Energy efficiency guru rebuilds home to green standards

| by Teena Hammond
Energy efficiency guru rebuilds home to green standards

Remodel or rebuild? That was the decision Brian Castelli had to make when he was ready to make his home of 32 years more energy efficient.

Castelli, who is executive vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy, had spent his career helping others become more energy efficient, so it was natural that he wanted his home to be as green as possible. He'd done many upgrades on his mid-century home, but he wanted to further improve it.

He talked to contractors and discovered the cost to remodel from the slab up would be comparable to tearing down the home and building from scratch.

"As our custom builder explained, if you go that route [full remodel], remember you'd still have an old leaky basement not built nearly to the standards that they're built now," Castelli said.

The resulting 5,500-square-foot home in Fairfax Co., Va., has lower utility bills than the previous 2,200-square-foot home. One year of utility bills in the old home averaged $175 a month, and in the new home, the average monthly bill is only $150, despite the home's larger size.

"It truly makes a difference. The old house, I had done a lot of retrofit to it. But it just wasn't built to the same level that this one was," he explained.

Castelli had to work closely with each contractor to get the green features he required. He said every contractor pushed back, unwilling at first to make the changes. But in the end, they conceded to his requests.

"I wanted a passive solar design on the house. I thought I'd hired a green architect but I was wrong. I told him, 'You have to design this home so that all the windows on the south and west facing side don't allow any solar heat gain in the summer but in the winter it allows the sun to come in because the sun is so much lower in the horizon.' And he really didn't know how to do that. I basically got him in touch with the software he needed to design a passive solar home. All it required were longer eaves. This required about four-foot eaves instead of the typical 12- to 18-inch eaves," Castelli said.

"He designed them beautifully. The builder looked at it and said, 'We don't build with that length of eaves.' I said, 'Are you going to try to tell me it will cost me more because we did agree to these things? 'He said, 'Well, it won't actually cost you more because I often have my guys going up there and cutting off those eaves to get them back to 12-18 inches.' He was happy but initially there was the difference of how the construction industry normally builds versus what you need to build green," Castelli said.

The passive solar design works. "It's great to get the solar gain in the winter and not get any solar gain in the summer — unlike in the old house."

The home includes many green features:

  • Heating and cooling systems: The home has geothermal ground source heat pumps with four 300-foot wells. There are four heating and cooling zones in the home, radiant floor heat (with a super-efficient storage tank used only in winter), programmable thermostats to control zones and an Energy Recovery Ventilation unit for minimizing energy while maintaining proper indoor air ventilation.
  • Energy-efficient lighting: All of the home's lighting is energy efficient; some examples include dimmable ballasts on the first floor, advanced Energy Star designs and LED lights. There is no incandescent lighting anywhere in the home.
  • Energy Star appliances: The refrigerator, dishwasher, televisions, washing machine, dryer and lighting fixtures are all Energy Star.
  • Insulation and air sealing: Insulation is more than 50 percent above code (R-60 in attic, R-22 walls, R-14 garage door), with 4-inch rigid foam insulation under the basement floor and sealed ductwork throughout the home.
  • Passive solar design: The southwest side of the house has 4-foot roof eves to prevent solar gain in summer and allow solar gain in winter.
  • Water collection: A rain garden water collection system and porous driveway prevents water runoff.
  • Efficient water features: Low-flow faucets and showerheads, tankless gas hot water heater, dual-flush toilets, and super-efficient tank hot water heater for radiant floor heat storage in winter.
  • Other green features: Home includes some material reused from previous home; low-emitting products for improved indoor air quality such as paint, stains, carpets in upstairs bedrooms, adhesives and sealers; stone and stucco for added thermal mass, below-basement earth-cooled wine cellar, and back patio stairs and landing made from 100 percent-recycled plastic bags.

Castelli said he learned a lot during the building process, especially how important it is to be proactive and let your voice be heard with contractors. If they balk at the homeowner's green requests, he said, "It doesn't mean you're wrong. They want to build it the easy way they know. There's no criticism here. This is the time to change the way we do business."

One example Castelli pointed out: "It was in the homebuilding contract that they would use my recycled flagstones from my previous house first to do everything before they thought about getting any other stones. One day I got to the building site and there were a couple pallets of brand new stone. I went to talk to the stone mason and he said, 'Yeah, this is a new house, we want to use new stone.' I said, 'What are you talking about, stone is as old as dirt.' I told them this was a green house. And I told them not to open that pallet."

The builder, he said, was also unfamiliar with the type of windows that Castelli wanted to use — Marvin Windows and Doors. "He had qualms at first because he'd never used Marvin windows. But they got through all that. They managed to work through all the issues and did a really nice job. I tried educating one contractor at a time and the architect too."

A slideshow of images from Castelli's home is available on ProudGreenHome.

Read more about building a green home.

Download our free white paper Ten Ways That Your Dream Home Can Be Greener.


Topics: Building Green, Energy Star, Geothermal Heating & Cooling, GREAT GREEN HOMES, Indoor Air Quality, Windows

Companies: Marvin Windows and Doors



Teena Hammond
Teena Hammond has published more than 2,000 articles in People and W magazines, Women's Wear Daily, and in dozens of newspapers and books. She also wrote a home improvement, remodeling and decor column that ran in Gannett newspapers nationwide. She's interested in all things green and would love to hear from you with your story ideas.

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