By Gretchen McKay

The Net Result: Energy saving design cuts Pine home’s utility costs to zero

Tags : , ,
Categories : Uncategorized
kurt weber/post-gazette

Shawna and Sherwood Johnson’s custom home on Lake MacLeod in Pine takes your breath away, and not just because of its million-dollar-plus price tag.

Nestled on a 1-acre lot with a view across the water of the Mission-style boathouse, the five-bedroom contemporary designed by FortyEighty Architecture boasts a two-story great room with a millstone fireplace, a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops and — count ’em — two climbing walls for their two young children. The couple, both veterinarians, even have a separate wash room for their mixed-breed dogs, with doors that open onto a pet relief/play area carpeted in artificial K9Grass for easy cleanup.

Talk about living the dream.

What the Johnsons hope visitors will carry away from a free open house (549 MacLeod Drive, 15044) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday, however, isn’t envy. It’s a better understanding of the benefits of “green” construction.

A candidate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the two-story residence is a showcase for sustainable building practices and products, from the locally sourced ash front door (the work of the late John Metzler of Pittsburgh’s Urban Tree Forge), to the automated clerestory windows that admit natural light without heating up the rooms, to the state-of-the-art geothermal heat pump that uses 50 percent less energy than a conventional heating/cooling system.

To install it, seven wells were drilled 150 feet into the ground. In cold weather, a coagulated refrigerant circulating in the pipes absorbs heat from the earth (usually about 54 degrees) and carries it to the heat pump; when it’s warm, the pump absorbs heat from the air and transfers it to the pipes, where it’s absorbed by the earth.

Constructed by Wexford builder SureGreen with an insulated concrete form foundation, the house also features structural insulated panels under the recycled standing-seam metal roof. In the next week or so, Vox Energy Systems will install 34 3-by-5 foot solar panels that will produce up to 8,400 kilowatt hours of energy a year.

Adding to the home’s energy efficiency is radiant heating under the concrete floors and slatted wood overhangs designed to block the sun in the summer and harness it in the winter.

The end result of all that technology, says builder Tim Shipley, is a net-zero house that creates as much energy as it uses. In fact, the Johnsons might eventually make money selling excess electricity back to the utility company.

With more than 4,300 square feet of living space, calling the house “green” might seem a stretch. Not to Mr. Shipley.

“It’s really the impact on the environment when you’re building and operating it,” he explains. “This house isn’t wasting any energy.”

SureGreen is no stranger to sustainable building, having constructed the WPXI Concept Home at Lake MacLeod in 2006. But this is the first in which the homeowners were leading the way. The Johnsons and their builder focused not just on the mechanics and building materials (all the wood is FSC certified, the paint low- or no-VOC), but also on the site and interior layout. To take full advantage of the sun’s exposure, the house is oriented to east-west with south-facing windows on the main living spaces. They also kept the bedrooms and bathrooms small in exchange for a larger living great room/kitchen area, and placed utility areas on the back of the house.

Not that they sacrificed aesthetics or comfort; Lori Smith of Distinctive Dwellings’ interior design married sleek, straight lines with warm colors from PPG Pittsburgh Paints’ Fallingwater palette and interesting textures. One wall in the master bedroom, for example, is covered in wara juraku, a Japanese textured wall finish of straw, clay, sand and other aggregates. (Though it’s no longer available in the U.S., Artemis Environmental offers an alternative from American Clay Earth Plaster.) In the master bath, Iron Eden of Bloomfield crafted mirror frames and towel racks that look like tree branches.

The eye is similarly delighted in the loft, where two kinds of cork color the floor: tiger on the edges, and black everywhere else. Still to come are resin panels with stranded bamboo inside that will be visible from the second-floor hall. Adding to the light and airy feel (there’s 108 windows in all) is an open, elevated walkway that grants a view of a waterfall on one side and the great room on the other. A three-season room off the den, with custom bookcases and a bar area, opens onto a stone patio with a reflecting pond and waterfall.

“They wanted it very clean and square,” says Ms. Smith. “The only thing round in the house is the balusters.”

That said, they didn’t skimp on whimsy. Cut into the master bedroom wall is a small hole that opens onto a catwalk beneath the windows.

Other details embrace modern technology. Each of the six cubbies in the tiled mudroom has a power outlet for recharging cell phones and laptops, and the garage is wired for a pair of Smart Cars.

Wondering how much air conditioning they’re using, or whether the home security system has been armed? ELAN’s HomeLogic home automation system, installed by MGM Automation, keeps a running count. Accessible from anywhere from any computer, iPhone or smart phone, it opens and closes the windows based on temperature, controls lighting and thermostats, and also manages digital music and Internet streams.

Living in such a super-insulated envelope isn’t without its health risks. So the home also includes a heat recovery ventilator that removes excessive moisture, biological contaminants and other pollutants from the air.