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Building green with dollars and sense

Holliston family finds research pays off in lowering costs

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2009
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Erin Dowling Porter says the myth is pervasive, reinforced by glossy magazines, dazzling home TV shows, even well-meaning relatives.

"They tell you you have to be rich to go green," she said. "You hear it everywhere. You have to fight the perception."

She's doing just that, armed with research and a blog she's kept since she and her husband, Flip, decided to build their 2,800-square-foot home in Holliston with super-efficient insulating panels and heat it with geothermal energy.

When it is finished in July, the Porters say they will have spent no more than they would have spent on a conventionally built frame house with fiberglass insulation. And the best part? Energy bills that will be half what they paid at their former, fossil fuel-heated antique house.

The Porters' house, which is on track to be the first LEED-certified home in Holliston, is a case study in how consumers can be both frugal and environmentally responsible through perseverance and organization.

Dowling Porter insists her efforts are duplicable by anyone willing and able to thoroughly research green building methods, interrogate contractors, and scour Craigslist and salvage shops for great deals.

"You do have to invest some time but mostly it comes from being involved in the process," she said.

The total cost of the house will be $450,000, about the same price of a traditional 2,800-square-foot house built in Holliston, where new home construction costs up to $200 per square foot, according to local builders.

"If they can do it for that kind of money, it's impressive," Stephen Arena said of the Porters' project. He has built homes with his Southborough-based construction company in the area for 24 years and has been incorporating green building techniques such as higher efficiency insulation, windows, and boilers, but said it would be difficult to build a green house for the same price the Porters have budgeted.

But because the Porters are building for themselves, they have been able to scrimp where possible, and hold off buying things until good deals comes along.

The Porters, who have two daughters, ages 7 and 11, didn't set out to build green. They had lived in Holliston for 15 years, and one day happened upon a 2-acre piece of land studded with ancient white pines and for sale at the right price.

"I'm not sure [the desire to build green] emerged until we saw the lot," said Dowling Porter. "We thought, 'If we're going to do it, then we're going to do it right.' "

When the Porters started planning their home, they knew about the LEED certification process but didn't think they could achieve it.

"We thought of it as something that would be nice but was out of our reach," said Dowling Porter. She said they were quoted $18,000 in additional drawing time to make the house LEED-compatible, something she soon learned was untrue. "There's a lot of charlatans out there so people should have antennae up," she said.

That experience catalyzed Dowling Porter into figuring out the green building process on her own.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary rating system overseen by the nonprofit US Green Building Council, or USGBC. LEED certification has four different levels based on the amount of compliance achieved in five different areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

LEED for Homes, the program that certifies residential buildings, has been around since January 2008, though the LEED program for nonresidential buildings has been in existence since 2000.

To date, LEED has certified 1,322 residences nationwide but that number is about to explode, as there are 10,000 residential projects registered to be completed.

"The main philosophy is they want the home to be sustainable on its own," said Will D'Arrigo of Conservation Services Group in Westborough.

D'Arrigo is the LEED rater for the Porters' house and has been guiding the couple through the process since they decided to pursue certification last fall. Dowling Porter credits D'Arrigo with helping convince her it was possible to build green affordably and without high-cost consultants.

To reach the various certification levels, builders must accumulate points toward an amount set by the green building council.

For most buildings, a good portion of the points can be achieved by constructing what's known as a tight envelope. The Porters decided to use structural insulated panels, or SIPs, in conjunction with post and beam construction to prevent heat from leaking.

The panels have been around since the 1950s, said Paul Malko, chief engineer for Foard Panel, Inc., in New Hampshire, but have greatly improved in the last decade. And using them adds no more than 3 percent to 5 percent to the total cost of construction.

"There's a lot of people that dismiss us outright because they think it's too expensive," said Malko, who sold panels to the Porters. "We've done houses for a couple of school teachers with young families and $11 to their name all the way to 8,000-square-foot vacation houses."

The foam-filled panels fit together, creating what Malko likens to a "big Styrofoam cooler," and resulting in energy bills that are typically one-third to one-half those for conventional homes.

Another way the Porters made their house green was in its orientation. By facing a home's largest windows and walls toward the south, owners can cut up to 30 percent from energy bills by maximizing daily exposure to the sun's rays.

Striving to free themselves as much as possible from fossil fuels, the Porters began studying geothermal heating systems but were put off by the high quotes they received from contractors and friends.

But by talking to different contractors, they were able to secure a geothermal bid of $32,000 - much less than the initial estimates of $50,000 to $60,000, and not much higher than traditional heating systems.

"The geothermal will pay for itself within five years," said Dowling Porter. "Then it's all gravy."

The Porters will also have an underground storm-water collection bin that will be used to water their gardens.

Across the board, the Porters say they have saved money without sacrificing construction quality. Cruising Craigslist every morning, they found floor-model cabinets for 10 percent of their retail cost. Through Somerville-based GreenGoat, they heard about a house in Newton that was about to be torn down and could be mined for architectural details. By enlisting a couple of friends for a day's worth of hard work, the couple hauled away 18 interior doors, wall paneling, and a 3-year-old hot-water heater for $750. Shopping around for contractors has been essential to keeping costs down, as well. Though it sometimes takes many interviews, the Porters have found tradesmen willing to take on their green building project at the same price as traditional jobs because many realize that green technology knowledge will soon be essential.

The green dream hasn't been without sacrifices. At $45,000, solar panels were too expensive, so the Porters opted for traditional electricity with the option to add solar panels to the barn they built and positioned as a potential solar collector.

Still, when the house is finished, the only heating fuel used will be propane to run the clothes dryer, stove, and hot water heater.

The Porters have spent countless hours poring over websites, manuals, contractors' bids, and bureaucratic language to figure out how they need to build, how much it will cost, and how much they can save.

Dowling Porter started her blog, hollistonleedhouse.blogspot.com, to educate others who want to go green without throwing money at their homes. And she is confident they can achieve the same.

"I'll do anything that I'm qualified to do," said Dowling Porter, "and some things that I'm borderline unqualified to do."

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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