King of "Green"

The Providence Journal - Providence, R.I.
Author: Peter B Lord
Date: March 16, 2008
Section: Sunday Extra

This is the first of a series of stories The Journal plans to run on construction of the first LEED certified house in Rhode Island. Builders plan to complete construction in June. Between now and then, The Journal will focus on specific components of the project, which is designed to sharply reduce the use of energy and materials, both in building the house and then maintaining it in the future.

The new house going up on the hillside overlooking the beachfront community of Bonnet Shores looks like many others in the neighborhood, with its sweeping porch and expanses of windows. But there are many important differences.

The roof is covered with photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity. Out back, a bottomless sand filter septic system will treat the house's wastes more thoroughly than just about any other technology. And out front, a crew has drilled a 750-foot well that will provide water, not for drinking, but for heating and cooling.

When the house is complete this summer, it should be able to operate without any outside sources of electricity or heating oil. Its construction will have produced far less waste material, thanks to builders making a focused effort to reduce scraps. And because toxic paints and glues were not used, the air inside should be healthier than in many buildings.

The house will be one of a kind in Rhode Island. But maybe not for long. Its construction will set a standard that environmental advocates and energy efficiency experts hope will become the norm across the nation.

The new house is the first in the state designed to meet the exacting standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group working to convert the nation's buildings within a generation into structures that are more environmentally and socially responsible. The council has created a rating system with the ungainly label of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, but its acronym is more commonly used: LEED.

The new LEED house is the result of the kind of luck that often occurs in a small state. The owners were considering building a new home with prefabricated panel walls behind the cottage where they summered for many years.

They spoke to a local landscape architect, John Carter, who referred them to South County Post & Beam, a longtime local company that recently decided to focus more on "green" building techniques.

Early last year, South County Post & Beam hired Tom Weber, 39, an architectural associate whose experience in green building techniques dated to his youth in Michigan, where he grew up in a solar panel kit house.

He recalls his family installing a device in the fireplace to distribute heat and using an air-to-air heat exchanger to add more heat.

"I was exposed to a lot of green things at a young age," Weber says. "And that carried over into my adulthood."

When he went to the University of Michigan, Weber majored in communications. But he also worked as a rigger for the school's crew team, which kept him working with wood. Weber got a master's degree in architecture from the same school, and he learned from professors who extolled green building techniques.

Weber worked in Vermont for 4 1/2 years, and helped design an energy-efficient, multimodal bus station in Burlington. Then he moved to Massachusetts, where he did more green designs on commercial and residential buildings.

It wasn't long after he joined South County Post & Beam that the Narragansett family called. They set a high standard. Depending on how much work is done, LEED ratings can range from silver to gold to platinum.

"Our marching orders from the client were they wanted a gold rated house," Weber said. "And we found it was readily obtainable."

GREEN BUILDING has become a hot topic across the country. And while the LEED standards are the most stringent, they face competition and some criticism.

In mid-February, the National Association of Home Builders launched its own Green Building Program at its national convention for about 92,000 professionals in Florida.

Thomas E. McNulty, president of the Rhode Island Builders Association, wrote in the group's newsletter that local builders favor the NAHB standards because builders aren't required to pay certification fees to independent reviewers, as they must to meet LEED standards.

McNulty says local builders often find that the public isn't ready to pay the extra costs of green building, which can be 10 to 20 percent higher or more.

"It's frustrating that the consumer says they want green, but when they have to take some green out of their pockets, they aren't so green," he said. "We don't want these things mandated through the building code."

A recent report, Greening Rhode Island, by the policy staff at the state Senate, concluded that Rhode Island has made "very little progress in promoting private investment in green building design throughout the state."

The report found there are only 13 buildings, public or private, in various stages of completion in Rhode Island that hope to attain LEED certification. In Massachusetts, there are more than 140 LEED buildings.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promotes a third standard for green buildings called Energy Star. But of the 175 buildings in New England that meet the standard, only three are in Rhode Island; all three are Shaw's supermarkets.

Three years ago, Save The Bay opened its new, green headquarters on the site of a former dump in Providence. The environmental group spent $7 million and incorporated myriad green features, ranging from a vegetated roof to interior lighting keyed to the quantity of available sunlight.

But Save The Bay did not attempt to meet LEED standards. Executive director Curt Spalding said the group believed that it didn't have the time or local expertise to comply with all the certification and paperwork requirements of LEED. Now, with Save The Bay in its new building, Spalding said it plans to retroactively seek LEED certification.

"When we started the project, no one knew what LEED was," Spalding said. "Now, everyone is talking about it. And some have told us we'd have no trouble getting silver certification."

LEED officials have acknowledged their program is evolving and insist it should be a voluntary, third-party standard that does not have to be the sole standard. For instance, all buildings must comply with local building codes. But to pass muster with LEED, certified building experts impose more stringent standards on energy savings and waste reduction.

"The way we see it is a rising tide raises all boats and that's exactly what's happening in the home building market," said Taryn Holowka, the Green Building Council's director of communications.

SOME FEATURES in the Narragansett house are more subtle than others.

For instance, an ingredient in the foundation's concrete is fly ash, a waste produced by incinerators. The fly ash makes it take longer for the concrete to cure, but it also becomes stronger and it's readily available.

The house will be heated with radiant piping embedded in its floors. The source of the heat will be water drawn from a 750-foot well, engineered to produce a steady supply of 50-degree water. An electric-powered heat pump will pull energy from the groundwater and pump it into the heating system at temperatures that could range up to 100 degrees. In the summer, the same source will cool the house.

To prevent storm water from flowing off the property, the builders installed a collection system and placed a 2,000-gallon cistern in the ground. Water can be pumped back out to water the yard. Overflows from the cistern and the grounds are piped downhill to what was the basement of the old cottage -- now filled with gravel -- allowing the water to seep back into the ground.

To minimize waste during construction, the builders ordered boards and beams as close to what was needed as possible. LEED allows no more than 10-percent waste to be generated -- much less than conventional building projects.

To reduce energy use, every effort was made to buy locally.

Building the walls and roof with preformed panels of plywood and foam insulation reduces labor and the use of materials. In conventional construction, builders first frame a house, sheathe it in plywood and then insulate it.

The photovoltaic cells on the roof should provide all the electricity the house needs, particularly because those needs have been reduced by the use of energy efficient appliances and LED lighting, which consumes a tiny fraction of the energy required by conventional lighting. The design should help the house consume about 50 to 60 percent of the energy used in a conventional house.

Most shingled roofs are rated for just 20 years. But because photovoltaic cells last for much longer, a metal roof was installed with a predicted life of 80 years.

With the entire roof taken up with photovoltaics, there was no room for solar hot water. So a propane heater will be installed, but it will save energy by only heating water on demand. Conventional systems keep big tanks of water hot, whether needed or not. The on-demand system will provide hot water almost instantly.

Every component of the house has to be documented and reviewed by an outside LEED expert, and Weber concedes the paperwork is a challenge. With all the new design features, the job also requires frequent meetings with subcontractors.

LEED requires that the mechanical contractors provide manuals and training to the homeowner so they understand how their unusual heating, ventilation and storm water systems function.

Weber says he won't know the actual cost of the house until work is over in June.

While there were some savings in framing the house, many materials -- designed to last longer and save energy -- cost more.

He estimates the house will cost more than $1 million, and that price includes amenities sought by the owners, not ones to meet the LEED criteria.

Like the roof, other components of the house will last far longer than conventional construction. And the energy savings begin the day the owners move in, and never end.

For information on other LEED projects in Rhode Island, go to


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