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Here's the first rule of building green: The smaller a house the better. A small house requires fewer materials to build and less energy for heating, cooling, lighting, and such. At only 990 square feet total on the main and upper levels (there's also a 590-square-foot basement), this home fits the bill. It was constructed by builder Bob Allen (catskillwoodworking.com) for his family in High Falls, New York. Solar power, solar water heating, high-performance insulation, and other features minimize energy costs year-round.
Water is heated with no operating costs by a solar panel system attached to the roof. "The system supplies our hot water from April through November," Bob says. When the sun isn't shining and during short winter days, a conventional gas water heater provides backup.
Contributing to the sense of space, the dining room/sunroom opens onto a deck made of ipe wood. This outside living area helps the home live as big as all outdoors during good weather. The barbecue is a center of activity when entertaining family and friends.
The main public space encompasses the living room, home office, kitchen, and dining room/sunroom. "For two people, it lives comfortably," Bob says. To reduce the home's environmental impact, floors are bamboo, finishes are low-VOC, and fans stir air. "The environment inside is clean, easy to take care of, and simple -- just how I wanted it," the homeowner/builder says.
To help keep heat from escaping in winter, Bob chose standard-size, triple-pane, high-efficiency windows from the Architectural series by Pella Windows and Doors (pella.com; 800/374-4758).
Doing its job inside walls is a soy-based, blown-in foam from BioBased Insulation (biobased.net; 800/803-5189). The material achieves insulation values of R20 for walls and R30 for the roof, but its critical job is stopping air leaks by sealing cracks, crevices, and voids. For a snug home on cold winter days, Bob also installed a high-performance and energy-efficient radiant heat system under the flooring.
Interior walls are not standard drywall. Instead, Bob used wheatboard, a dense material made of wheat straw. Handled just like plywood sheets, the material was cut into wide shiplap strips for the walls and narrow strips for the ceiling. "Wheatboard adds texture to the wall that drywall doesn't have," Bob says. The manufacturer is Environ Biocomposites (environbiocomposites.com; 800/324-8187). The material was purchased through ECO Supply (ecosupplycenter.com; 800/883-7005).
The island serves as a place to eat a snack and as a transitional element between the living area and the kitchen. Bob built the cabinets from PlyBoo (plyboo.com; 866/835-9859), a plywood material made with sustainable bamboo. Appliances are Energy Star-rated for efficiency.
In keeping with his environmental concerns, Bob chose Richlite (richlite.com; 888/383-5533) for kitchen and bath countertops and sinks. The material is manufactured using layers of recycled paper soaked in a resin. Rock-hard, Richlite looks similar to solid-surfacing. Because of its durability, Bob used Richlite on all window sills and for an outside tabletop exposed to weather year-round. "The material is maintenance-free," Bob says. "The parent company makes a version of it for use in skateboarding parks, so you know it can stand up to just about anything."
With glass sliders all around, the dining room/sunroom space feels almost like out-of-doors. The floor is concrete. Thermal shades hold winter cold at bay.
Although the master bedroom is a modest 360 square feet, the bedroom is 11x14 feet. Plus, there's room for a convenient bathroom and a 6x11-foot walk-in closet. Bob built in a bamboo wall cabinet with 15 large drawers.
Separated from the bedroom by sheets of frosted glass, the bathroom has a modern, practical sensibility. The shower is always open. Bob fabricated the sink and counter from Richlite, which is easy to live with. "When it's time to clean the shower and floor, you can just take the shower wand and hose down everything. Water goes right to the drain in the floor," he says.
Another ceiling fan, this one in the master bedroom, keeps the upper level comfortable in warm months. Though small, the fan works well for little cost.
An array of solar panels is located next to an electric meter about 200 yards from the house. That's close enough to be practical without being intrusive. The system's list cost was about $50,000, but with rebates, tax credits, and a low-interest energy-efficiency loan, Bob went solar for about half that. "The system is supposed to provide 110 percent of my electric needs over the course of a year," he says. "I'm not yet positive it will do all that, but I want this to be a green house, so I put my money where my mouth is."