak sunlight, the solar panels generate excess power that is sold back to the utility, although overall the home uses more energy than the system generates.

At a cost of $18,000 installed, the solar energy system can’t be seen as an investment that will pay for itself within a reasonable timeframe, Burnside acknowledges. He installed it as a way of addressing his own environmental priorities, and said he expects such systems to become more affordable in the coming years as companies see the market opportunity and work to bring down costs.

What’s more, Burnside plans to soon add a residential wind power generator, which will provide an additional 20 percent of the home’s energy needs.

Going Natural
Inside, green components of Burnside’s Inn include natural counter surfaces, such as soapstone counters in the laundry room. Soapstone is a quarried stone with a surface that feels like dried stone. As an alternative to more traditional countertop materials, it has no impact on the functioning of the house itself, but is considered a green material because it requires no processing except cutting and finishing before coming to the home.

Other notable features of the home include:

• fluorescent bulbs throughout the house, with the exception of two ceiling track lights
• low-flow toilets
• drip irrigation for the flowerbeds, along with rain sensors to prevent unnecessary activation of the irrigation system.

Finally, the gravel driveway is permeable, which prevents water runoff and added to the home’s overall green score.

The combination has worked well enough to earn Burnside visits from green advocacy groups, airtime on Fox Business Network and high-profile speaking engagements before real estate groups who want to learn more about green building. Burnside is happy to have the platform, as he enthusiastically preaches the green building message.

But he acknowledges that none of the elements he used to green his homes are secrets in green-building circles. The demand for Burnside to share his knowledge is arising from the industry’s growing awareness that green building — whether for environmental or cost-saving reasons — is rising in its appeal. “Right now, the motivation [to go green] is 60 to 70 percent energy cost, and the rest is environmental,” Burnside says. “Like it or not, people are always driven by their pocketbooks, and I don’t think that will ever change.”

A Model Home
Burnside’s Inn was designed to be a demonstration and model home that builders and homeowners across the country can replicate. A second home that resembles the original has recently been built in Portsmouth, N.H. The original home we visited in Michigan can be built for about $850,000, Burnside says, depending on various factors such as the size of the lot.

While not every home modeled after Burnside’s Inn will include all the green amenities featured in the original, Burnside said consumer demand is confirming his belief that the market will buy green, especially when lower energy costs will result.

Last year, Fireside built six homes, and the company currently has three projects underway, with several more on schedule through the end of this year. While the housing market continues to be soft, Burnside said Fireside is definitely benefiting from the growing interest in green homes.

“People have always embraced it and wanted it, and were willing to spend money to a certain point,” Burnside says. “But the interest in the past two years has skyrocketed. [Builders and homeowners] want to see this house, and they want to see how they can have utility bills as low as we do.”

They may not be able to do everything Burnside has done with his model home, but as he says, progress toward the green goal is a victory all itself.

Dan Calabrese is the editor-in-chief of the North Star Writers Group. His articles have appeared in a number of magazines, including ICF Builder and Natural Food Network. He’s based in Byron Center, Mich.