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Jun 102011

(We are republishing this story, first published May 6, in the wake of the Joplin E5 tornado, which flattened a third of that city on May 22.)

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As a monster tornado bore down on Tuscaloosa last week, residents of Greensburg, Kansas were preparing for a weekend of festivities commemorating their recovery from a 2007 tornado.

The May 4 twister that nearly blasted Greensburg off the map was rated an EF5. It turned 95 percent of the town’s buildings to tinder and claimed 11 lives as it skidded across the western Kansas town.

Rebuilding the community of 800 has become a testament to how people can plunge in to a new way of living. While some residents left after the storm, many more have worked diligently to turn that dark event into an opportunity, constructing a new village made of sturdy, energy-efficient, sustainable homes that employ the latest technology.

Greensburg GreenTown's demonstration silo home

Greensburg’s new homes boast double-pane windows and double-thick walls; solar panels and SIPs panels; geothermal heating and forced air heat. They’re tightly built, and deliver energy savings that have cut their owners’ electricity bills by more than half.

“I was talking a couple days ago with a resident who built a very efficient home. He’s got electricity bills of $150 instead of $500,’’ said Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, the name for the prairie town’s collective green effort, which has been featured by national media and on the Discovery Channel.

“So why wouldn’t you invest in that? It doesn’t cost that much even on the front end. They say it costs between 3 and 10 percent to build a more energy efficient home” but those upfront costs pay for themselves within a few years, he said.

“It’s a real investment and every time you open your utility bill you’re seeing what you’ve earned that month,” Wallach said.

And that is how Greensburg spurned being a victim of Mother Nature in favor of harnessing her for solar power, geothermal heat and rainwater collection. Wallach, who had previously worked in organizing non-profits, believes that what has worked for Greensburg could work in many other towns and cities.

The success of the GreenTown effort has prompted him to start GreensTown National, which will franchise the steps that worked in Greensburg, helping communities that want to reinvent themselves into more sustainable communities to learn the latest techniques and put them in touch with the necessary experts.

One lesson the town in Southwest Kansas hopes to carry to the world is the idea that careful consideration, when building, can pay big dividends. That would seem obvious, but in a storm situation, residents seek to recreate the comforts of home quickly. Having suffered the shock of great losses, they desperately want a return to normalcy.

Wallach’s advice: Slow down. While the devastation can be overwhelming, if you wait to rebuild until you’ve identified the best contractors with the latest energy-efficient know-how and supplies, you may be much happier in the long run. People also need to tackle the green building learning curve they’ll face, because they can do far more than put in a high-efficiency furnace. With builders who understand green concepts, like using breezeways, wall mass and home orientation to help cool and heat spaces, a fancy furnace may not even be needed.

There’s a big “knowledge barrier,” Wallach says. Residents are confronted with choices, such as the hundreds of windows on the market. But most of these are presented by the people selling those windows. An impartial reviewer is needed, he says.

To solve that problem in Greensburg, which was overrun with the usual eager, but not always credentialed contractors, Wallach organized a team that included local experts, who worked with those sent from the Department of Energy and the National Renewal Energy Laboratory. They educated themselves and residents on the latest tools for green building. The team also brought experts to town to demonstrate the best practices, which paid off for homeowners who delayed rebuilding long enough to hurdle the knowledge wall.

“Part of what we were able to demonstrate in Greensburg was if you just delay that gratification (of rebuilding) just a little bit, it really pays off.”

Going green in Greensburg

John and Lana Janssen, farmers who lost their entire home except for the roof and their kitchen, were among those who exercised patience after the storm.

Today, their rebuilt two-story home uses a shell constructed of insulated concrete forms, or ICFs, made by Logix, geothermal heating, and state-of-the-art windows made by a company now owned by Serious Windows.

The couple says they couldn’t be happier with their cutting-edge house. It cost more upfront to install the ICFs (which John says look like Legos), as well as the highly insulating SIPs panels and low-e windows. But the Janssens expect their energy savings of more than $300 a month will have returned those costs within five years and then, says John, “it’s money in your pocket.”

Like Wallach, the Janssens believe the key to getting the home they wanted was resisting the urge and the pressures — from the scammers as well as that interior urge — to rebuild immediately.

The couple, whose children are grown, took unusual steps while studying the green building landscape. Faced with pressing business needs, as well as the need for a new pole barn, they re-built the barn first and set up both temporary living quarters and an office inside.

They used the barn to try out the insulated blocks they were considering for the walls of their new house.

“That’s how we tested it out,” John says. “It was excellent as far as heating and cooling. Basically you don’t heat and cool (the indoor space); it kind of stays the same all the time. If you put a good (quality) window in it you got it made.”

Janssen, who grows corn and soybeans, recalled that the couple lost electricity for about 48 hours during a 2007 winter ice storm, during which time the temperature inside the pole barn dipped by only two degrees.

“I have a really nice pole barn,” he chuckles.

Having vetted the insulated wall blocks, the Janssens proceeded with rebuilding their new 3-bedroom house the next year. They were able to recover and reuse their entire kitchen from the previous house, which the tornado had skipped over as tornadoes weirdly will, leaving it standing, while mowing down the surrounding rooms.

Only two new cabinet doors and some reorganization were needed. Janssen chuckles over that also.

The Janssen's green home.

The couple became so enamored of the thick exterior walls, which double as tornado protection, that they even used the blocks for one interior wall to buffer noise between the kitchen and laundry and other rooms in the house.

Their finished home is a multi-angled, stone and stucco three-story (counting the basement and lower level garage) that clocks in at 3,700 square feet. It features overhangs that shade windows in the summer; is oriented slightly to the Southwest, allowing it to collects solar heat in the winter. There’s a great room, craft room, a work room and dining room — more space than the couple had before – and it costs less than ever to heat, cool and power. Their total electric bill, which includes lights and the water pump for irrigation, is never over $200.

“I love it,” says Lana. “It’s more than I deserve, but I’m happy to live here.”

Wallach believes many homes that were lost when the tornadoes sliced across the South like a mandoline could be similarly rebuilt.

Residents could replace 20-, 30- or 40-year-old homes with new buildings that use half the electricity, girding them to survive financial storms as well as those that descend from angry clouds.

It would be so easy, he says, because so much previous construction has been done without much thought for efficiency.

Even if residents could not afford insulated concrete form walls, they might be able to have their new house constructed of 2 X 6s instead of the usual 2 x 4s, Wallach said. That adds 50 percent to the width of a wall; an area that can be used to add significantly more insulation, he explained.

The Power of Community

What worked in Greensburg, he says, is that the town formed a core group of enthusiasts that helped steer the rebuilding toward sustainable practices. It started with some “amazing experts” sent in from the DOE and the NREL. But it took determined local involvement, by a few visionaries, including then- Mayor Lonnie McCollum, representatives from then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ office and Daniel and his wife, Catherine Hart.

Janssen says Wallach was the true Pied Piper. He and the others brought in people to discuss walls and windows, building orientation and urban design.

“What we were able to demonstrate was the power of having a champion or advocate solely focused on the sustainability piece. We did a lot of networking and facilitating between parties, and a lot of cheerleading between the business community and residents, to ensure this was their initiative,” Wallach says.

The result was buy-in, from residents and businesses. Greensburg has a “green” car dealership as well as other energy-efficient town buildings, including a GreensTown demonstration home where the technology is showcased.

Back in 2007 and 2008, the team competed against that instinct to rebuild quickly (because “human beings will follow the path of least resistance”) by helping everyone become green building experts, to a degree.

As the residents’ comfort zone expanded, Wallach and crew discovered another instinct that worked in their favor, the pull of community.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to work together. The greatest by product of the experience was the community coming together,” he said.

“Humans beings are really wired to bond around shared adversity. So use that remarkable power to connect and imagine and work together for the greater good, for the community. That’s what we’re all living for.”

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jan 122011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Forgotten about green building during the economic swoon of the last two years? Rising energy costs and static incomes make it more important than ever as consumers look for added value and long-term energy savings.

Check out these top green residential projects from across the U.S., which demonstrate that green living is no longer just for the wealthy few.

1 – Postgreen’s 100K House in South Philly sets the mark for in-city affordability

Postgreen, a sustainable building and design company, wanted to address a demographic that was not being served in Philadelphia:  Urban dwellers who want to live in a green property, but do not want to move to the suburbs or spend the money, typically $500,000 and up, for most builder’s green creations.

So the team set out to build its inaugural projects, the $100K and $120K infill homes in the sleekest, greenest, low-waste designs they could muster, while resisting the “bells and whistles” that drive prices up. They wanted the 100K home to come in at a building cost under $100 per square foot, so they had to work extra hard at efficiencies in all aspects of construction. The result: Two two-story loft homes with two bedrooms each priced at between $200,000 and $250,000, both on commute-free city lots, walking distance to subway and bus stops.

It’s expected to use only about half of the energy of a comparable conventional home the same size.

The two houses, being certified as LEED platinum (the top level on LEED’s silver, gold, platinum scale), employed solar thermal hot water, rainwater collection, low-flow faucets, dual-flush toilets, SIPs insulation (state-of-the-art solid construction panels) and permeable, drought-tolerant landscaping. Both were sold and are occupied, and have been joined by five more similar homes, all sold before construction was completed, said Postgreen’s marketing director Nic Darling, indicating that the company has found strong demand.

The company’s 100K home, which is expected to use only about half the energy of a comparable conventional home, was awarded the 2010 Project of the Year award in the 2010 LEED for Homes Awards by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The award cited the 100K project for its innovation, energy savings, streamlined design and compact construction (82 percent of the construction waste was diverted from the landfill) that went above and beyond even LEED requirements.

The LEED for Homes Awards were presented at the USGBC International Conference in Chicago in November. Page forward to see more award winners.

Jun 252010

From Green Right Now Reports

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan have announced new contracting efforts that they say will enhance livability and sustainability initiatives and improve competition for federal highway projects.

The new process removes conflicting HUD and Federal Highway Administration contracting requirements, giving state and local agencies more flexibility, officials said. In addition, it promotes livable and sustainable communities, places where transportation, housing and commercial development investments have been coordinated so that people have access to adequate, affordable and environmentally sustainable travel options near their homes, by delivering projects sooner and at reduced costs. But the new process will not allow transportation dollars to be used for housing related improvements.

Continue reading »

Oct 232009

By Ashley Phillips
Green Right Now

The US Department of Energy’s 2009 Solar Decathlon showcased the best in solar-powered home design as conceived by colleges students. Over 20 teams from across North America and Europe competed in this year’s competition.

1st Place Solar Home

1st Place Solar Home

Team Germany came in first place overall with a score of 908.297 out of 1,000. Team Germany also won the last competition in 2007. The team’s philosophy of “pushing the envelope with as many new technologies as possible” took them straight to the top.

Out of the ten categories, Team Germany’s “SurPLUShome” won Net Metering and scored very highly in the other categories. The team’s two-story home has furniture and appliances that either fold away or can be transformed into something else to serve additional purposes. There are photovoltaic panels on the roof and all sides of the home, even the north side, to produce 200% of the energy required for the house.

The type of solar panels used are less efficient than some, but collect power even on cloudy or rainy days. The aggressive covering of the home with the panels led to the excess energy produced. The panels collected power even on rainy days.

Construction costs for Team Germany’s home was estimated from $650,000-$850,000.

See a video about the house on You Tube.

The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s Gable Home came in second with their home that produces up to four times the energy needed. The team focused on performance but “also achieved elegant simplicity in design,” according to the judges.

This home uses 90% less energy than typical construction. Laminated bamboo was

2nd Place Solar Home

2nd Place Solar Home

used in construction, which is stronger than wood and more rapidly renewable. This home’s construction costs are significantly lower with a range of $250,000-$450,000.

Team California, made up of Santa Clara University and the California College of the Arts, finished in third place with its Refract House. This home’s temperature and lighting can be controlled from anywhere with a simple iPhone application. The judges gave it first place for Architecture and Communications and raved about its aesthetics.

“Beautiful in every respect, Refract House broke out of the box and masterfully executed the melding of interior and exterior spaces,” they reported.

3rd place - Solar Deca --

3rd Place Solar Home

To conserve space, the team equipped the house with built-in furniture. Team California’s construction costs were $450,000-$650,000.

Congratulations to all the Solar Decathlon participants for their efforts to make the future greener.

For details about other winners, see the Solar Decathlon website.

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media