It’s a chilly day. You’re inside a home in the Highlands at Langley. You open the front door, expecting the usual rush of cold air.
It doesn’t happen.
The cold outside air, seeming to know it’s unwelcome, stays outside. The house stays warm.
It’s a trick—one of a bunch of them—designed into the Highlands’ homes to help them achieve at least two-star Built Green certification (a statewide program to encourage sustainable homebuilding and energy-efficient homes).
How do we keep the cold air at bay? Build the home very tightly, then use the electronically controlled ventilation system to slightly “pressurize” the house. The difference in air pressure inside and out is too small to feel, but it’s just enough to block incoming air when a door opens.
Our Built Green approach is comprehensive and unusual. We want to make homes that are extremely energy-efficient, but also affordable by real people in the real world.
It starts at ground zero, literally, with the foundation. We insulate from the ground up, including the floor. Wall systems contain not only the usual insulation batts, but also 2 inches of high-density spray-in foam. The foam seals the wall against air leaks and penetrating moisture.
Inside, we locate the water heater and washer-dryer in utility rooms within the insulated envelope of the house so their heat by-product helps to warm the interior. We place the water heater on a 2-inch-thick foam mat to keep it from losing heat to the floor.
Our light fixtures are ceiling-mounted instead of the recessed cans many builders use. Cans are notorious channels for cold-air leakage.
Most unusually, we’ve chosen to heat these homes with electricity rather than the propane most people on Whidbey Island use. One reason is that electricity is the one power source whose price is tightly regulated by a government commission. The rates don’t suddenly rise with winter heating demand, unlike certain other fuels.
The other reason is that each room can have its own electronic thermostat, so you don’t waste energy heating a room you’re not using at the moment. Bathrooms also have sensors that know when to turn on the exhaust fan and expel excess humidity.
We use the Biosmart infrared heating system, which employs technology that indeed outsmarts the old and inefficient resistance wall heaters. It’s safe, comfortable, and remarkably efficient heat.
We think of all this as the holistic approach to sustainability. Every piece of the home’s environmental engineering has to work together. Everything has to contribute to the comfort and livability of the home. And in the end, it has to make financial sense.
“Sustainability” is a great buzzword, and architects and homebuilders everywhere seem to be tossing it around like confetti, including here on Whidbey Island. But there’s nothing less sustainable than a home you can’t afford.