Arlington Designer Homes recently completed a new, custom green house for a family in Arlington, following the National Green Building Guidelines. Now that the homeowners have been in their new house for several months, I took the opportunity to speak with them about the overall operation of the house. My customers told me that were very happy with how temperate and comfortable with house has been over a very cold winter spell here in Northern Virginia. Thanks to the tight building envelop, advanced insulation package, energy-efficient windows and doors, and other features, this family has been able to stay warm in their new home without getting hit with enormous gas and electric bills.
However, as we spoke further, the homeowners told me there were other features they didn’t like as much. We had installed a manifold system for all hot water fixtures in the house. This means that every fixture in the house runs directly to the hot water heater. (Normally, all fixtures would be on one piping system, so if you turn on the hot water in the kitchen sink, the water going to the upstairs showers will also heat up.) The idea behind a manifold system is that if we install smaller diameter piping directly to the fixture in use, you will waste less hot water. You’ll save energy by not having to heat up water that will not be used in the pipes, and save water by using the same principle -- less water wasted while waiting for hot water.
The national green standard that we adhered to mandated that we have less than 6 cups of water (48 oz) in any line between the hot water heater and the fixture. This means that from the time you turn on the water, no more than 6 cups of water would be wasted before you are getting hot water from the hot water heater. The concept is a good one, and might work well given the right living situation, particularly for a smaller family that doesn’t use much hot water. However, in practice, this family doesn’t think it is the best system for them. Because they have a larger family with many people using hot water in different parts of the house, they actually feel it might be more efficient for them to have a more standard system.
Working on the frontline of green building and green certifications means that sometimes we install ‘green’ features that might not be right for the way a specific family lives. I think this was the case with my past client. We, and our clients, all aspire to live smarter, and have less of an impact on our planet, but green homes aren’t “one size fits all.”
Because new green technologies are constantly being developed and approved, we, as the builders, need to use all the resources we have to make sure each feature is a good fit for the customers we’re working with. This is where the hours and days spent taking building science courses and talking to professionals in the field pay off. As a general contractor, it is my responsibility to make sure that all the systems of the house work in harmony together. I need to take into account what a change in one material or system will do to the system as a whole. It’s also extremely important to work one-on-one with each client, to learn about their specific needs, and to determine which green features will work best for the way they live. This type of interaction isn’t always possible – for instance, when working on a spec house. But when we have the opportunity to design and build a custom for a specific client from day one, then we do everything we can to ensure that the green features we choose will be the best fit for that client’s needs and lifestyle.
The green building industry is continually developing better and better systems that help a house not only perform better, but also make a house more comfortable. However, from time to time, the better system is not necessarily the best system for a particular family, as was the case with my homeowner. Would I install a water manifold again? Probably, given the right circumstances. But it will all depend on the needs of our clients, and how all the green features in the home will work together to create the most efficient and comfortable home possible.