To read the rest of Kathleen's
case study, and many others
in the Cascadia Region, get
your copy of The Northwest
Green Home Primer

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Case Study

An abbreviated excerpt of the O'Brien-Cunningham Case Study, written by author Kathleen O'Brien about her home building experience on Bainbridge Island, WA.

It started with the bathtub. After five years of trying to squeeze his 6'2" frame into the small tub in our condo bathroom, my husband John and I spent several frustrating months trying to figure out how to get a bigger bathtub into the bathroom. Then there was the carpet - 1,200 square feet of wall-to-wall carpeting, making a marvelous home for dirt, dust mites, and other irritants. More problematic was the lack of natural light. I was constantly trying to turn lights on, only to realize the lights were on.

Then there was the fact that I spent my time away from my home training and consulting others on the benefits of naturally lit, well-designed, good-for-the-planet homes. While our condo was green in some very important ways, such as its prime location which limited our need to rely on a car as primary transportation, we could not ignore the fact that although our home might be good-for-the-planet, it just wasn't working for us.

Even so, we couldn't build a green home and ignore the fact that we were increasing our impact by building a new stand-alone structure. So before we found our lot, the two most important decisions we made were to build small, and to build in a location that wouldn't require us to drive a car to get a quart of milk….

In the end, we did even better. Our real estate agent, who knew of our desire to build small, found a lot where small was all that could work. Two thirds of the infill lot we chose was a Class III wetland, leaving just the remaining one third buildable - and the wetland designation deemed that only an especially environmentally sensitive home could be built on the buffer portion of the lot….

Building small (and doing it well) was just the beginning. The remaining green choices had to do with what went into building the structure itself, and selecting actions and materials that provided multiple benefits. For example, the wood polymer decking on the front porch uses material that would normally be landfilled. It also doesn't need to be stained or painted and is highly durable.

We set our sights on exceeding Washington's already fairly rigorous residential energy code. Some of our strategies included installing low-E windows and ensuring an energy-efficient envelope by using a hydronic heating system that uses our water heater for a heat source. This eliminated the need for a separate boiler or furnace, and as well as ducts, which are notorious for losing heat as it is transported through the system. As a result, we insulated ourselves somewhat from rising energy prices….We also reduced our water consumption by roughly 40% by employing Energy Star washers (clothes and dishes), and landscaping with drought tolerant plantings….We have maintenance friendly landscaping despite the droughts we've been experiencing in recent years. Most importantly for us, we can feel good about the materials we used….

…We built our home in 1998, at which time the green premium for construction of our house, cost a little under $115 per occupied sq. ft. - roughly 1-2% more what it would have cost to build our home more conventionally at the time. We also attributed most of the premium to two high-ticket items -- the metal roof and the hydronic heating system. Bottom line, though, our energy and water savings are working to offset our initial investments, while flexibility in the overall design and space offers more value for the money we spent. And we've learned so much.

While we learned along the way, most importantly, we met our overall goals:

> To provide a healthy, comfortable, and highly functional living space
> To build in a way that reflects our environmental ethic to "build less and build light"
> To provide a model of cost-effective, practical green building techniques; and
> To promote participation in voluntary green building programs.

To read the rest of Kathleen's Case Study, and many others in the Cascadia Region, get your copy of The Northwest Green Home Primer!

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