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Many homeowners wish they could live in new dream homes equipped with the most advanced technologies, but Bert Jones has gone a step further — he helps create them. His house in Sandy Springs, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, has become a research lab for his unique hobby. “I’m a closet inventor,” says Jones, a professional business investor, “so when I saw some of the opportunities for water and energy conservation, I got excited about new things I could incorporate into the house.”
Jones brought in The Hoots Group, one of the South’s leading green construction and renovation companies, to build an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, custom home that grew into an educational showplace called the EcoLumina House. “The name is a triple entendre,” Jones explains. “First, it speaks to the fact that we hope to illuminate the benefits of green building and energy conservation techniques. Second, the house was designed to make use of sunlight for passive solar, solar thermal [domestic hot water] and photovoltaic [solar energy]. Finally, it refers to solar lighting, which is the system I have spent the most time, money and effort on.”
Once the system is up and running, the house will use computer-controlled mirrors, lenses and fiber optics to capture natural sunlight and direct it deep inside the building. Based on commercial applications used in Europe and developed by the Swedish company Parans Solar Lighting, it will be the first residential system of its kind in the world. “It took me months to figure out the physics behind it,” Jones says. “I had to find a team that really understood a very narrow branch of physics called non-imaging optics.”
Fired Up About Solar It could be a few years before EcoLumina’s futuristic lighting system is ready to direct sunbeams into the home’s interior, but the active and passive solar technologies are fully operational. A 3 kW solar photovoltaic array, installed on a south-facing roof at a cost of $33,000, generates a third of the home’s electricity, while a rooftop solar thermal system generates about half of the hot water needed for the home. Two gas-fired tankless water heaters from Rinnai will provide hot water for the less-used areas of the house.
The home’s least noticeable, yet most cost-effective, solar application is its orientation to the sun, called passive solar design. “The house was designed so the east and west sides have minimal exposure to the sun,” explains Tim Uzar, EcoLumina’s construction supervisor. “Additionally, the lot was left heavily wooded to get shading from the trees during the summer and let the sun shine in when the trees drop their leaves in the winter.”
The Hoots Group left 85 percent of the two-acre lot in its naturally wooded state and rescued a number of native flowering trees and plants from the site for eventual replanting on the property. “On many of our projects we are able to save plants and bushes,” says Matt Hoots, president of The Hoots Group. “Most of our clients are site sensitive and typically make sure any species worth saving are transplanted on the site itself.”
Resourceful Construction One of the home’s ongoing themes is resource conservation and the careful selection of construction materials, starting with the foundation. Custom-designed, precast foundation walls designed by Superior Walls were used instead of conventional block or poured concrete. The prefabricated walls consist of steel-reinforced concrete studs with a one-and-three-quarter-inch concrete outer shell that’s combined with a layer of rigid foam insulation. They improve the basement’s energy-efficiency and help keep it dry. The cost for the Superior Walls system is about the same as conventional concrete foundations, says Hoots, and it installs faster because the builder doesn’t have to fir out walls with wood studs. In addition, because the walls are thinner than a conventional foundation, they provide two inches of bonus interior space along each wall.
Up on the roof, composite slate tiles from EcoStar were made with 80 percent recycled rubber and plastic. From the ground they look like the real thing. Inside, all the wood used for trim was grown locally and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (one of the most stringent forest management programs in the world).
The antique wood floors from Carlisle Wide Plank Floors were salvaged from an Ohio barn built in 1820. “Depending on the species you work with, a reclaimed wood could be much more durable than its newly grown counterpart, and pricing is coming down,” says Hoots. “Not only are the floors in the EcoLumina House more durable, they also have a nice aged patina that’s difficult to replicate.”
What may be EcoLumina’s most intriguing reuse story, though, is its whole-house automation system. “The system is comprised largely of recycled consumer electronics,” says Jones. “The remote control units in the various rooms are used Nokia Internet tablets I bought on eBay.”
Drawing on his inventing skills, Jones created a first-of-its-kind wireless system that uses only a few watts of power to efficiently control lighting and comfort levels for each family member. “It incorporates a number of motion detectors throughout the house that makes it aware of which occupants are in which room,” he explains.
Clearing the Air For heating and cooling, EcoLumina uses a geothermal heat pump from WaterFurnace. Eleven tons of geothermal loops were run into the ground to service the house, says Uzar. The geothermal system combines with central dehumidifiers from Aprilaire to keep the home comfortable and ensure good indoor air quality.
Two other energy-efficient features target the home’s building envelope — windows by BiltBest that exceed Energy Star requirements by 30 percent, and Styrofoam structural insulated sheathing (SIS) from Dow Building Solutions, which provides wraparound insulation, a water-resistant barrier and structural shear bracing. “This product is brand new,” says Uzar. “It costs the same as OSB [oriented strand board] but is lighter. You can tape the joints with Dow Weathermate construction tape and make it your vapor barrier.”�
The builder also installed 6-inches of Icynene spray foam insulation in the walls of the EcoLumina House. Spray foam both insulates and air seals, and can give homeowners the biggest bang for their construction buck, according to The Hoots Group. “Whether it’s open or closed cell, it provides not only a good thermal barrier, but is also an excellent air barrier, reducing drafts and air leakage, which contribute to unwanted temperature and moisture fluctuations,” says Hoots.
With a house so airtight, it was important to use products that didn’t release toxic chemicals, also known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds). The builder installed formaldehyde-free kitchen cabinets from Timber Mountain and used low-VOC Eco Spec paints from Benjamin Moore, as well Rubio Monocoat, a single-coat, natural-oil wood finish made in Europe that has just become available in the United States. “The choice of materials for the interior had additional benefits I wasn’t counting on,” says Jones. “It doesn’t smell bad and your eyes don’t tear up like other new houses I’ve been to.”
Conserving Water With the Southeast entering the third year of a historic drought, Jones knew he wanted to explore new ways to save water — and set an example for the rest of the city. A rainwater collection system designed by RainHarvest collects rain from the roof and condensation from the HVAC system, and stores the water in three 1,700-gallon cisterns buried in the front yard. The water in the cisterns then goes through six stages of cleansing to make it drinkable. In addition to passing through a chlorinator and a variety of filters, the water is exposed to ultraviolet light, which kills bacteria.
The system is “designed to provide 100 percent of our water needs,” says Jones. “The really exciting part is what comes at the back end. There are technologies that use natural processes to cleanse the water coming out of the house, so it can be recycled for use in flushing toilets and irrigating the yard.”
The EcoLumina House’s wastewater treatment is one of the first residential-scale systems in the state that uses a natural approach known as “constructed wetlands.” Designed with help from Integrated Water Strategies of North Carolina, the home’s sewage is first sent to a conventional septic tank for initial treatment, and then to an attractive water garden of carefully selected plants and bacteria, which scrub the water naturally to 98 percent purity. From there, it’s sent back through a series of sand, carbon and ultraviolet filters for reuse in the home’s toilets and landscaping.
“Our goal is to make EcoLumina independent of any municipal water supplies,” Jones explains. The Fulton County officials who oversee the home’s code compliance have been willing to test the unique system. “Because of the drought we’re in, they’re really interested in new techniques that might be helpful,” says Jones.
Pushing the Envelope While Jones obviously enjoys using the property to test his high-tech ideas, it also serves as his family’s home. “My little boy loves the technical aspects of it,” Jones says. “The photovoltaic panels are just outside his bedroom window.”
With four bedrooms, a master suite, eight baths, two laundry rooms, a playroom, a recreation room and a gym, as well as a wine cellar, workshop, art gallery, three stairwells, 17 entry doors and five porches, the Arts and Crafts-style house is a beautifully detailed residence that almost anyone can appreciate. Costs to build were estimated at $175 per square foot. The family has opened it up for tours, and even lists it as a venue for the Sandy Springs hospitality committee, who can use it to promote the city.
“We have had a tremendous amount of interest in EcoLumina,” says Jones. “It’s become more than just our new home. We pushed the envelope on its green features, and hope it makes more people aware of new environmental solutions.”
Jim Hackler is an Atlanta-based journalist specializing in environmental issues. You can find him at www.TheUrbaneEnvironmentalist.com.