By definition, this net-zero home(top) produces at least as much energy as its occupants consume in operating heating, lighting. and other electrical appliances. It stands on a picturesque property 9above) in northern Vermont and incorporated a wind turbine and a geothermal system --among other devices--to balance energy supply and demand.
As an architect, I’ve been educating myself in green building practices for nearly 20 years, through reading and attending workshops and conferences. So when it came to designing a new home for my family in northern New England, I had definite goals in mind.
First, I wanted to create a house with as little environmental impact as possible. Second, I wanted to use the most conventional methods possible, so that the house would be relatively affordable and include construction details that could be incorporated in future projects. From the outset, my family and I decided that the house would not release any carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuel, and that it would generate its energy on site. The challenge was to do this in a very cold climate.
Assembling the Team
As much as the architect in me wanted to design a house based on aesthetics alone, I knew that wouldn’t work. So one of the first things I did, after finding the property but before getting beyond some conceptual planning, was to find a skilled builder — Jim Huntington of Charlotte, Vt. — and a talented energy consultant — Andy Shapiro of Energy Balance in Montpelier, Vt. — to collaborate on the project. This is called “the integrated design approach” in the building industry, but it’s mostly common sense: Bring the right knowledge and experience to the table at the design stage, knowing that every decision you make at the beginning will have implications later in the process. As I worked on the floor plans and elevations, Jim weighed in on buildability issues, and Andy focused on the building envelope, mechanical systems, and the energy model. We met as a group several times during the design stage, and I met individually with each of them at other times and coordinated the flow of information. Tom Reilly, P.E., of Salem Engineering in South Burlington, Vt., also worked with Andy on the heating system design.
Planning for certification. I hoped to have the house certified by a third party, so I went to Efficiency Vermont, the local administrator for the Energy Star for Homes and LEED for Homes programs. I also learned about a new local program, Vermont Builds Greener (VBG), being created by Vermont’s Building for Social Responsibility organization (bsr-vt.org). Going through the LEED for Homes and the VBG checklists was not only a way to gain third-party certification, but it helped organize the design process and ensured that I made the right choices early on.
Assessing the site. I visited the property at different times of the day to understand how the sunlight moved across the site and to study the views and the topography. A ridge to the east and a high knoll to the west seemed to create a wind funnel along the north-south axis, and I began considering wind power. I looked into setting up wind-monitoring equipment but decided against it when a neighboring landowner who works for a manufacturer of wind-energy assessment equipment advised me that it wasn’t necessary at that site. (He was right: Although it’s unusual for the region, there has been adequate wind at our property.)