Star Power

Here's what some of this year's Energy Efficiency Award-winners did to earn their homes' 5-star energy ratings for design and construction.

by Virginia Lindaur Simmon

Efficiency Vermont, the state's energy efficiency utility, recognized leaders in energy-efficient design and construction at its Building Solutions Conference in Burlington.

"The award-winning homebuilders are really the best of the best," explains Jeff Gephart of Vermont Energy Star® Homes, a service of Efficiency Vermont and Vermont Gas Systems.

Homes are rated using a five-star system, where 1 is poor and 5 is the best. The star rating overlays a 100-point scale wherein 1 is terrible and 100 is ideal. To be considered for an award, a home must have a 5-star rating, which begins at 86 points. Then 1/10-point increments are added for features like exceeding the minimum ventilation or lighting efficiency requirements or using Energy Star–labeled equipment.

"This is not a beauty contest," Gephart says. It's based on specific activities or the energy rating.

All the winners we contacted said that, while an efficient house might cost a bit more initially, the long-term cost should be significantly lower thanks to lower operational costs.

Single-family homes greater than 3,000 square feet.

The winning home of Lawrence Smith of Ridgeline Design-Build in Shelburne.

Lawrence Smith of Ridgeline Design-Build in Shelburne won for the design of his own family home, a 3,000-square-foot house made of stacked straw bales stuccoed on the outside and plastered on the inside. It has an active solar system with 13 radiant hydronic solar panels on the roof, which produce hot water for domestic hot water and heat.

The straw bales provide what's called a super- or highly insulated shell for the building. "We have R60 insulation in the attic or the ceilings of the house. The heating system is radiant hot water on three floors (basement and two upper floors). So there is a very high mass in the house, which maintains a very consistent indoor temperature." Heating cost averages about $400 to $500 a year.

Single-family homes 2,000 to 3,000 square feet

Paul Arnot runs Arnot Development Group Inc., a design-build firm in Waterbury.

Paul Arnot runs Arnot Development Group Inc., a design-build firm in Waterbury. The challenge of the home he built for his clients was its sloping site. "They wanted to get as much for their dollar as possible," he says, "so we tucked the garage under the house." Doing so allowed the owners to get more square footage for the house without the added cost of building a separate garage.

"All our homes use high R ratings on windows, doors, etc.," says Arnot. "In this house, we put in a geothermal heating system." That involved drilling a well and tying in a second water line that the furnace uses to draw water from the well which remains at a constant temperature and use it to heat in winter and cool in summer.

Chuck Reiss of Reiss Building and Renovation in Hinesburg won honorable mention in this category. The client learned of his interest in green building and energy efficiency and called him before even hiring an architect.

Chuck Reiss of Reiss Building and Renovation in Hinesburg won honorable mention in the single-family homes 2,000 to 3,000 square feet category.

Reiss put the garage on the northwest corner to buffer the home from cold winter winds. The design has a lot of south-facing glass, and 12 100-watt photo-voltaic panels and a solar hot water system mean the client produces about 60 percent of her hot water from the sun.

"We strapped her house with horizontal strapping," says Reiss, explaining that it greatly reduces heat loss through the studs.

Reiss says the payback on something like this is significant. "Her gas usage for the year 2000 was 622 cubic feet per year. A typical 2,000-square-foot house hers was 2,100 uses about 1,080 cubic feet per year." This translates to a heating cost average of $57.85 per month. Her projected average electric bill is $14.80 a month.

Single-family homes less than 2,000 square feet: Colgan Builders, South Londonderry.

Richard Colgan's South Londonderry home.

Richard Colgan says he thinks the reason he won the award was because of the thermal performance of the building envelope. "They do a blower-door test, and it achieved 1/10 of an air change per hour, which is the best they've had."

The 1,960-square-foot home he designed and built is a double-wall construction with densely packed cellulose between the walls (about 10 1/2 inches of it).

It has triple-paned, low-E windows filled with argon gas that are foamed in place, as are the doors. "Every piece of wood that went into that house was siliconed in place," says Colgan with a chuckle. "I went way overboard on it."

Radiant heat in the basement floor is the only heat in the house. "I've been building for 20 years, and every building I've ever built is passive solar," says Colgan. Heating cost is estimated at $250 per year; electric at $420 a year.

Tom Warczniak, Smugglers' Notch Corp., won the award for Best Multifamily Homes.

One unusual feature is a drain-water-heat recovery unit set below the upstairs bathroom. It captures about 50 percent of the heat from warm water used upstairs in the bath or sink and puts it back into the water tank.

Originally published in April 2002 Business People-Vermont