We like to think we are on the leading edge of the log home and building industry, a journey we’ve been on for more than 40 years. When the possibility of manufacturing the first LEED Platinum log home arose, we were quite excited. The lessons and innovations we’ve learned can help you design your home to be very energy efficient and comfortable for many years to come. Here’s the story:
Building a Lakeside Home
Troy and Krista Brown had just invested in a spectacular lakeside property in New Hampshire where they planned to build their new home. They felt that a rustic approach to the design would suit the location as well as their own tastes. After working with an architect, they put out bids for constructing their new home. Steve Howard of Howard Construction was one of the builders they contacted. It was Steve who suggested building an Arborwall Solid Cedar Home using their architect’s design. The Browns immediately embraced the concept and began work on their new home.
Ultimately that Arborwall log home would score a HERS Index of -11 in the Energy Star measurement, which means that their home produces more energy than it consumes. Brown realized early on that his home needed to be recognized for its value—low energy consumption and other efficiencies— so he selected LEED as the standard to measure his home. In speaking about the construction of his new home recently, Brown said that a big part of the success of this project was the enthusiasm and skills of his builder, Steve Howard.
During this project, Howard needed to develop new strategies for ensuring a well-sealed exterior shell, including the innovation detailed in this article a few months ago.
Troy Brown proved to be a hands-on home owner. He realized that one challenge for their lakeside home was the steep graded access road—about 25% grade. He knew that oil or propane delivery trucks would not be able to descend the hill during winter. So he started researching other economical ways of heating his new home. After much research, he determined that geothermal was the best option. The geothermal selection opened up other alternative options for powering the home, including solar photovoltaic panels. From there it was an easy choice to select Arborwall’s Energy Envelope System to ensure his new home would be very efficient.
From the very start, Arborwall has made a conscious effort to provide the best energy efficiency for our log home customers. Our insulation improvements were based first on comfort and saving energy dollars, and in recent years to proactively respond to the demands of new energy efficiency regulations. Arborwall’s Energy Envelope System has been able to keep pace with new insulation requirements, and as a result meets or exceeds the required levels in all zones of the U.S. We’ve worked hand-in-hand with our dealers and builders to ensure that the technology and experience we have accumulated results in the most comfortable efficient log home possible, while maintaining the integrity of whole log construction using Northern White Cedar.
Brown’s motivation for this intensive attention to efficiency was simple. “I’m not a save-the-whales kind of guy,” he said. “But, I am a zealot when it comes to economic benefits.” One of the most cost-effective performance improvements to a home design is added insulation and proper sealing of the exterior envelope. “It takes a little bit of extra time, but the long-term gains are well worth it,” he added. In his previous home he was spending $5,000- $6,000 annually for energy costs propane, heating oil and electricity. Brown understood that a higher initial investment in geothermal and solar alternative energy coupled with a highly insulated, tight home would save thousands over the lifetime of his home.
Early on, the Browns and Howard realized that the home they were designing would be special. Brown decided it would be worth the challenge to seek Leadership in Energy Efficiency Design (LEED) certification. To that end, Brown enlisted the professional services of Resilient Buildings Group in nearby Concord, N.H., to oversee the endeavor to maximize the efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of this lakeside home.
In the beginning, Paul LeVeille of Resilient Buildings was wary of the ability of being able to reach the levels of building tightness required for LEED documentation. “Typically we find that log homes can be subject to air leakage, because of the number of joints in the exterior envelope walls,” he explained. But when the final interior insulation package was tested, he noted, “Gosh it was tighter than a regular home!” In reality, the Brown home had a blower door test result of 0.47 ACH50, which means 0.47 air changes per hour when 50 pascals of pressure applied. This is 22% better than the 0.60 ACH50 standard for passive homes. Brown’s home actually has a negative score for both Energy Star and LEED, meaning that the home produces more energy than it consumes.
Investment for LEED Consulting
Resilient Buildings offers consulting to assist customers to eke out all the energy possible from their home design. LEED offers a wide range of potential design benefits and Leveille said that often they will map out strategies based on specific customer goals. Each improvement and choice can tally points towards a final certification.
For example, he pointed to a customer whose children suffered from allergies. In that case, he steered the design consultation to focus on indoor air quality, looking to minimize products that might outgas chemicals and aggravate allergies as well as designing enhanced mechanical ventilation. Energy consumption, he says, is the biggest piece of any certification program, but other elements can include the site’s proximity to urban areas, site utilization, and possible innovative approaches to storm water, among many others.
Also playing a big factor in this lakeside project was the involvement of the owner, Troy Brown. As a regular practice, Leveille recommends that a day-long pre-construction briefing be held with owners, builders, subcontractors and other stakeholders to ensure that everyone is on board with the certification process. He stresses that changes and improvements to squeeze out further efficiencies are best changed at the beginning of the process.
The cost for LEED and Energy Star certification consulting can range from $2,000 to as much as $5,000 for a complete turn-key design and supervision consultation according to Leveille. From design, to implementation, to final blower door testing, and ultimately presenting the tally of points from the LEED system, the procedure can add another layer into home construction. Yet the benefits over the long term can be stunning. Just the elimination of $5000 of annual heating over 20 years would save a baseline of $100,000, without factoring in the inevitable rise in fossil fuel costs.
Energy Saving Strategies That Don’t Break the Bank
Other considerations that boosted the energy efficiency of the Brown home are easily integrated into less ambitious projects. The first was paying close attention to sealing the exterior walls and eliminating any potential air leakage in the envelope. Arborwall’s use of Northern White Cedar for log wall stock provides an advantage in building stability because of its low moisture content. Even kiln-dried logs of other species of wood can shrink quite a bit, causing settling and gaps long after completion. With the stable Northern White Cedar log, we are confident of completing a good seal on each log row, as well as offering the insulation application to reach the desirable high R-value needed for a super-efficient home.
Brown also utilized super-efficient Intus windows and doors that offer R-11 efficiency ratings as well as providing a good airtight seal. In orienting the home, Brown chose to maximize his passive solar heat gain, as well as providing a southern facing profile to accommodate solar panels. Working with your contractor, you can ensure that your home’s orientation on the lot will maximize the solar potential.
Just employing Energy Star rated improvements in HVAC, appliances and insulation provided a $4,000 incentive for efficient energy use in the Brown home. As we’ve noted many times before, state programs, federal tax incentives and rebates from utilities for many alternative energy or high efficiency options also can make a significant difference in your construction budget.
UPDATE: On February 22, 2017, the Brown home achieved a LEED PLATINUM rating, the first log home to achieve Platinum under the current rating system!