Article No: 99

2006-05-02 08:07:03
More than a Pretty Face
By: Michael Maher and Paul Camozzi


Keith Peterson has supported the use of environmentally responsible design strategies since he was a young student. When the time came for this senior research scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to build his family a new home, he realized that both a valuable opportunity and responsibility lay ahead.

As a sustainable design specialist, Peterson's goal was more than simply to build his family a nice personal residence. He saw the design and construction of his new home as a chance to apply the energy efficient and environmentally sustainable principles he promotes each day of his professional life.

"I wanted to demonstrate that an environmentally friendly, healthy, quality home could be built with local tradesmen, using industry standard construction methods and budgets," Peterson said.

The opportunity surfaced at just the right time, as it is apparent that today's consumers are trending back to the demand for a house that lasts. That demand has brought about a new focus in home building — sustainability, which starts with a "whole building" design that matches function with space and location. It continues with the selection of materials and systems that deliver energy efficiency; a comfortable, healthy living environment; security; water conservation; and lasting durability.

A Sum Greater Than its Parts

Operating as his own general contractor through the help of owner-builder consultant group UBuildIt (, Peterson took this "whole building" design approach in constructing his home in West Pasco, Wash., integrating products from REHAU ( and AMVIC (

While today's high-efficiency building products and mechanical systems yield sustainable benefits on their own, their successful integration is critical in maximizing the building project's overall sustainability and the total satisfaction and comfort of occupants.

"Most people can get their arms around one sustainable concept, but the real challenge is integrating all of them while not defeating a goal on the other side," Peterson said. "The trick is to understand how the different principles interact effectively. That integration is the essence of sustainable design."

For example, the proven effectiveness of radiant floor heating is even greater in the well-insulated environment of an insulating concrete form (ICF) home that's convection — and draft-free. And very little of the energy is lost when high performance vinyl windows are used. The harmonious relationship among these three products creates a highly sustainable system.

"All the components work together so well that the sum is much better than the individual parts," Peterson said. "In combining all of these features — that is really where you start seeing the paybacks."

Selecting the Building Blocks

The primary goal of "whole building" design is the creation of a structure that is responsive, responsible and defensible. Achieving this goal requires approaching material selection from a sustainable framework. There are several questions that must be asked about each component being selected. Durability is a key consideration.

"If you have a product that is built out of all renewable materials, but it only lasts six years, then it is obviously not very sustainable," Peterson said. "Durability is a big factor that influenced the construction of this house."

Energy efficiency is also very important, both from the perspective of how much energy a material will add, and how much is required to create it in the first place. Then there's indoor environmental quality, which Peterson refers to as "the people factor." He points out that products must be considered from a health standpoint. "Could the product make you sick? What about aesthetics? Does it make you feel anxious or restful?" And cost should still be a significant influence in selecting products to meet these criteria. Peterson said he believes that if a material is too expensive, it will not be widely accepted in the marketplace and, therefore, is not truly sustainable.

All of these considerations played a role in Peterson's selection of the materials that make his home a highly efficient, cost-effective building and successful model of sustainable design.

A Uniform Building Structure

Peterson wanted an energy efficient, quiet, structurally sound home that would not be affected by strong winds. "In a traditional stud house around here, you know if there's a steady 30-mph wind," Peterson said. "Even if the house is expensive, it still moves and things blow off of it."

The better insulation, structural strength and superior indoor quality of ICFs appealed to Peterson, especially because the technology uses renewable materials. AMVIC ICFs combine closed-cell expanded polystyrene (EPS) insulation with the terrific performance of concrete's thermal mass to provide an airtight building envelope that saves money, as well as trees.

"ICFs are probably the best construction technology that I researched for stability and protection against wind and sound," Peterson said. They form an unbroken barrier that prevents insects like ants and termites from entering. And while stick built homes experience mold and mildew once infiltrated by moisture, ICF construction virtually eliminates this problem.

Joe Wallace Construction of Pasco installed the ICFs, which are light, easy to cut and shape, and require fewer crew members than a conventional frame. In fact, an experienced ICF crew often completes the foundation and walls in a matter of days.

Clean, Quiet Heating

Peterson recognized the favorable relationship between ICFs and radiant floor heating. These two health-focused, quiet technologies share a common denominator — concrete, which is often used in radiant applications due to its excellent thermal mass. The ICFs, which offer 30 to 50 percent greater efficiency than traditional stud construction, store energy generated by the radiant system.

In order to fully understand the benefits radiant heat delivers to the sustainable equation, one must think about the effects of a typical forced-air heating system. Peterson knew that such a system would bring in outside pollutants, while also creating drafts, sharp temperature swings and noise.

"You have done this beautiful job designing your home to keep outside pollutants and dust from entering your house, and then your forced air system just sucks them right in through a big duct," Peterson said. "Certainly you have filters to protect the occupants, but your system is only as good as your filter."

The more sustainable choice was a radiant heating system from REHAU. The self-contained system operates quietly and cleanly with no noisy fans or blown air to distribute dust, pollen or other allergens. It gently radiates warmth uniformly throughout Peterson's home, virtually eliminating cold spots and temperature fluctuation.

Custom Floor Heating of Arlington, Wash., worked with Peterson to design and install the system's piping and mechanical components quickly, minimizing interference with other trades. While radiant systems are generally more expensive to put in than traditional air-based heating systems, the added cost can be recouped through lower utility bills, as operating costs can be reduced by up to 30 percent.

Minimizing Energy Loss

Peterson wanted to give his family a clear view of the Columbia River and surrounding park, located just across the street from his new home. In selecting his windows, a high energy rating and durability were critical considerations because he needed designs that would complement rather than negate the benefits of ICF technology. AMVIC ICFs provide a uniform building structure that performs like a stick frame house packed with insulation as high as R50. The only potential area for heat loss is through the windows.

Peterson chose REHAU's versatile vinyl extrusions, fabricated by EuroLine Windows in Delta, British Columbia, because they offer one of the highest energy ratings on the market. The REHAU window and door designs are an ideal complement to the AMVIC ICF wall system.

Bob Broyles, director of marketing for AMVIC, said: "Our ICF wall's R50 plus performance is greatly diminished if windows and doors are not energy efficient. We were confident that REHAU and Euroline's high performing products, combined with our insulated superior wall system, would provide Peterson with a thermal building envelope second to none, as well as obvious lifestyle advantages."

In addition to providing a beautiful view, the EuroLine GoldenLine Series tilt-turn windows and hinged doors feature five internal channels for maximum thermal efficiency and durability.

Peterson said wood windows constantly require repainting and refinishing, especially in areas that see intense sun. "The other consideration was that the windows in my old home always had dust all around the perimeter because they did not seal well. That's no longer a problem in my new home — even in this dusty, desert area — because these vinyl window and door designs are extremely tight."

Safeguarding Water Quality

In choosing a plumbing system, Peterson wanted a sustainable product that would not adversely affect his family's drinking water. He chose REHAU's RAUPEX cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipe from Keller Supply of Kennewick, Wash., and installed by Bear Mechanical of West Richland, Wash. PEX is a durable yet flexible pipe that's safe for drinking water because it's free of toxins and heavy metals. RAUPEX pipe meets the requirements of NSF P 171 and ASTM F 2023 for chlorine resistance. It is also resistant to scaling and deposit buildup, whether used with hard or softened water.

"A primary advantage of PEX is that there are no glues or off-gassing in the material to affect the quality of your drinking water," Peterson said. "This is a strong term, but the reality is some people are living in homes that are making them sick."

Over the years, PEX pipe has significantly increased market share for domestic plumbing applications. It has a long, reliable service record in both plumbing and hydronic heating systems in Canada and Europe.

PEX pipe is more flexible and requires fewer fittings than other systems. Installation is simple due to REHAU's brass EVERLOC compression sleeve fitting system, which allows quick, easy connections without flame, heat or solvent. And reduced installation labor lowers construction costs. In addition, RAUPEX is freeze-resistant and it expands to minimize the hammering noise often experienced with changing pressure surges.

Added Security Measure

To enhance the protection of his family, Peterson selected REHAU's PEX residential fire protection system, which combines sprinklers with the cold water plumbing for one multi-purpose sprinkler/plumbing system.

"Of course, we hope the fire protection system is never activated," Peterson said, "but the idea is that it will provide improved protection for my family against injury or loss of life in the event of a fire."

Peterson points out that PEX is what makes REHAU's fire protection system the stronger choice as far as sustainability is concerned. The system meets the requirements for multipurpose sprinkler systems as defined by the National Fire Protection Association in accordance with NFPA 13D for one- and two-family dwellings and manufactured housing.

Routinely, the system will supply the home's domestic cold water plumbing needs, providing added assurance that the fire protection system is in working order. The system is expected to significantly control a fire in the room of origin, improving the chance for occupants to escape or be evacuated.

Comparable Investment

Indeed, Peterson has proven that a sustainable home can be built using industry standard construction methods and budgets. The cost of custom home construction can range from $100 to more than $200 per square foot. With Peterson operating as his own general contractor, the Peterson home is coming in at the low end of this range. His three bedroom, two-and-a-half bath custom-built home with a full unfinished basement will be built for under $110 per square foot.

"When everyone sees how much better a sustainable home functions than a traditionally built home, they assume it just has to be much more expensive to build," Peterson said. "They can't believe it when they find out you can get a much higher quality house for a comparable price."

Furthermore, Peterson's holistic design philosophy means he'll see significant cost savings over the life cycle of his home.

Project Milestone

Perhaps the most significant testament to this project's success is its achievement of The Freedom Seal of Approval. This first total home certification program in America rates homes that are healthier, environmentally friendly and super energy efficient.

According to David Goswick, co-founder of The Freedom Seal of Approval program, "Homes that look alike, may not perform alike and do not necessarily cost the same to operate. Therefore, the Peterson home rating directly impacts the value of the home."

Homes built to The Freedom Seal Standards go above and beyond the required energy efficiency guidelines provided by the Energy Star Program. Certification means the Peterson home is super energy efficient and will consume 30 to 55 percent less energy than similar homes not built to this standard. According to the REM software, the home will yield an estimated savings of $1,314 in energy costs. Equally important, it will provide a healthier living environment with 95 percent purer indoor air quality.

Hundred Year Homes

Peterson points out that for the most part, new houses are being built today just the same as they were in the 1970s. "And if you look at houses now that were built in the '70s, they are not holding up too well. In the '70s we did not build 100-year homes."

However, during the process of building his sustainable home, Peterson has found that the industry is already responding to the increased importance consumers are now placing on owning a home that lasts. "The industry is clearly changing," Peterson said, "because if just an ordinary guy like me can build this house with traditional infrastructure and an ordinary budget, that shows that the technology is available right now."

Today, Peterson's sustainable home with The Freedom Seal of Approval serves as an example of the importance of "whole building" design — both for the immediate comfort of its occupants, as well as the future protection of our energy and material resources. CH

Michael Maher, manager for REHAU's Construction business unit, and Paul Camozzi, senior accounts manager for AMVIC Building System, served as project leaders for the Peterson home. Maher can be contacted at 800-247-9445 and Camozzi can be contacted at 877-470-9991.