My Inner Green Builder Cries Foul

mcmansion dean terryEARLIER THIS WEEK I had occasion to visit the home of a distant relative, the brother of a cousin’s wife, someone I barely know.  The man is a physician, a specialist, and it is clear from his home and its contents that his world is about his family, his faith, and his profession.  As we (the other guests and I) moved through the rooms of this house my inner green builder antennae started buzzing and sparking.  I was appalled.

I wondered why. Was it the furnishings, the interior decorating–or was it the space itself that so depressed me?  For all its supposed grandeur this was a home without a pulse.

As a green builder and remodeler, passionately committed to sustainable design, I can’t help but notice the ill health and emotional hollowness of conventionally built homes.

The Un-Home: Inhospitable and Barely Habitable

Being in this luxury home was a chilling experience.  This is one of those prize homes that has everything you’d expect—all the high-end amenities.  And yet, it lacks everything that would make it feel luxurious to a person or feel even a like a home because it is space furnished and dwelled in incidentally. Think hotel room.

The space is magnificently ill proportioned, over scaled, and hastily appointed. In the den with its 25-foot high stone fireplace (empty of fire on this chilly night) there was no coziness.  We gathered in a corner instead, pulling chairs from their appointed places to make a close circle shying from the somber chimney beast.

I was glad to leave.  Passing through the two-story porch—illuminated like a chain hotel at a nameless highway interchange, I observed the columns desperately clinging to some weary sense of grandeur.

The Disconnect: Home Not Where the Heart Is

LATER, I MARVELED at the contradiction.  My host, a physician, who has devoted the better part of his life to healing, inhabits a home that suffers from morbid obesity, an emphysemic mechanical system, and a sagging heart—if it has any heart at all.

I struggle to draw conclusions from this.  Our homes are natural representations of our bodies.  The rooms are like chambers of our hearts, their mechanical systems like our organs, strong, efficient, and healthy.  Or they are wheezing, blinking, and trembling.

Building Green Is Building Naturally, Rationally and Sustainably

IF WE ARE FORTUNATE ENOUGH to have the opportunity to build new space for our families and ourselves I think it is worthwhile to at least consider building green.  I think it worthwhile to pause and consider how a home, like a person, is an organism regulated by a rational a system.  Consider how the bones, skin, and inner organs of the house function in relation to the people who will inhabit it.

Our bodies follow natural and rational cycles—same as the natural world all around us.  We know, too, that people, just like nature, can be unpredictable and irrational.  Yet, when we build, I believe we ought to aspire to follow the laws of natural systems as best we can.  This is the essence of a sustainable design and green building point of view.  We mimic what is natural and rational.

As a green builder and green remodeler, this is my purpose:  to create healthy, efficient homes, and nurturing spaces that are naturally, beautiful, rational, and capable of surprise.

A Classic Bungalow Made As Green As Green Can Be But….

Green Builder Remodels Classic Bungalow

photos by Ken Wyner

A LITTLE OVER A YEAR AGO we completed a major renovation and addition project for a vintage bungalow in the Takoma Park, Maryland Historic District.  We made some minor changes to the interior walls, popped up the back half of the roof—and most significantly—removed two separate, steep, narrow, head-banger stairways, and added a mud room and stair tower at the rear of the house.  Removing the existing stairs dramatically improved flow, and the stair tower, with its two story group of windows, flooded the back part of the house with daylight and connected it with the garden.  From a design standpoint, the project was a success, winning an American Residential Design Award for its class.

Our green remodeling project included a deep energy retrofit and all new mechanical systems.  So it was high time to compare our energy performance modeling with a year’s worth of utility data, to see how our work actually faired.

As a green builder I feel the need to validate the strategy I’ve been working to perfect over the past decade.  I call it the Net Zero addition, meaning that when we add to the area of the house, we strive to design it so that the new, expanded home won’t use any more energy than it did before the work was done.

Reality Check: Energy Modeling vs Actual Performance

Green builders and remodelers spend a lot of time number crunching and teasing out the most excruciating design details to achieve their idea of a high performance home.  Ultimately, their grand, visionary efforts are proven by the most banal of measures:  the utility bills.   SO I PICKED UP A STACK of the owners’ utility bills going back to 2007, and entered the usage data into a spreadsheet.

At first glance, the results were gratifying.  Gas usage—the most direct indicator of heating system performance—was stunning.  Our modeling predicted a reduction of heating energy by 60%.  Actual gas use for 2012 was right on the money, at 38.4% of what had been used in years prior to construction—even after adding more than 14% more heated floor area.  But that should have been no surprise, since we insulated the original walls and roof, and superinsulated the new spaces.  New windows were triple glazed, and the new multizone HVAC systems were top of the line.  We air sealed the house so effectively, that we had to use an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to provide fresh air.

However, when I got to the electric bills, I was astonished to find that electrical usage had increased—by 84%!

A Green Builder’s Vision vs The Human Factor

Green Remodeling by Abrams Design features stair tower that improves day lighting and air circulation

Ouch!  What’s going on here?

Some of this increase in electrical usage was expected.  Before the renovation, the owners cooled their bedroom at night with a window AC, and pretty much sweated it out in the rest of the house.  Now, all three levels of the house are cooled by a sophisticated multi-zone central AC system.

But looking at monthly data, electrical use was actually lower in the summer months than it was in the dead of winter.  Central AC may have been a factor, but there is much else in play here.

One factor is lighting, which not only included new fixtures for the spaces we added, but also included specialty lighting—for kitchen work surfaces, accenting built-ins, and exterior security lighting.  Just the fact that all the spaces in the house were inviting, and provided special purposes—such as a TV room, an exercise room (with another TV), an office, a dressing room—tends to increase the lighting load.

Use of the kitchen increased as well—one of the owners said that before the renovation, she would not cook at all in the summer, stating with only a little exaggeration, “I…actually was shocked at the grocery store when people were buying food–I could not imagine how they could cook!”

Oh, yes, and when the new refrigerator moved in, the old one moved downstairs, to stock beer and overflow food.

The new mechanical equipment does add to the load.  The superefficient water heater has a power vent feature, and an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) is necessary to provide fresh air, because our air sealing was so effective.

Nevertheless, it appears that occupant behavior is a substantial part of the increase.

The Green Builder Concludes and Concedes

ON THE FACE OF IT, we did not do so bad.  For one thing, we held the actual increase of the footprint of the house down to the nubbin.  The mud room and stair tower added only 138 square feet.  (This is in contrast to the familiar approach, which is to ignore the problems of space and function in the existing house, and build the “big honking” addition: family room on the main floor, master suite above—resulting in another 800-1000 square feet of heated space, and more or less abandoning the original part of the house.)

Total energy use (expressed in kBtu’s) was reduced by 21%.  On a square foot basis, it looks even better—a reduction of 33%.  What is not accounted for here is the inefficiency of the electrical grid—which loses roughly 2/3 of the energy generated at the power plant.  If that is factored in, then we have failed in our Net Zero effort.

excerpt from the spreadsheet:

AVG KBTUS/YR FROM 2007-2009 82305
KBTUS 2012 64857
kBtus / SF / YEAR 33.93
NEW kBtus / SF / YEAR 22.87


The failure is largely due to the human factor.  Our homes are awash with electronica—ipads, kindles, tivos, much more powerful cellphones—all of which rely on chargers and powerpacks.  I’m a good green builder.  I specified Energy Star appliances for the project, but that certification does not guarantee low usage—only that a particular appliance performs well compared to others in its class.  It disguises the fact that a 25 cubic foot side by side refrigerator gets its Star—but uses 50% more electricity than the same sized top freezer unit.  But that Star makes us feel good, and earns LEED points as well.

Green Remodeling of Classic Bungalow by Abrams Design

AS GREEN BUILDERS AND REMODELERS, we are getting much better at insulation, air sealing, and efficient windows, doors, and mechanical systems, but we have a ways to go with the informational side: understanding and anticipating occupant behavior, and incorporating this knowledge into our modeling capabilities.

by Janet Kinzer

Alan Abrams, my husband, has been designing and building and renovating houses since he was a young man.  He’s been a green builder, building with a focus on sustainability for more than a decade now, and that is about how long we’ve been together.I remember, very early in our relationship, when he told me that he wasn’t going to work with another client unless that client was interested and committed to some form of sustainable living.  “Every project I work on from now on,” he said to me, “will incorporate some form of “green” whatever green means to that particular client.”  He didn’t care if it was a green roof, storm water retention, low VOC finishes, recycled materials, permeable driveways, or high-end heat recovery systems:  there had to be a commitment on the part of the client to something that was better for the earth or he wouldn’t work with them. Ever. Again.

Abrams Design Build was going green.
Is that a Viable Business Plan?  Really? 
I’m a federal bureaucrat, married to a small-businessman.  I don’t know a whole lot about the business, but I have learned over the years that it usually means persuading someone to part with about *twice* as much money as they hoped.  The design/build client is brave soul.
Alan’s typical client is someone who has lived in their house for a few years and loves their neighborhood. Often they have a family in transition: a new child, children getting older,a child returning, a parent coming to live with them. Always, always, always, they are conflicted about their house because there is a problem.  Too few bathrooms, a laundry in the basement, a tiny kitchen, no family room.

His clients bring him to their homes and share with him their problems and their dreams. Then they give a year of their lives and a whole lot of their money...and he is going to turn them away if they aren’t committed to sustainability?

 That is a business plan?

Yes it is.  For the last ten years that business plan has actually worked.  Of course there is give and take, ideals are compromised when budget comes up against reality, but the home owners of Takoma Park and Silver Spring, surprise us with their steady commitment to green building.  They know it means a healthier home, a more comfortable home, and beautiful living.  They want their renovated home to be greener, and they want an addition that is special.  That is why they seek out a Design Build firm like Alan’s that is committed to greener, healthier, sustainable homes.
Alan Becomes his Own Client

And now, to the purpose of this blog.

Like most of Alan’s clients, I too have hungered for a little more space, that  bigger kitchen, the second  bathroom, and a room for my dad to stay in when he comes from Chicago.In March we close on a nearly 2,000 sq foot apartment on the top floor of an 18 story building, Parkside Plaza, on Sligo Creek Parkway in Silver Spring. Two bedrooms and two baths, lots of space and big views but in rough condition, sadly dated, and in need of a full green renovation.Of course, I have hired Alan Abrams to renovate that apartment.  And then it occurred to me that we are very typical clients of the Abrams Design Build Firm: a two income couple, in transition, loving our home but with some on-going problems and a desire for change.And that is what this blog is about: following this blog will  give you a window on the design build process as we experience it, as we try to walk the talk on sustainability.

What does sustainable design mean to the designer when he is designing his own home. What is green building when the green builder is renovating his own home?   Alan and I will be blogging about the design build process as we experience it over the next months: the choices we face, the decisions we make, and – of course, the budget we must stretch.

In my last post, I mentioned that sustainabililty is a mindset.

Ann Edminster, in a 2011 Green Building Advisor post “High Performance and Net Zero Homes” develops this concept, with revolutionary fervor, and no holds barred.


Ann Edminster, Green Building Advisor with a revolutionary mindset


Her thesis is that for the green builder, there is a hierarchy of tools for transforming how we design and build.

There is an ironic overtone to this passive house geek, in that Edminster places “mindset” at the top of the list, and energy modeling and technology at the bottom.


Ann Edminster graphic

Green Builder’s Change Toolkit