You won’t hear Bill and Ellar Hicks whining about power bills. They pay just $79 to $150 a month at their 2,700-square-foot, all-electric home north of Mooresville.
Part of the credit for the cost control goes to passive solar home design, which involves positioning a house to make the most of sun in winter and shade in summer.
The Hickses are still a ways off from the lofty goal that many conservationists and some frugal homeowners dream of: the zero-energy dwelling, which would produce as much energy as it uses.
Smart residential design and construction is even allowing a rarified group of families to collect a check each month from their utility company for an energy buyback.
Those kinds of transactions are still rare in North Carolina and elsewhere, and so is the emerald certification the Hickses’ home received from the National Association of Home Builders.
Emerald is the highest of four certification levels based on the National Green Building Standard.
“As far as I know, this is the first one in the Charlotte vicinity,” said builder Danny Kelly of Kelly McArdle Construction. “There might be a handful in the state.”
In fact, 12 homes in North Carolina and 186 nationwide have an emerald rating since the program started in 2009. Twenty-five other homes in the Charlotte region have earned bronze, silver or gold ratings.
The Hickses’ home was built less than two years ago and earned the certification for many reasons. The easiest to spot is the exterior wall of the combined living room, dining room and kitchen.
This area of the house faces south, and there are three sets of French doors looking over the front driveway that are essential for passive solar heating. A tile-covered strip of 4-inch-thick concrete runs the length of the wall’s interior side.
In the winter, the sun sits low enough to pass through the French doors and warm the concrete strip, creating heat for the gathering areas. Outside, 30-inch-deep overhangs above the French doors block the summer sun from coming in and warming the house.
Dormer windows on the second story do the same job, letting the sun warm the tile-covered concrete slab on an opposite interior wall.
The home also has a high-efficiency water heater, a rainwater collection system and more insulation than required by building codes. The Hickses also used plywood and paint with low toxicity levels.
What you probably won’t notice is that builder Kelly put the principles of advanced wall framing to work for the project. These techniques reduce the amount of wood framing going into the walls by 50 percent. With fewer boards, there’s room for extra insulation.
One tradeoff for this type of custom work is that building costs can be higher. The average costs for a custom home are about $150 per square foot, Kelly estimates. Costs for the Hickses’ home were 5 percent to 10 percent higher, he said.
But the investment was worth it.
“The things we had to do to get the points (for an emerald certification) just made common sense,” Bill Hicks said.
“Stay away from toxic stuff,” Ellar Hicks said.
Living off the grid
Riley and Donna Shirey get a check for about $650 every year from Puget Sound Energy in Washington State for power returned to the grid.
That is their payoff for their decision to build the most affordable and healthy – not to mention comfortable and quiet – home possible on the shore of Lake Sammamish in Bellevue, Wash.
The home is contemporary but made comfortable with fat alder trim and bright no-VOC paint, which releases fewer volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone and smog buildup.
Rooms (two bedrooms, 2.5 baths) are no larger than needed. The living room is a conversation-inducing 11 feet by 12 feet. The home steps down the lake’s-edge hillside, from TV loft upstairs to the bedrooms below the main living space.
Interior designer Autumn Donovan helped inside, working with the Shireys’ “recycled” furniture – pieces they already owned. “Those chairs over there,” Shirey said, pointing to the living room. “I’ve had those since 1982. We just got them recovered.”
That kind of ethic is evident all around. “There’s always something people can do,” Shirey said, “whether they’re building a new house or have an existing one.”
Rebecca Teagarden of The Seattle Times contributed to this story.
More home innovation news, videos, photos and more at Smarter Living.
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