Dec 28, 2016 04:20PM
Brick by brick: New home showcases green living
By Sarah Ford
The nearly Net-Zero Home in Stone Gate at Zuma Creek, a 22-acre conservation subdivision on the outskirts of Port Byron, Ill., is designed to generate all of its own power and make the least impact possible on the planet by utilizing the latest innovations in energy efficiency in its 3,739 square feet of livable space.
Owned by Jack and Molly Achs, the house is the first in the area to be built to three levels of qualifications: Energy Star, LEED Platinum standards and Net-Zero. The Achses worked with an independent energy consultant to make sure they met all the standards for certification.
Achs, retired from the Army and now an economics teacher at West High School in Davenport, and his wife, an accountant at Deere & Co., have lived in the home with their two keeshonds, Rosco and Layla, since October 2015, after five years of planning and building. Their previous residence was near Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, but country living and a dream house had more appeal.
Every element in the house is a testament to their vision and commitment to cleaner and greener living — passive heating, low-flow fixtures, 100-percent LED lighting, all nestled in a subdivision overlooking the scenic Rock River Valley and Midwestern farmsteads.
The deck, made from recycled plastic, which is much easier to maintain than wood, gives them the perfect panorama to enjoy the landscape.
Achs said it fits the couple's longtime dream to have a house that is green and self-sustaining, as well as an expansive view of the countryside. "It's a normal, livable house that is energy efficient and modern. We love it!"
While the home is not off the grid, it will be a net-metered home once the solar panels are installed this year, so it will contribute to the energy grid during the day. This equates essentially to a "hookup fee" bill for the year, and a year's worth of data to show average energy usage in the home.
While the house has had more expense upfront, the Achses expect to recoup the extra costs within five to 10 years, based on energy savings alone.
As any homebuilder knows, the abundance of home hardware can be overwhelming. To go greener, the Achses only considered energy-efficient or sustainable products in their decision-making process for home amenities.
"It narrows the criteria. You only have 20 things to pick from as opposed to hundreds," said Molly Achs. The carpet, ceramic tiles and hardwood floors all met industry standards for sustainable sources. Achs said she also applied a cost-benefit analysis to each major purchase to ensure that the purchase eventually would offset the cost.
Even during the chilly fall days, the house remained at a relatively constant 65 degrees, which the couple attributes to the expansive south-facing windows in the living room.
"The sun heats this space up for free," Achs says, with a smile. The couple's Home Energy Rating System Index, or HERS, is currently 35 — the closer the index gets to zero, the closer it is to being considered Net-Zero.
Other energy-saving methods in the home include Thermomass foundation walls, an Energy Recovery Ventilator to keep fresh air flowing, 100 percent LED lighting, eco-friendly carpet and hardwood floors and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency WaterSense fixtures and fittings. Heat is provided by a 55,000 BTU fireplace, and an air source heat pump is activated on the coldest of days.
A 1,500-gallon cistern collects 50 percent of roof rainwater, which the Achses plan to use in their garden and native landscapes. Another LEED requirement for their lot size is to plant 55 trees or bushes on the property, which will retain 85 percent of rainfall and ensure practically no stormwater runoff in the watershed. Some of the trees will be fruit-bearing, such as apple, pears and pawpaws.
Construction of the house was phase one of a four-phase plan. Phase two includes installing two rain gardens and more wildflower gardens with native and drought-resistant varieties. Phase three will be the installation of 28 solar panels, the amount needed for the home design in order to meet Net-Zero status. The final phase will be installing driveway pavers, which will allow rainwater to percolate in the ground as opposed to running off to the nearby Zuma Creek.
It seems Mother Nature rewarded the Aches for their earth-friendly mission, as the couple's native plant garden was thriving with life throughout the year, especially in the fall, when hundreds of monarch butterflies dined on the abundant clovers and flowers. Meanwhile, Achs has been collecting seeds for next year's gardens, and the couple is discussing an indoor growing room for starter plants and homegrown kitchen ingredients.
While the Achses have blazed a trail with their homebuilding project, they noted any homeowner can improve their energy efficiency with the right planning. More windows on the south side of the home allow sunlight and natural heat in. Duct sealing with polymer glue effectively seals any leaks. Achs recommends a blower door test to reveal leaks in a home, which will measure the airtightness of the space and pinpoint any air leaks. Choosing Energy Star products eventually will pay off with lower electricity costs.
Stone Gate at Zuma Creek currently has a handful of lots available for new homes. Realtor Harry Cleaveland says that every house built at Stone Gate so far has elements of energy efficiency. Other features of the subdivision include walking trails, 50-percent dedicated green space, natural water drainage paths, native plants and a bioswale, which is designed to remove pollutants and silt from runoff water.
Sarah Ford is an occasional Radish contributor.
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