Green Tour: Don's Definitely Green, Almost Dream Home

Green Tour: Don's Definitely Green, Almost Dream Home

Jen DeRose
Oct 28, 2008

Name: Don and Alberto
Location: Austin, Texas
Years Lived In: 2
Size: 2,000 square feet


"When people ask me if this is my dream house," owner and architect Don jokes, "All I can say is that my 'dream house' wouldn't be 27.5 feet wide." Castle in the sky? Maybe not. Eco-friendly, simple, and modern? Absolutely.


Don, who's an architect at Northfield Design Associates in Austin, Texas, loved the downtown location of an available lot, but knew its narrow width would be a challenge. While the house's dimensions may be similar to that of a shotgun shack, Don's forward thinking, superior green standards, and open living/kitchen design defy the size constrictions.

For the exterior, Don began by setting the house back on the lot to keep the home out of the drip line of the pecan and elm trees. ("No way" did he ever consider cutting them down.) Then he designed a carport in the front, in order to leave sufficient backyard space where he plans to install a small pond. (By the way, his rule for all plants is that they must feed either the homeowners or the animals.)

Inside, as soon as you walk through the front door, you notice the concrete floor. It's high in fly ash, which is the waste that builds up in the stacks of coal burning power plants. The floor is finished with a water-based sealer. And that's it. There's no staining, no scoring, and no other flooring material. "It's all about reducing materials," he says. Likewise, birch kitchen cabinets built by Wells Mason have a low VOC finish. everywhere else, it's no VOC.

Another way he reduced new materials is by using rock wool insulation, which is a waste product of steel. "Movement of air through wall assemblies is the number one waste of energy." His house is so tight that the A/C seldom comes on during the day, (and this is Texas) even though it's set to 78 degrees. In addition, by keeping all the ductwork inside the house, Don reduced the A/C by half a ton. "After our poor insulation methods, the second worst thing we do is run ductwork in attic," Don explains. "It doesn't make any sense that attics are typically twenty or more degrees hotter than the outside air."

When asked why he built his house green, Don replies, "Building sustainably is the only way to build." We like the way you're thinking!

(Thanks Don and Alberto!)

Other green factors include:
- The finish on the cabinets is low-VOC, all other finishes inside the house are no-VOC.
- The windows are double-pane, gas-filled with thermal breaks.
- All framing material is finger-joint studs (studs made of short pieces of wood that would otherwise be waste, glued together)
- A light-reflecting roof
- Radiant barrier in the attic
- Natural pest control (cedar-lined closets, borate treated bottom plates)
- Solar panels
- Natural wool carpet on the second floor
- All plumbing is concentrated in the same area of the house to minimize runs between the water heater and the fixtures
- An A/C system with a SEER rating of 18 and a dual-stage compressor that allows it to run at 80% of capacity except in extreme conditions
- Ceiling fans in upstairs rooms (no separate A/C for the upstairs.)

AT Survey:

Our style: Modernist with a leaning toward Brutalism.

Biggest Challenge: The lot. It's only 37.5 feet wide.

What Friends Say: Most of our friends love it and want to show it to their other friends. Others wonder why we don't install some carpet or hang some curtains.

Proudest DIY: I'm an architect so the house is my design. I also built the house (acted as general contractor, not swinging of hammers.)

Biggest Indulgence: Halogen lighting. We have a lot of art and are picky about the lighting on it.

What were you living in before: An 1100 square foot bungalow that was built in 1952.

How has this home paid off: We're more comfortable and our utility bills are about half what they were in the bungalow.

What do you like best about it: It's a quiet home, and by quiet I mean simple. It has a serene quality that is nice to come home to at the end of the day.

What do you like least about it: There's no direct connection between the kitchen and the garden.

Biggest expense: I can only answer that by giving a comparative. The blown rock wool cost four times what regular batt insulation would have cost. Then there was the photovoltaic system. It cost $24K but Austin Energy paid almost $11K and then I got a $2K tax credit so it actually only cost us around $8K.


Siding: Hardie Plank
Kitchen appliances: GE Monogram
Fridge, dishwasher: Energy Star. We have a front-loading washer and high-efficiency gas dryer. ("We preserve the old-fashioned way, washing only full loads, air-drying clothes when possible.")
Fixtures: Kohler.
Cabinetry, stairs, copper gate: Wells Mason/Ironwood Industries
Lighting: Lightolier
Pest Control: Termi-Mesh. I used no termiticide under the slab. There have never been any poisons of any kind used on the lot or in the house.

Photos: Courtesy of Don Smith, Mason Wells, and Patrick Y Wong

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