Home & Design: A blueprint for green living. Three families brave LEED certification

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The interiors of these homes give few hints of their environmental friendliness.
Photographs by John McDonnell

 

By Nancy McKeon

Homeowners who enter the world of environmentally sensitive building and remodeling quickly learn there are many shades of green. They can add just a hint of green to their homes by replacing a 30-year-old refrigerator with a super-efficient Energy Star model. Or they can dive into the deep-green world of silt fencing, storm water filter socks and low volatile organic compound paint — “low VOC,” to those familiar with the lingo.

There are many programs to help interested parties navigate their way toward green construction. But the current kingpin is the U.S. Green Building Council’s 13-year-old Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, which says it bestows its LEED certification on 1.5 million square feet of building space every day (start looking and you’ll see LEED’s tri-leaf logo on newer construction). A building wins certification — at the silver, gold or platinum level — by earning sufficient points in a rating system that covers more than 100 environmentally significant parameters, including energy usage, siting and pedestrian friendliness.

In 2012, the District of Columbia led the nation in new LEED residential and commercial space per capita, 36.97 square feet for every resident. The top state was Virginia, with 3.71 certified square feet per capita. Maryland came in sixth, with 1.9 square feet.

Even skeptics who see LEED certification as a boondoggle, with points awarded for “education” and constructing in an existing neighborhood, understand commercial builders’ eagerness to reach for its heights: Besides the energy savings, there are potential tax credits and property-tax breaks. And more than a dozen U.S. government agencies are specifying that new facilities meet LEED standards.

But LEED certification has been slower to catch on among individual homeowners, who receive nothing but bragging rights — and perhaps a lower electric bill — for building or rehabbing a home to LEED standards. Of 992 LEED-certified housing units in the Washington region, only three in the District, 12 in Northern Virginia and 11 in close-in Maryland were single-family custom projects. And several of those homes seem to be owned by building and environmental careerists who also have professional reasons to lean LEED-ward.

Some people in the industry will tell you that pursuing LEED is “death by paperwork.” Everything you claim for your project has to be documented: Where’s the label from the can of low-VOC paint and the stickers from the high-efficiency windows?

And achieving certification is expensive — not just in materials, but in verification fees. In addition to installing high-ticket solar panels to generate electricity (perhaps $30,000), for example, a homeowner would have to hire a “green rater” to make sure they work. The average homeowner will pay about $6,000 for the comfort of knowing that his or her eco-friendly choices truly are eco-friendly.

The LEED checklist — Ceiling and floor joist spacing greater than 16 inches on center? Additional dehumidification system for moisture control? — can be overwhelming. But as one LEEDer points out, the list provides guidance about the kinds of options homeowners should be considering, instead of pondering builder-grade vs. custom bathroom tile.

The checklist, then, is a kind of green blueprint that any homeowner can use to achieve the ideals of better building. As Todd Ray of Studio Twenty Seven Architecture puts it, “The reality is, you can ‘do green’ and not be tested at all.”

But for those who are curious about the actual certification process, here are three houses whose owners are fully embracing the LEED ethic.

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The exterior of the Hoffland-El-Khoury home looks like an historic Mount Pleasant rowhouse; the interior is open and airy.

Homeowners: Erik Hoffland and Marianne El-Khoury
Location: Northwest Washington
Project: Gut rehab of 1927 rowhouse
Reason for going green: The challenge of teaching an old house green tricks
Most significant LEED feature: Minimal construction waste and minimal amount of energy needed to keep the house comfortable
Coolest enviro-friendly feature: “Showering under a skylight — makes me feel I’m outdoors,” Hoffland says, and there’s no need for artificial light.

The only tipoff that the house at the top of the hill might be “green” is … well, there really isn’t one. Located in Northwest Washington’s Mount Pleasant historic district, the Tudor Revival-style rowhouse looks very much like its neighbors: same stone facade, same steel-frame casement windows (the kind that crank outward), same steep roof.

The interior of the 1927 home, with its clean, open floor plan, doesn’t shout LEED certification, either. It simply reflects the tastes of the 30-something homeowners, architect Erik Hoffland and his wife of eight months, Marianne El-Khoury, an economist/consultant with Abt Associates in Bethesda.

The LEED message is hidden; it comes from the guts of the house, the unseen systems that lower energy usage, limit wasted water and create a more healthful interior environment.

“The thing to know is that LEED,” the system of certifying the sustainability of a building, “is not about materials,” Hoffland says. LEED is also, he adds, not a style; it’s not all loft-like with exposed ductwork, even though many of the sustainable houses we see featured in magazines embrace that aesthetic. “It’s a process.”

One goal of the process, Hoffland says, is to preserve the house, because lengthening its useful life means husbanding natural resources rather than wasting them. Another goal is leaving a light footprint: A house that is superinsulated, as a LEED house must be, wastes little or no heat and costs less to heat, no matter what method you use for heating.

But the process requires rethinking every step of home construction.

Hoffland’s house had been a group home when he purchased it for $340,000 in 2003, with rain pouring in through the roof and rats in the basement. Although he fixed it up enough to live in for half a dozen years with his brother, there was little or nothing to preserve in terms of period detail (“I would never propose to gut an otherwise salvageable home,” he says). Fixing it up for real, as he started to do in 2009, would have to be a gut renovation. That suited Hoffland fine; it also suited the LEED requirements. He had recently helped bring about the second LEED house in the District, for a couple in Georgetown, and knew that you can’t do just a small addition or a new kitchen and get LEED certification. It’s a whole-house kind of thing, Hoffland explains.

Dual-flush toilets, low-flow faucets, Fireslate countertops and Energy Star appliances in the kitchen — those are the kinds of “green” fixes any homeowner can make. But Hoffland started by taking the interior walls down to the studs and superinsulating all the exterior walls and the attic (the spray-foam installation cost about $6,000). Wood from the rowhouse’s deteriorating floors was donated to neighbors for spot fixes; the wood for the “new” floors was reclaimed from an 1800s Virginia farmhouse. There are solar panels on the roof, a tankless water heater in the kitchen, a high-efficiency gas furnace (complete with $100 air filters). An air handler, called a heat-recovery ventilator, brings in fresh air to compensate for the tight insulation and also pre-heats the fresh air to further reduce energy loads.

Though the home’s exterior is typical of its historic neighborhood, Hoffland created a modern floor plan, and one has to look closely to see any LEED underpinnings. The large, handsome casement window in the living room looks the way it always has; even upon examination, it’s hard to tell there is an interior glass storm window providing insulation. And one would never notice the wall that had to be built farther into the room to accommodate the required amount of spray-foam insulation.

Rather than isolate the kitchen from the rest of the main floor, Hoffland cut a large rectangle out of the dividing wall. When you enter the house, you’re in the living room — modern sofas arranged in front of the fireplace — but can see through to the clean lines of kitchen cabinets along one wall and south-facing windows on the back wall. The sink, with its potential for mess, is shielded from view by the height of the cut. A sleek Sodastream soda maker, the must-have (nonelectric) appliance of the moment, stands to the left of the sink. The dining table is ranged across the back of the house, just beyond a kitchen island. The deck that stands beyond it is shaded by a cloth hanging; in time, vines will provide the privacy from neighbors across the alley.

Hoffland, who is still filling out the LEED paperwork, sank about $350,000 into the renovation. Even though he’s a professional and “green” is an important area to conquer, some of his renovation decisions were based on his budget. For example, the kitchen has a tankless water heater, which means a seven-second delay in getting hot water; solar water heaters have a tank and are more efficient, but they cost a problematic $10,000. In addition, Hoffland initially wanted to do all LED lighting, but that was outside his budget, so he used halogen instead.

“People say to me, ‘How can you be a LEED house using halogen — they give off so much heat,’ ” he says. (That means that a lot of your electric bill, of which lighting can constitute 50 to 70 percent, is being lost to heat rather than light, which is the rap on incandescent bulbs, as well.) But while LEED is a process, it’s also a kind of construction buffet: You can pick and choose which of the LEED options you can do; if you do enough of them, your points will add up. And you’re not limited: “In the kitchen you can do Brazilian granite countertops, and there’s nothing stopping you,” Hoffland says. Of course, “you’re not going to get points toward LEED certification for that.”

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Skylights provide natural light in the Ray home, and the cutout pattern on the stairwell mimics the effect of sun on trees.

Homeowners: Todd and Diane Ray
Location: Arlington
Project: Expanding a 1940s house
Reason for going green: To enlarge living space while reducing carbon footprint
Most significant LEED feature: Energy-monitoring system, because it ultimately changes habits
Coolest enviro-friendly feature: The cistern that catches rainwater, which is then used for irrigating the garden

Renovation work on Todd and Diane Ray’s house in North Arlington began in 2009 because Diane wanted a porch. “Our old house had no connection to the outdoors,” Todd Ray says of the small brick Colonial the couple had bought 12 years earlier. Also, “We were tripping over the dogs,” referring to Eve, Jax and Betty, the three lively cocker spaniels now sauntering around the living area.

But the idea for a porch addition morphed into something else entirely. After discussing their desire for more space — and what that meant in an era of energy awareness — they decided to tear off the rear of the Colonial to add 900 environmentally friendly square feet and remodel the whole house. Todd is a principal in Washington’s Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, and the firm had never done a LEED-certified residential project. So the Ray home became an opportunity to experiment: “This is not a house, it’s a laboratory,” he says.

If you think that makes him sound methodical, just wait. Before the redo, the Rays, who are in their mid-40s and met at Clemson University, charted their electricity usage for a year. Then, Todd’s architectural team came up with designs for the proposed house — convertible spaces so there would be “no rooms used only two days a year,” windows framing the backyard views, enough natural light on a summer’s day to eliminate the need for artificial light. He made a model of the plan. Then he and Diane, who works at the U.S. Agency for International Development, took it around to the neighbors, showing that even though the proposed house would be modern, larger and no longer clad in a brick veneer, it would maintain the same orientation and massing on the Rays’ almost 6,400-square-foot corner lot. Outreach completed, the Rays hired Phelps & Phelps Consulting as contractors and got to work.

The differences between the old house and the new are vast, even beyond cosmetics. The original house, built in 1944, had virtually no insulation; the current house is super-tight, with spray-foam insulation inside every exterior wall and ceiling forming a seamless envelope. The old house used standard heating fuel; the current house relies on geothermal heating and cooling, from water pumped from deep under the property where the temperature is constant and circulated above, making the house comfortable year-round. The original house had a traditional floor plan of separate rooms; the current house has one main living space with areas for lounging, eating and cooking that flow into one another.

Todd can sound very formal when talking about houses, as in, “A house becomes an engineered enclosure, an interaction of systems (lighting, plumbing, mechanicals) inside the envelope.” But there’s nothing stiff or formal about the welcoming seating area in one corner of the downstairs, furnished with contemporary classics from the Vastu furniture store, or the open kitchen that extends across the north wall of the large room, lined with Energy Star appliances, of course (GE Monogram); cabinets of brown-stained white oak with red glass panels that can easily be changed out; and speckled-white Eco countertops made of recycled mirror, glass, porcelain and ash. The couple does not reach the upstairs bedrooms by way of one of those ethereal-but- scary-looking “floating” staircases so loved by architects: Dogs are often afraid of open stairs, so domestic reality trumped design, and the stairs  have traditional risers to keep skittering pups from sliding through.

In addition to giving the couple the extra space and open plan they wanted, the Ray remodel allowed Studio Twenty Seven to compare some of the competing green certification programs. The house wound up with five certifications: the LEED Platinum for Homes from the U.S. Green Building Council; a National Green Building Standard Gold certification from the National Association of Home Builders; Arlington County’s Green Home Choice Gold; the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Home; and EPA’s Indoor airPLUS. Todd adds that the back yard and garden have been named a certified wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation (see related story on Page 28).

The green building programs vary in their goals and requirements. For its part, LEED prizes reusing existing houses by refitting with energy-efficient systems; houses rehabbed or built in an already developed area, rather than contributing to sprawl; efficient framing plans that send less scrap to the dump; donation of unused materials to community salvage centers; stormwater runoff managed on-site rather than stressing municipal systems.

The new house retains echoes of the old. The Rays salvaged and reused the original flooring. The tall divider that separates the living-dining room from the staircase signals more memories. Its surface, of medium-density fiberboard, is pierced by seemingly random squares and rectangles. The pattern is a pixelated version of the sun-dappled effect made on the wall by two large (but dying) maple trees that once stood behind the house. The MDF will at some point be replaced by glass etched with the same pattern; the wood from the trees was harvested, milled and used in the renovation.

The Ray house has an on-demand hot water system: You push a button that looks like a doorbell, and that activates a circulating pump and sends water to the relevant fixture; a secondary water line sends the cold water in the line back to the water heater for reuse. The house also has an energy-recovery system that preheats or precools incoming air using normally exhausted air. It also has energy-monitoring meters for water and heat, and a Lutron system for controlling lights. The roof of the Rays’ house is structured to take solar panels for heating water in the future; Ray says the cost fell outside their initial budget, but the Rays also knew that a new generation of panels would be more efficient.

The obvious question is: Did all the new technologies result in energy savings? Did they shrink the Ray family’s carbon footprint? Todd says their usage of natural gas for cooking is down somewhat from before; the electric bill remains about the same — but that’s after tripling the size of the house and the number of lights. The other obvious question is about money: The Rays paid about $185,000 for the house in 1997 and put several times that amount into the redo. Included in that expenditure was $9,000 for the geothermal wells and $30,000 to install the geothermal piping throughout the house (some state and federal tax breaks offset some of this). Also, foam insulation costs between three and six times what standard insulation does, Todd says.

“You don’t do this expecting to make your money back,” Todd says. “You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

And the Rays still don’t have a porch. “This is our porch renovation,” Todd says with a laugh. But the missing porch seems entirely irrelevant as you sit at the dining table, set along the rear wall of windows and sliding glass doors, and watch the birds peck about in their certified wildlife habitat.

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The Sykoras’ home overlooks the environmentally sensitive Broad Creek.

Homeowners: Bill and Martha Sykora
Location: Annapolis
Project: Rebuilding a dilapidated cottage
Reason for going green: Location in a sensitive area
Most significant LEED feature: Tossup between geothermal heating and super-insulation
Coolest enviro-friendly feature: “The sunny-day fun” of seeing the electric meter go backward, Martha Sykora says.

‘How could you do anything but? I mean, look at it.” Bill Sykora is gazing out through the trees at the water at the foot of the Annapolis property he and his wife, Martha, bought at the end of 2009. He’s explaining why they went as green as they could in rebuilding the deteriorating 1951 ranch house that had stood there.

Bill Sykora, “a family doc” with Kaiser Permanente after 27 years as an Air Force physician, had been watching the house as it went on and off the market, at first for $1,750,000, then chopped down to $999,900. He and Martha finally bought it from the bank that held the mortgage, for $875,000.

Why such a high price tag for a 1,600-square-foot house in terrible disrepair? Because it stands on almost six acres overlooking Broad Creek, which feeds into the South River, which wends its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Eagles and turkey vultures swoop down and land on the Sykoras’ treetops; herons fish below. The rat-a-tat-tat of an unseen woodpecker can be heard nearby. And all about a mile from a busy road in the Maryland capital.

When the couple moved to Annapolis from their longtime home in Crofton, only their two youngest children came with them: Peter, 19, who is taking a gap year by volunteering on organic farms in France; and 16-year-old high-schooler Sarah. The Sykoras call Sarah, who improved a recycling program at her middle school, their “green kid” and credit her with edging the family toward eco-consciousness. But from Bill’s appreciative gaze at his serene surroundings, it doesn’t seem as if Sarah had a very hard sell.

Bill and Martha, both in their early 50s, may be among the few people who think that building to LEED’s platinum standard is easy. That’s because they hired the Alexander Group, a Kensington design-build firm that makes a specialty of custom LEED homes. “They’ve already done the research,” Bill says.

He has a point: Technologies may improve, but the basis of the energy part of LEED is fixing the envelope of the building, with super-insulation, then installing efficient systems for heating and cooling, and for producing electricity and hot water.

The first item on the agenda, however, had nothing to do with LEED, just common sense. The living room was bisected by a broad brick wall and fireplace that blocked the watery vista from virtually the entire living area. So, the main living area was reconfigured in an open plan that offers views of sky and water even from the kitchen, which is on the wall farthest from the water. The master bedroom faces the water; the other three, including one on the lower level, face the garden or the woods.

The house was rebuilt from the foundation up; being located in the bay’s “critical area” meant that the Sykoras had to stick to the original footprint of the compact home, which Bill surmises was once someone’s summer cottage. The only real departure is a second-story “tower” built over one corner of the living room: It’s Martha’s sewing room, accessed by a spiral staircase that effectively keeps Harriet, the family’s 14-year-old yellow Lab, out.

Heating and cooling here are provided by a geothermal system that pumps constant-temperature water throughout the house, keeping it comfortable year-round; the house was completely insulated with spray-foam insulation. The cooktop is powered by propane gas because the property is not served by gas lines. And electricity — for the oven, lights and the water heater — is produced by 22 solar panels atop the roof. “We added solar late in the process,” Bill says. “We didn’t think it would work” because of all the trees. But after they removed three trees a forestry manager had declared to be dying, it did work, and like many solar owners the Sykoras delight when they see the electric meter move backward, signaling that the panels are generating more energy than the house is using.

Now entering their second year in the house, Martha, a former Air Force nurse who met Bill while in the military (“We’re both first Gulf War veterans”), says they’re systematically replacing the compact fluorescent light bulbs in the house with LED bulbs. “We do it two at a time,” she says. “They’re about $30 each!”

Martha and Bill admit to the addictive quality of LEED certification. Martha says, “As we went along, we realized we could reach platinum status if we just had a few more points.” So, working with Alex Dean of the Alexander Group and their green consultant, Dick Williams of DW-Green Associates, they developed a water-runoff system that sends rain into rain barrels and then into a small cistern under the front walk that feeds a small pond. Spillover from the pond runs into a “rain garden,” engineered by Ciminelli’s Landscape Services of Lothian, to absorb water rather than have it wash into the creek or the Sykoras’ septic system (being in the bay’s critical area, they upgraded to a nitrogen-reducing septic system). They even got a point for using Cambria-brand engineered quartz for the kitchen countertops because it’s the one such quartz product made in the United States.

The final price of the whole-house revamp was about $800,000. But keeping their green kid happy and the bay safe? That was priceless.

Nancy McKeon is a writer living in Washington.

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the front window in Erik Hoffland’s house as insulated with a sheet of acrylic, rather than an interior glass storm window, and said Studio Twenty Seven Architecture had not done any green projects. While it had done certified green school and commercial projects, the firm had never done a certified green residential project.

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Homes aren’t the only areas that can be certified. Read about certifying your back yard as a wildlife habitat.

Searching for other ways to go green? Read about environmentally friendly decor.

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