A Northwest family builds a supergreen, self-sufficient home with its own potable rainwater and solar photovoltaic systems — which means they pay no water or energy bills. The home surpasses the LEED Platinum rating, the highest standard of energy conservation and environmental design.
The Family: Charlie Weiss, 54, founding partner of LaunchBox, a market-research company; his wife, Katharine Lawrence, 46, who has been engaged full time on the southwest Portland house project for the past two years; and their 11-year-old daughter, Julia. In 1999, they bought a lot with two building sites: one for a 2,600-square-foot home of their own, which includes a 600-square-foot apartment they’ll rent out; the second for a 2,000-square-foot spec house to sell.
They named the project “LeapFrog House.” Charlie says it’s a “nifty double-entendre” — a tribute to the croaking frogs who lived there, the few tadpoles the family salvaged before excavation, and the concept of “jumping further into green” building. The family moved from their original home across the street into the new house in July 2008, and frogs are still there.
Goals: “Our passion for the challenge of building with a minimal footprint motivated us,” says Charlie, who describes himself as a “raving enviro” since the 1970s. Tired of hearing so much green talk with no action, “We decided to take action on our own.” In addition to striving for — and surpassing — the LEED Platinum rating, the highest standard of energy conservation and environmental design, Charlie and Katharine also wanted a home with at least a 100-year life. Their paramount goal: conserving energy.
The challenges: “It’s tough to do that scale of innovating on a schedule,” Charlie says. Be it recovering rainwater, creating effective natural daylighting or efficiently heating hot water, the project required extensive problem-solving. “We thought it would take nine months, and it’s taken all of a year.”
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Two of their more difficult dilemmas were selecting insulation and paving the driveway: “There are lots of choices, none are perfect.” Despite many green insulation options such as straw bales, recycled newspaper or blue jeans, they ultimately opted for Icynene, a polyurethane spray foam, for its long-term energy performance. For the driveway, they recycled a mix of crushed demolition waste — asphalt, concrete, brick, tile, rock, as well as toilets and sinks — rather than go with the traditional surface materials of asphalt or concrete, which both have significant energy footprints.
Blazing the trail: The home’s feature that most pushes the envelope is its potable-rainwater system, which harvests rainfall from the roof and stores it in a 6,000-gallon cistern.
The Rewards: Building a house that’s entirely electric and uses no fossil fuels — a difficult decision in an era of beloved gas heating and cooking ranges — proved a satisfying choice. When he reads of impending natural-gas hikes, Charlie feels vindicated. Their solar-generated electricity, Charlie says, insulates them from energy costs, “And that’s pretty cool!”
Quote: Charlie says: “It’s been a chance to educate ourselves with a sense of urgency and to share what we’ve learned.”
Cost: Ballpark of $700,000, including land, for each of the houses, which Charlie notes includes a premium for pioneering a learn-as-you-go supergreen model. To afford expensive, energy-saving features they made utilitarian picks on others, for example, installing inexpensive metal siding for the house exterior. And rather than spending $50,000 on premium kitchen cabinets, Charlie says, “We said, ‘Let’s just go to IKEA.’ “
Architect: Kathy Kremer, based in Lake Oswego, OR
Builder: Green Hammer Inc., based in Portland
Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle photographer and writer.