If you keep up with USA TODAY reporter Wendy Koch’s blog, Green House, you might be aware that Koch recently experienced a rather monumental day with her own green home building project in Falls Church, Virginia. No, it wasn’t move-in day (although I’m sure Koch wishes it was) but with all the factory-built roof panels and walls of the home in place, the energy-efficient abode that Koch and her husband first envisioned almost a year ago began to at long-last resemble a “real home.”
Koch’s own journey biding adieu to a McMansion and opting for a garage- and lawn-less Passive House-influenced home that’s now under construction are chronicled weekly in a regular “My Green House” feature.
Although Koch covers various sorts of environmental news stories for Green House, it’s her weekly accounts of green home building from “behind the trenches” that truly drives the blog. One part personal diary, one part lesson in green building 101, a lot (including plenty of dos and don’ts) can be gleaned from Koch’s own experiences. And if you have aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts ranging from financing to ground-breaking of Koch’s own project, she features plenty of notable green homes belonging to other folks, too.
Given the recent milestone reached by Koch’s own green home (scroll down to the bottom of the page for a video update) and the fact that she’s been living a “double life” at USA Today as both a general assignment reporter and an eco-blogger for just a little over a year now, I thought it would be good to check in with Koch.
Having just returned from Greenbuild 2010 in Chicago where she participated in a Residential Master Series discussion, Koch was kind enough to let me pick her brain on topics ranging from Greenbuild 2010 highlights to her own journey transitioning out of a “big ass house” to a right-sized dream home.
M.H.: So I have to ask, which came first: the Green House blog for USATODAY or your own green house building project?
Wendy Koch: My project came first. My husband Alex and I sold a 5,000 square foot BAH (his acronym for "big ass house") in Dec. 2008 and began designing an energy-efficient home half the size in early 2009. I proposed the blog as a way to chronicle my building experience and cover other green issues. It seemed like a simple enough idea. I had NO idea how demanding a blog would be.
The Green House blog is just about a year old. Are there any particular stories that you've covered or homes that you've featured over the past year that have directly influenced your own green building project?
Since we finished most of the design work before I launched the blog, my architects weren't thrilled when I'd suggest late-in-the-game changes. The biggest was windows. We started out with a beautiful, double-pane, wood-clad product but as I learned more about ultra-efficient Passive House building standards, I pushed for a switch to fiberglass windows from Serious Materials, which offer a higher insulating value.
In January, I wrote a post about a new Honeywell home wind turbine ($6,500 before installation.) I told my husband about it that night as he brushed his teeth. "We've got to get it," I gushed. He was too tired to debate the issue so he suggested I look at our local wind speeds, estimate how much power it would likely generate and how long the payback period would be based on prevailing electric rates. I did so first thing the next morning, our utility bills spread out on the kitchen floor. Because we live in an urban area with fairly low wind speeds, the numbers weren't encouraging, even with a federal tax credit for wind power. I dropped the idea.
You were featured as part of Residential Summit Master Series speech at this year's Greenbuild conference and expo. Can you tell us a bit about the subject matter of the session?
I joined a three-person panel (with Pulte Homes' Deborah Meyer and American Standard CEO Don Devine) to discuss "Creating Demand" for green homes. We agreed that the vast majority of American consumers (upwards of 85%) will buy green only if it peforms well and saves money, so energy efficiency and afforadability are key. Deborah and I talked about the need to quantify, in very tangible ways, the payback period for green upgrades. I also encouraged the building of smaller yet beautiful homes. I've seen some deep-green builders focus so much on sustainability that they overlook aesthetics.
"It has to be beautiful," my architect Ralph Cunningham, FAIA, often says. He believes the greenest homes are the ones people love — the ones that will stick around for decades and be updated, not gutted. While many gorgeously green homes are pricey, they don't have to be. If you stick to the basics or follow the KISS ("Keep It Simple Stupid") principle, you can build efficient, attractive and affordable homes.
If I tell someone I'm building a green home, the first question I get is: "Are you using solar panels?" No, I tell them. "So are you doing wind or geothermal?" No again. Because of price, I've eschewed those sexier options and have focused instead on the low-hanging fruit: well-insulated envelope or exterior; high-performance windows; Energy Star appliances and lighting; WaterSense plumbing fixtures; rainwater harvesting; drought-tolerant plants. No lawn!
Greenbuild isn't exactly a small affair and there's a lot to wade through. Did any products or concepts really catch your attention at this year's conference?
It's actually a bit overwhelming. More than 1,000 companies showcased products at more than 1,800 booths. I spent hours walking around the exhibit hall but never saw everything. I was intrigued by the number of LED lighting companies. Their representatives told me their industry is experiencing exponential growth, given the U.S. phaseout of the incandescent that starts in 2012. Also interesting was the number of mainstream U.S. window companies — Anderson, Jeld-Wen and Kolbe — that are now making triple-pane windows. Kolbe has a new line of vinyl ones that are so attractive they look like fiberglass. Since I'm still picking kitchen cabinetry, countertrops and tiling, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of these products. Too often, though, they start at prices (especially the recycled glass products) that are well beyond a reporter's budget.
It's tough to pick favorites but has one of the homes that you've featured as "This Week's Green House" really stood out and resonated with you?
There are three homes I particularly like, for different reasons. Architecture professor Corey Saft built an ultra-efficient Passive House-certified home in Lafayette, La., showing it's possible to do so in a humid, southern climate. He also did it on a budget, spending $100 per square foot. For sheer beauty and drama, I like architect Scott Lee's vertical hillside house in Mill Valley, Calif. (Partly I'm envious he gets to live in Mill Valley.) He told me he knew the process would be difficult and costly (he spent about $700 per square foot) but he grossly understated how much and often wondered whether he'd made the right decision. (I can relate.) My overall favorite — for pluck alone — is the straw bale house that Carolyn Roberts, a single mom with a full-time job, built herself in Tucson, Ariz., for $50,000, working evenings and weekends. She says she had a very tight budget, so cost overrurns were stressful. "I was crying a lot," she told me. "It was a nervous breakdown every other month." (Ok, so misery loves company.)
Your own green home, aside from being smaller and more energy-efficient, is in a "real" neighborhood in Falls Church, Va, with many amenities within walking distance. How important of consideration was this for you?
Huge. Walkability was one of our top priorities in picking a place to build. (We deconstructed, or took apart piece by piece, the old house that was on the lot to salvage its building materials.) Our quarter-acre scored a whopping 92 on WalkScore.com, which hailed it as a "worker's paradise" for its proximity to public transit, restaurants, public library, park, community center, Starbucks — you name it.
Even the most staunch eco-evangelists tend to have a couple "ssssh-ssssh" vices. Has their been a particular struggle/sticking point in your journey to "rightsize" your life and lower your family's carbon footprint? A not so eco-friendly habit or product that you've had trouble letting go of?
Actually no. There are so many good eco-friendly options that we don't feel deprived. My husband will miss having a wood-burning fireplace, but we found a nifty direct-vent gas fireplace that he's OK with. I have asthma, so I won't miss the occasional smoke that backdrafted into the house. He also likes to cook with gas, but since we're building such a tight home, we've opted for an induction cooktop that seems like a good compromise.
Is there a single piece of advice you could give to homeowners that themselves are contemplating transitioning from a McMansion to a greening and smaller living space?
Yes. Go for it. Start by cleaning out your closets. In other rooms, remove excessive furniture and nick nacks. It's kind of frightening all the junk we accumulate. I believe the "less is more" concept applies not only to writing (my craft) but also to living. Having fewer objects is liberating. It's less to take care of. I still have too many books, clothes and other stuff, so I have more paring to do. It's a journey, and I'm only part of the way there.