Almost everyone knows what a greenhouse is. You’ll see them behind homes, in community centers, and on college and university campuses. Greenhouses are built to protect plants, herbs, vegetables, and flora from the outside elements and tended to by the thumbs that care for and nurture the growth of those organisms living within. People don’t typically reside in greenhouses. But, for those wanting to experience a new way of living—one that provides a healthier option for the residents within as well as for the planet upon which it stands—investigate green home living. Living in a truly “green home” means so much more than merely having solar panels. It is a lifestyle. Green building, as a concept, looks at a house as an interconnected system that must work together seamlessly.
“High-Performance Homes is how we look at it,” said Hunter Mantell-Hecathorn, President of Mantell-Hecathorn Builders, one of Durango’s three certified U.S. Department of Energy, Zero Energy Ready Builders. Hunter explained that a truly “green” home is built to endure over time and require far less maintenance. “The home has to be viewed holistically. Every part inside relates to another part, so you have to look at the house as a system.” The father-son building team has been operating in Durango since 2006, and from the very beginning, they have held themselves and their subcontractors to the highest standards. They currently adhere to the U.S. Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready criteria, which involves a rigorous set of guidelines and inspections.
Understanding what goes into building a Zero Energy Ready home begins with the inspection process. Every certified home is inspected at least four times, starting with the plans and ending with the finished product. Having a third-party home energy inspector assessing the house throughout the building process helps ensure the highest quality and efficiency. This process also allows the builder to make any necessary adjustments early on before changes become too expensive or wasteful to fix. Furthermore, the review process gives credence to the builder and holds them accountable.
Ultimately, Zero Energy Ready Homes are ultra-efficient, using less energy, water, and natural resources—roughly 50% less when compared to standard housing. Because of this, Zero Energy Ready Homes create less waste; the homes are healthier for the people living inside and the environment on the outside. Greg Mantell-Hecathorn, cited one example in the north valley where, “The neighbors are going through 1,000 gallons of propane every month, and we are going through 1,000 gallons a year.” Each element of a home should work seamlessly together as a system. For simplicity’s sake, these elements fall into four categories: Protection/Insulation, Ventilation, Air Quality, and Energy Production/Efficiency.
Protection/Insulation Whether you are building a multi-million-dollar mansion or a one-bedroom cabin, it must be thoroughly insulated to go toe-to-toe with the Colorado winters. Currently, the U.S. Department of Energy requires that builders adhere to the 2015 International Energy Conservation Codes (IECC) for insulation. Insulation alone is not enough; the homes must also be properly sealed to stand against the seasonal elements. Hunter explained that one of the final tests performed on a Zero Energy Ready House is the Blower Door Test, which simulates winter wind blasting the house. This test reveals every place wherein a leakage exists and calculates the total sum of the air that can get in at a given time. That amount should be as small as possible. Windows are one important feature to consider when sealing the house. The U.S. Department of Energy requires a higher level of window performance based on climate zone. “The glass that you put in a home is likely going to be the weakest point,” Hunter said, noting that window quality can mean a significant difference in the stability of indoor temperatures and, therefore, the overall efficiency and comfort of the house. “Where we live, we want those big, picture windows, so it’s important that you put in the best windows you can.
Ventilation System Once the home is properly insulated and sealed, it’s essential to have the appropriate ventilation. “Because it is so air-tight, you want the house to breathe. You want it to ventilate right,” Hunter explained. “Some systems just bring in fresh air, but then you aren’t exhausting stale air properly. You have to be careful.” Additionally, a truly efficient ventilation system will heat each room according to its unique needs, based on its square footage, orientation (does it face south), location (upstairs or down), etc. To be certified, the home design is evaluated to ensure that the HVAC installation fits the needs of the house. Furthermore, if the house doesn’t “breathe” correctly, it can potentially create a toxic living environment. Part of the certification process also requires that indoor air quality meet EPA Indoor airPLUS program standards.
High-Efficiency Appliances and Healthy Indoor Air Indoor air quality addresses an easy-to-overlook yet crucial detail of green building: the finishes. Green building is about more than efficiency. It is also about the overall health and quality of life. “When you walk in, and it’s that new-house smell,” Greg explained, “that’s not a good smell. It’s toxic paint. It’s toxic floors. It’s toxic countertops.” It’s just as easy, and not that much more expensive, to choose safer, healthier alternatives to the high VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints and glues used in so many housing finishes. Additionally, a Zero Energy Ready house is required to have ENERGY STAR Rated appliances and fixtures installed, as well as efficient water heating and hot water distribution systems. Imagine how much water is wasted by merely running the shower, waiting for the water to heat. Again, these details help the house function smoothly as a unit and ultimately save money and resources over time.
Solar Compatibility Finally, a Zero Energy Ready Home can function solely on a renewable energy source such as solar power. However, not all of the homes constructed have solar panels installed. Hunter explained that, per the guidelines, they prep every home for solar panels in case the homeowner wants them installed in the future. There are also other ways to use the sun’s energy, though. Hunter pointed out that, “if the site allows it, there is no reason not to orient the house ten to fifteen degrees due south. Quite a bit of your glazing (windows) on that side would take advantage of the passive solar. You can just bring that sun in during the winter and use it as heat. It’s free.”
Green building is about so much more than saving trees or conserving energy and resources. It is, ultimately, about health, quality, and longevity, for the house and its inhabitants. It is about a new way of living, where your home can work for you rather than making you work every day to live in a house.
“High-Performance Homes is how we look at it,” said Hunter Mantell-Hecathorn, President of Mantell-Hecathorn Builders
Story written by: Sara Knight Photos Provided by: Mantell-Hecathorn Builders