These Portland designers want to save the planet, one house at a time.
Josh Salinger of Birdsmouth Construction in Portland wants to change your mind about what used to be called green building.
He shakes his head against what he cites as well-intentioned but outdated environmentally sensitive construction or green washing tactics like simply installing reclaimed wood floor in an inefficient, leaky structure.
He is not even that impressed with some of the old passive solar strategies of the 1970s.
These features don’t add up to create a high-performance house, which is the latest, highest bar raised on residential construction.
Salinger’s expectation of a high-performance house is that it will last more than a century, be attractive and very comfortable.
He also demands that the dwelling be airtight and weatherproof, yet have systems that continually circulate fresh air that’s been filtered of particles smaller than smoke, making the house healthy for children and people with allergies or illnesses.
Being quiet is also high on his list. He doesn’t want to hear machines turning on or blowing, or feel forced air or drafts. He doesn’t ever want to sense cold near a window when he’s inside.
That’s not all of it. The building materials can’t attract bugs, mold or unnecessary repair bills. And, of course, he wants to cut the energy use down to zero.
Right now, 41 percent of the total U.S. energy consumption is used in residential and commercial buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Building designer Ray Culi of R&B Design Studio in Portland is also passionate about smart buildings, particularly when it relates to energy consumption.
“We as designers and builders of our built environment need to take serious and meaningful steps in helping reduce consumption and the carbon footprint on every project,” says Culi, who has been designing high-performance homes since 2002 with his wife, building designer Beate Ioanide-Culi.
If Salinger, the Culis and others like them have their way, all new and remodeled construction would conserve or produce the same amount of energy it uses. That is, Net Zero.
They, in short, just want to save the planet, one house at a time.
That’s a tall order, but architects, designers and builders focused on emerging building science and new local and European materials say high-performance houses are the way to build, now and in the future.
As with any house constructed with materials that exceed standard code, costs can rise 5 to 20 percent, say builders. That could be changing. The U.S. Department of Energy praises builders of high-performance homes that have minimal additional costs and hands out Housing Innovation Awards to builders of zero-energy-ready homes.
In Southwest Portland’s Multnomah Village, Salinger and the Culis worked together to remodel a 1925 house that now meets the high sustainable standards imposed by Earth Advantage to earn Platinum status and also be certified Net Zero Ready.
Before the property owner died of cancer in September, he wanted to leave his wife and three young children a nicer, healthier home in which to live. On his lot sat the old bungalow with a crumbling foundation. Water in the basement had seeped in from the abandoned septic system.
The walls provided little protection against the cold. There were inch-wide gaps between some of the closed doors and their frames. Single-pane windows rattled and whistled with the wind.
A peek upstairs revealed a shaky second floor remodel and permanent odor from a kerosene burner. “It was the home in the worst condition in the neighborhood,” says Salinger.
A streamlined project
It didn’t look as if any of it was worth saving. But the owner, who was running out of time, wanted Culi and Ioanide-Culi to design a durable, high-performing remodel for the family he would leave behind.
If the first-floor joists and half of the second-floor joists remained, the project would qualify as a remodel, which streamlines the city’s inspection process.
Salinger’s company contributed by designing the basement, and wall and roof assemblies, as well as deconstructing then constructing a new two-story house.
The building crew lifted the old bungalow, removed the original foundation, poured an expanded new foundation, then sat the house back down. Structural engineer Bruce Kenny of BKE Engineers called for new floor joists to be installed alongside the old ones to bring the floor framing up to current code.
Usable parts of the aging house were repurposed. Bricks from the chimney are now part of the patio in the front of the house. All of the posts and beams in the basement were re-milled and reinstalled as exposed posts and beams in the first floor and above the stairway to support the roof.
The worn oak floors were milled down and re-used in the second-floor sloped ceilings and as a decorative screen for the loft space. And all of the original fir studs and sheathing boards were milled down and reinstalled as wood mosaic accent walls.
Even the linear light fixtures were designed by Ray Culi using existing wood from both the flooring and framing.
“Since the old wood beams from the basement were being re-expressed structurally in the remodel,” says Culi, “we thought ‘Why not express the natural wood elements in other non-structural ways as well?’ ”
He says the owner supported the idea of reusing old beams wherever possible.
“That’s when we came up with the built-in ‘big-block’ bookshelves for the master bedroom and the wall-mounted ‘beam of light’ above the master bath vanities, where light illuminates from the top of what appears to be a solid wood beam,” says Culi.
Some studs were donated to Salvage Works, the architectural salvage store in North Portland, or sent to a wood-waste-management company to be made into mulch. Metal was recycled, too.
In the end, plaster and other unsalvageable debris filled only one dumpster, says Salinger.
Then the build began. Since air tightness is essential for an energy-efficient building, materials were carefully chosen to create an unbroken, airtight barrier. A continuous thermal boundary and rainscreen separate and protect the house from outdoor elements.
Natural insulation materials included cellulose, rockwool and rigid panels of Thermo Cork, which is made from bark left over from making wine corks. The bark is ground up, steam pressed, and the tannins and sap act as natural binders. The carbon negative product has no glues, and is soundproof and bug resistant, says Salinger.
The airtight, triple-pane windows and doors from Zola European Windows seal and lock tight “like a submarine door,” says Salinger.
A Zehnder high-efficiency heat and energy recovery system also helps drive down energy usage and waste.
The total heating demand for this remodeled house is 14,000 British thermal units, which makes it 10 times more efficient than many houses this age that need a 140,000 BTU or greater furnace, says Salinger.
All the appliances are Energy Star, and the recirculating range hood and clothes dryer don’t have vents that send exhaust outside.
All of the light fixtures either use LED bulbs or were custom designed by Ray Culi using LED “tape,” which use a fraction of the energy of even fluorescent bulbs.
The house roof was designed to have a pitch, orientation and size to offset energy usage, and solar panels are ready to be installed on the garage roof.
The standing seam metal roof can be used for safe rainwater collection without worrying about toxic substances that leach out of common asphalt roofing products, says Culi.
Although there have been advances in man-made materials, building science research has shown that wood, cellulose, cork and other natural materials are effective in high-performance homes.
“Mother Nature spent millions of years perfecting a tree and that’s a reason trees last,” he says, “and houses built with them last too.”