Top 10 Things That Make Our House Sustainable

While we wait for our final approval from the bank, which is taking FOREVER, here are some of the top features that will make our house use less energy and have a smaller eco-footprint.

  1. SIPs Panels–Our house will be built out of structural insulated panels, which are manufactured and cut to shape in a factory, and then assembled on our lot. These panels have a super-high R value and make it possible to make the house virtually airtight.
  2. Air-to-Water Heat Pump–The hot water for our radiant floors and taps is generated with a Unichiller heat pump that was actually designed for industrial refrigeration. As far as we know, we’ll be one of the first houses to be using this innovative design, which uses about 2/3 less electricity to heat the water to the temperature we need than a conventional electric boiler.
  3. Solar Panels–The PV array on our roof will have the capacity to produce nearly 6,000 watts of electricity. This is enough for all our heating, cooking, lighting, and other electric needs. We’ll be able to monitor each panel’s production from the internet or a smart phone.
  4. Triple-Pane Windows–We’ll be installing windows from Vinyltek with three panes of glass with an inert gas inside. These high-performing windows have vinyl frames, so they’re a lot cheaper than many wood-framed (and much less efficient) double-pane windows.
  5. Passive Solar Gain–Getting plenty of sunlight has always been a top priority for us (especially for Alex who grew up in New Mexico), so we only considered south-facing lots. We also had the architect add more glass on the front of the house. We’ll not only have lots of daylight streaming in, but the sun will heat up the concrete floors, which hold the heat into the night.
  6. Rain Garden–All the runoff from our roof will flow through a pipe into a rain garden in our backyard. This shallow trench is planted with a variety of native species, such as dogwood, that will suck up some of the water, and the rest will filter slowly through layers of gravel into the ground. This keeps water and dirt from running into the street and on into the Puget Sound.
  7. Stained Concrete Floors–Our house will be built on a concrete slab rather than a basement. This makes for less space to heat and eliminates that moldy basement smell found in so many Seattle houses. It also saves on flooring materials: we just stain and polish the slab for a beautiful, durable floor.
  8. Reclaimed Materials–We’re going to incorporate cast-iron tubs that were taken from other houses. We also plan on using recycled hardwood flooring upstairs or use the “throwaway” pieces that were left over from new palettes of flooring.
  9. No-VOC Paint–All our exterior and interior paint will emit no volatile organic compounds (you know, that headache-inducing new paint smell). These new paints are easy to use, last just as long as traditional paints, and only cost a tiny bit more.
  10. Minimalist Engineering–The engineer on the project has developed computer software that helps calculate the minimal amount of materials needed to acheive the structural integrity the house needs. Most houses are overbuilt with headers that are too thick, studs that are too close together, and generally too much wood.
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7 thoughts on “Top 10 Things That Make Our House Sustainable

  1. Hi Eric and Alex,

    We can’t wait to follow the progress of your house as it is being built. We hope that bank gets moving soon!

  2. Who is the mechanical engineer? Contractor? The Unico chillers look amazing.
    I have heard it said over and over that radiant floors don’t work in super tight, super insulated houses- that they just don’t need that much heat. I would sincerely like to know how the numbers/logic penciled out for you. I can only dream of owning a house with more than R20 in the walls right now, but we do love our hydronic floors. I can’t imagine living without them, and can only think that If I such a house, I would crack a window in the middle of december and pay the extra 20 bucks a month it would cost me, and still be ahead.
    Again, what was your thought process here?

  3. Thanks for your interest in our house, Greg. The designer of the house and mechanical systems is Ted Clifton of ZeroEnergyPlans.com, and the contractor is TC Legend Homes, from Bellingham, WA. I will have to ask Ted about radiant floors being too hot for a well-insulated house. I did visit some other homes based on the same concept (SIPs construction, heat pump, hydronic heating), and they seemed to be comfortable.

  4. Greg, I checked with the designer of the house, and here is what he said:

    Radiant floors work in any size home, but most equipment currently manufactured is too large for a small, tight home. There are several units, the UniChiller among them, that when configured correctly will operate like a smaller unit when it needs to. We also use the excess capacity to produce the domestic hot water, at an efficiency around 300%. The only way to get better than that is with solar hot water, which only works in this area about 60% of the time on a year-round basis, so if you backed that up with a 100% efficient electric hot water heater, you would still only be about 250% efficient.

  5. How are you monitoring your solar on the web? is your whole house (lighting, heating etc) tied in to and controllable from the web or is it just the solar control panel? what are you using to do this?

    • We’re using Enphase microinverters that send a wireless signal about the performance of each solar panel to a box that connects to the web. That let’s us log on to the company’s Enlighten service from a computer or smart phone and check the performance. Here’s what they say about the system:

      The Enlighten service provides an unprecedented level of intelligence to solar power system owners and installers. Unlike conventional monitoring systems, which only monitor the inverter, Enlighten is continuously monitoring the health and performance of every solar module and microinverter in the array. Enlighten’s cloud-based analytics will identify and alert owners and installers to any deviation in performance, allowing for quick and hassle-free maintenance.

      Sounds pretty neat. They also sell a thermostat that can connect with the same system so you can adjust the temperature of your house via the web. I don’t think we’ll have much need for it, so we’ll probably skip that part of the system.

  6. thanks for the information it has helped me a lot to complete my assignment about sustainable development in houses.thanks a lot.

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