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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

Eco Dream Home

by Amber Erickson Gabbey

When Douglas and Suzanne Owens-Pike decided to build their dream home in Wheeler, Wisconsin, they had a vision of a modern, comfortable home featuring the best technology in green design. Like many people, the Owens-Pikes are concerned about global warming and the future viability and cost of fossil fuels and wanted to become more self-sufficient. They wanted to create a space where they could live off-grid, grow their own food, and be at peace with nature around them, all while serving as an example to others that this type of design and build is possible and affordable.

Environmentally Friendly Home Building

It’s easy to get confused when we talk about eco-homes, zero energy homes, environmentally friendly design, off-grid, and the host of other terminology related to green building. While each term may mean something different to the builder, architect, and homeowner, in the most basic sense, all these terms refer to how the home is built and what materials are used. The basic goal is to ensure the home is energy-efficient, built with sustainable materials, and utilizes alternative energy. Douglas Owens-Pike says environmentally friendly homes should be oriented toward the sun (rather than the street), have proper overhangs or awnings on all south-facing windows, balance windows and insulation with thermal mass such as concrete floors (to hold in heat), and feature appropriate landscaping such as evergreens to the northwest to block the cold winter air and late-day summer sun. Beyond this basic framework, the options vary greatly from wind to solar and composting toilets to recycled wood products, all based on cost, the homeowners’ wishes, and how it fits into the master plan.

Ways to Green Your Current Home

While this all sounds great, most of us won’t be building a new home anytime soon but still wish to make our homes more environmentally friendly. Not to fret, there are options. The easiest way to green your home is to replace old lightbulbs with the new energy-saving bulbs and use low-VOC paints. You should also ensure you have proper insulation in the attic, where most heat loss in a home occurs. Another suggestion is to plant trees in the northwest, particularly evergreens or other barrier-appropriate trees, and use awnings to shade the south-facing windows, especially in the summer when you want to limit the sun’s heat. More expensive updates include replacing appliances, especially the furnace, and windows with more energy-efficient models.

Otter Creek Ridge: Douglas and Suzanne’s Home

The goal for Douglas and Suzanne’s home was simple: ecologically responsible, energy-efficient, yet warm and inviting. They also wanted to help educate people about how to build environmentally friendly homes. Their three–edroom, two bath home is on eighty acres in rural northwestern Wisconsin. It faces true south on a south-facing slope to maximize solar potential. The main floor covers nearly 2,300 sq. ft. and contains most of the living space, including a patio on the east side and a screened-in porch on the west side. The partially finished lower-level walkout covers around 1,800 sq. ft. and could be finished to include 1 more bedroom and bathroom. The lower-level has a root cellar and an unattached garage features a machine shop.

The process of building a house like this was no easy feat. The Owens-Pikes started with a vision and Douglas sketched out his idea of how the house would look. He quickly realized this project was beyond his expertise and enlisted the help of a team. Kevin Flynn from EcoDEEP was the architect, Jim Herrick was the builder, and Craig Tarr was a renewable energy expert. The team worked together to discuss goals, the vision, and how to feasibly complete the project. They chose a passive solar design, which utilizes the sun to heat the home. The home is anticipated to use less than 40% of the energy a typical home would use. In fact, the home is so efficient that the Owens-Pikes are getting paid by the electric company for the energy they supply to the grid, meaning it has exceeded net zero energy standards.

Although the home has solar panels and a solar hot water system, it draws on the passive solar design to keep the home heated and cooled. The final design also includes radiant in-floor heating and a wood stove, but no furnace or air conditioning unit. These redundant heat sources help maximize effectiveness. Every element of the house fits into this passive solar design. In areas where the sun’s rays shine into the house, the flooring is dark tile over thin concrete. The concrete acts as an energy collector and helps retain heat from the sun. In areas where the sun doesn’t shine, the flooring includes cork and linoleum. All this is assisted by walls one foot deep with blow pack and spray foam insulation, an air-tight construction, and an air to air heat recovery system, which runs old air out of the house and warms the incoming air.

Windows are also a major part of the passive solar design. The window height, size, and location were all carefully designed to maximize solar heat in the winter and minimize it in the summer. All windows are either shaded by Green Awnings designed based on calculations of the sun’s trajectory over the property at specific times of the year.

Other environmentally friendly design elements include low-VOC paints, coatings, adhesives, and sealants, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, and local or recycled materials where available. Some of the wood trim and the cabinets were from local Amish craftsmen. Doug’s company, EnergyScapes, uses plants to aid in energy and water conservation and that expertise was applied throughout this project, from Green Awnings to rain gardens and native landscaping.

While he didn’t disclose final cost, Doug said he estimates it costs 25% more to build this kind of house than traditional builds. However, while the project cost was higher, over the life of the house, it may even out. For example, solar panels will pay for themselves in fifteen years (based on today’s fuel costs). In addition, this house was designed to be low-maintenance and long lasting. The metal roof, siding, windows, and insulation were designed and chosen based on long-term value and effectiveness.

A project of this size and complexity is not without its challenges. One of the biggest challenges was in the build.  They chose to use local contractors, which saved money, but also brought challenges because many didn’t have experience with environmentally friendly builds. According to builder Jim Herrick, the job was more time-intensive than originally planned because of the intricacies of the design, There were just more steps and details than traditional builds. According to Doug, one of the biggest challenges was the amount of decisions they had to make. However, all the different perspectives of the team made them research, discuss, and find the right solution for the project. It was a true team effort and the result is worth the work.

Today, Douglas and Suzanne have their dream home, complete with gardens, a labyrinth, wildlife, native plants, and space to roam and nurture their spirits.

Dream House Team members: Flynn-St Paul, Herrick-Colfax, Tarr-Hudson.

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