Here's a quick run down of what is planned at the moment (i.e. this will probably change) and how each element could be considered sustainable, energy efficient or just plain cool:
• Radiant heating: We'll run tubing through our concrete slab on the first floor, then run heated fluid through the tubing. The heat generated is highly energy efficient (and comfortable!) because you heat the concrete, and its substantial thermal mass warms the objects in the house instead of the air. Radiant heating responds much more quickly to heating needs than heated air and maintains a constant temperature better. The fewer "warm-up" periods (equivalent to when our current furnace kicks on) save on energy costs. We'll also run radiant on our second floor — attached to the underside of the floor — for the same effect. Radiant is also a healthier option because it does not blow contaminants and particulates around the house. Plus, Tai can't wait to help lay tubing like this:
• Insulation: Framing the exterior walls with 6-inch studs will provide two additional inches of depth for wall insulation over traditional construction (the type of insulation is something we haven't decided yet, but we'd really like to do blown-in to fill all the nooks and crannies). Super insulation is a concept central to Passivhaus construction — we'll probably fall a notch or so below those European standards, but still be a great deal more than the average existing home (and even more than typical new home construction). 6-inch framing should allow us to achieve R-19 in the walls. The roof should be able to achieve R-30 just by insulating in-between the roof joists and with the foam for the membrane roofing material the final product should be around R-45 to R-50.
• Solar orientation and passive solar heating: This is a big, big reason that we were interested in an architect-designed home in the first place. Our home will take into account all the benefits and disadvantages of our site, with its strong southern orientation (not necessarily true with a stock plan bought from a builder or other outlet). We've already spent a fair bit of time talking about this in our meetings with Kenner and Matt — it's on everybody's radar.
• Low-e windows: Multiple panes, with an insulated, tight envelope construction and a low-e coating allow visible light to enter but reflect infrared radiation. In the summer this will keep much of the heat from the sun out, making it easier to maintain a comfortable temperature at lower energy consumption. In the winter, enough heat can get in to help warm the objects in the house, reducing the energy consumption required for heating.
• Ikea kitchen: We've said it before, but we'll say it again — Ikea products are among the most sustainable mass-produced stuff out there. They build their cabinets (and the million other MDF products they have) to stricter standards — no formaldahyde with lots of recycled and sustainably harvested content, such as wheatboard. The company's philosophy on product quality and safety touch on life cycle and efficiency, among other topics. Buying standard sizes of a flat-pack kitchen also means that more kitchen components can be shipped at once, lowering the per-item environmental impact. We're using easily accessible materials — not creating a custom solution that would require more waste to pull off.
• Climate-appropriate landscaping: Our initial budget will not have room for extensive landscaping, but we will have — eventually — front, side and backyards that make sense for Utah's hot, dry summers and cold winters by using native plants, drought-tolerant plants, grasses, etc.
• Energy-star appliances.
• Solar hot water heating: Budget permitting, this is something that we both really want to create. We'd run a hyper-efficient solar hot water system on the roof to take care of the bulk of our hot water needs. The sun's there, so why not use it?
• Use of renewable materials: We've had multiple love affairs with bamboo at this point (which grows very quickly), and we're interested in cork flooring as well for the second floor. Plus, I think it's gorgeous:
(Too lazy to edit their caption off...so at least now you know about the diversity of cork flooring options...)
• Low- or no-VOC paints.
• Designing in a way that makes good sense. This is harder to quantify, but it involves things like not over-sizing rooms, not over-sizing the house, etc. It also means adding a mud room for backyard entry from the detached garage and an entry vestibule for the front that will let us take off our shoes before coming inside so that we don't track outside muck/particulates all over the house, etc.
What don't you see on this list? A lot of gadgets and things like solar panels. Solar panels are still just too expensive for us. They require a substantial investment up front, which then takes a long time to recoup in saved energy costs, and this isn't the house we plan on living in for the rest of our lives. We hope that the price of solar systems will keep dropping and the technology will keep improving. Also, you won't hear us crowing about our righteous use of ceiling fans and swamp coolers — because we're getting an air conditioner. It will be a small and efficient one, but getting an efficient AC unit is sort of like getting an efficient dryer — you're sunk just by definition. (And we're owning up to it.)
We are trying to make logical building decisions that are efficient and sustainable, and we aren't interested in "green-washing" the project. We just don't have the budget to make it super outwardly "green" or "eco." But it is going to be a smart, responsible and efficient house.