Building for Forever
by Marcia Goodrich
So you want to be more sustainable? Lighten your carbon footprint? Tread tenderly on Mother Earth and preserve her bounty for generations yet unborn?
The temptation may be to rush out and get a whole bunch of cool, new, sustainable stuff. But saving the planet is less about the products you buy and more about how you live your life, says David Bach '69 '77.
"We can preach as long as we want about putting in high-efficiency water heaters, furnaces, and fluorescent bulbs," he says. "But the best way to save energy is to turn off the lights."
Bach teaches four courses in the School of Technology's construction management program, including Principles of Sustainable Construction and Green Building Design. Before joining the Tech faculty, he spent twenty-five years as a contractor specializing in sustainable construction. As such, he learned a few things about minimizing the damage people inflict on the natural world.
"Often, our solution is to buy something, retrofit our homes with green products, install new light bulbs," he said. "But the people who save energy are the people who have it in their value system. A lot of their motivation is financial—frugal people turn down the thermostat. It's also about changing our philosophy and values, how we think."
For those who want to apply that philosophy to home construction, Bach offers the following advice:
The Gold Star Solution:
Don't build at all
Try to find an existing house and fix it up. Even if the building materials come from sustainable sources, the greenest new construction gobbles up lots of energy when you figure in the life cycle of all the products.
Once you buy your house, don't do much for a year. "Move in and get a feel for the place," Bach says. Notice where the drafts are coming from and where the sun shines. In particular, don't yield to the urge to install the most technologically advanced, high-efficiency appliances the day after you move in. "The first step to energy efficiency in any house is air tightening," Bach says.
You can conduct your own energy audit—go to www.energysavers.gov and click on "Start with an energy audit." Or, hire a professional to detect and plug leaks, using a blower door to pressurize your home and an infrared camera to spot points where heat is escaping.
Next, plan your improvements. "Plans are made to be changed, but unless you have one, you don't know how your changes will ricochet through the bigger plan," Bach says. First, focus on those simple things most of us already know about: caulk the windows, fill in the gaps, etc. When installing those new windows, Bach recommends using spray foam insulation to block drafts between the window and the framing. The common practice of stuffing in fiberglass insulation only filters the air. Ideally, your home will become so airtight you'll have to plan for ventilation.
When and if you do invest in big-ticket items, do your research. A pricy window may not insulate your home much better than a cheap one, but if it lasts ten times longer, it's not only more sustainable, it will cost you less over the long haul.
Second Best: Build on a site that's already been developed
People who love the wild outdoors often want to build a home smack dab in the middle of it. Sadly, the very act of building causes irrevocable damage to wildlands, one square foot at a time; there's no remediating a homesite. If you want to construct your own home, Bach suggests buying a vacant lot in town.
Pick a site that's close to the places where you live your life, such as your job, grocery store, or school. Build close to public transportation if you can. "That's as important or more so as whether you use soy insulation or not," says Bach.
Again, he counsels patience: "Buy the property and visit it every week for a year," Bach says. "You'll get an idea of where the sun tracks across the property, what neighbors you want to block out, where the wind comes from, what noise you want to stop."
When Bach decided to move his own home and business from a farm in the country into Houghton, he chose a lot that was considered unbuildable. "I liked the idea of using an old, reclaimed site," he said. "The downside was, it was treed and beautiful, and when I moved there, I took that away from the community."
The upside was the location. "Sometimes I don't use my truck for three or four days at a time," he says. "The tavern is just down the street, and I walk to work."
When it comes to green building, size matters, and smaller is definitely better. Bach's living space is a smallish 850 square feet, above a shop and next to a storage building that houses equipment, his truck, and a couple of bicycles.
"I downsized my business from a huge, three-thousand-square-foot operation," he said. "The easiest thing to do was to get rid of stuff. I kept only what I really needed."
Bach selected building materials with sustainability in mind. He framed his house with oriented strandboard studs, made of woodchips and glue. He used steel siding because most steel manufactured in the US is made from recycled products. Recycled paper, shredded and blown into the wall cavities and attic, replace the more common fiberglass. The trim and cabinet boards were bought from local sawmills, supporting area families and cutting transportation costs and energy use.
The home faces south; 30 percent of his heat load is covered by passive solar. For the remaining 70 percent, a water heater warms the house via tubing that runs through the concrete floors, a strategy he now regrets. "It's too complicated and inefficient," he says. "If I had to do it again, I'd just put in a gas space heater."
Bach bristles when the talk turns to return on investment. "The minute we talk about saving energy, the first thing we hear is, ‘What's the payback?' Nobody asks what the payback is for a Jacuzzi. Really, the question turns on what you value, what you respect."
A green builder, he says, respects the natural world. "The Earth should be included in our family, like our children and our parents. If we ever get to that point," says Bach, "we won't have to be writing these articles."
Justin Rhorer was no A student. Before coming to Michigan Tech, he says, "I'd only read two books, The Cat in the Hat and The Art of War."
Rhorer had been framing houses since he was 16, and Dave Bach's courses were just another hurdle—and an irritating one at that—between him and his dream: earning a degree in construction management and making good money.
He didn't have much use for the thoughtful deliberation required for sustainable design. "I'm used to putting up a 2,500-square-foot home in a week," he says.
Then, as a class assignment, he had to read two more books: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart; and The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, by Jason McLellan. And he started listening to Bach.
"I realized that there are a lot of things we do that aren't sustainable, both in industry and in daily life, and that's something I never looked at before," Rhorer says. "It has turned me completely around."
Rhorer and the other students in Bach's Principles of Sustainable Design course got a chance to apply what they'd learned when he challenged them to design a four-unit apartment house. It would be built on a parking lot for a virtual customer who wanted the most sustainable building possible.
"We sat down and figured out what really was sustainable," Rhorer said. "We set our goals high."
Rhorer was in charge of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. He briefly considered a geothermal system, but changed his mind. "Geothermal is great, but it's very technical, requires lots of products, and takes so much energy to install," he says. "We ended up using small space heaters and a pellet stove. It's 94 percent efficient and has almost no ash left over; plus, the product returns to the biological cycle."
The team's final design incorporated a variety of features (see chart), both conventional and otherwise, and met one of its chief goals: pulling the building off the grid.
It will be another year until Rhorer graduates, and he has replaced his earlier dream with a new one. He now aims to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the US Green Building Council. "Then I want to own my own business and be a pioneer of green building."