Sarah Susanka's Not So Big Minazine, Article 2  

February 2012  
 Issue: 4 
An Attainable Model for
Energy Efficiency

Energy Star Partner In order to make the Not So Big Showhouse an excellent example of what's possible for the mainstream marketplace, it was important to me to make affordable and effective energy efficiency a key feature. After some research into the different programs and certifications available in the marketplace today, we chose to use the Energy Star rating system because its name is so well recognized and the program is free and easy to use. It's also a program in which each house is evaluated based on a variety of performance and/or prescriptive criteria, so the homeowner benefits from knowing that their house will have superior comfort, indoor air quality and durability.  We then went beyond the current standards and designed a showhouse to meet the more stringent standards of Energy Star 3.0, which the EPA has scheduled to go into effect by the middle of 2012.  This means that the showhouse is more than 15% more energy efficient than a home built to 2009 International Energy conservation Code requirements. 

Under the attentive eye of Robert Schildgen of Priority Energy, the showhouse was designed with the following features:

  • An Icynene spray foam air barrier system that seals walls, floors and ceiling cavities, as well as the spaces around electrical outlets and light fixtures.
  • A state-of-the-art Aeroseal air duct sealing process which guarantees even air distribution throughout the entire home and attains maximum comfort and superior indoor air quality.  
  • A Lifebreath heat recovery ventilation system, and furnace and air conditioning units that exceed current efficiency standards.  
  • A south facing roof over the staircase, which is pre-wired for the addition of photovoltaic solar panels and other renewable energy options.  (Please visit the Priority Energy website to learn more)
  • An energy monitoring and control system that allows homeowners to monitor and adjust their energy consumption.
  • Smart Dimmers that allow various "scenes" to be set throughout the main level, so that with the touch of a button you can change the mood of the whole space.
  • A complete home automation system that can be controlled from anywhere, using the internet (see SmartWire descripton on the showhouse sponsors page for more information)
  • KolourOne Satco LED bulbs throughout much of the main level and stairway.  

These choices reflect a number of my attitudes toward energy efficiency. I firmly believe that our houses will become a lot more energy efficient when we allow the homeowner direct control over their consumption habits, much as hybrid vehicles today allow drivers to monitor and adjust their driving habits to reduce fuel and power consumption.  It's all very well to add lots of energy efficiency features, but if the homeowner doesn't know the effects of their behavior patterns, it's still easy to waste a lot of energy without even knowing it. The energy monitoring and control systems in this showhouse are key to giving the homeowner access to this data, so that they can benefit from tailoring their power use habits to minimize their utility bills, while maximizing both comfort and functionality.  


An Education in LED Lighting

Another of my favorite research topics of late has been LED lighting. LEDs can save up to 85% of the electricity used by incandescent bulbs, and up to 50% of the electricity used by CFLs (compact fluorescents). The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that widespread adoption of LED lighting by 2025 will reduce electricity demands from lighting by 62 percent, eliminate 258 million metric tons of carbon emissions, reduce the amount of materials being put into landfills, and help us to avoid the building of 133 new power plants -- all of which could save the US over $280 billion. That's a pretty big deal! Add to this the fact that LED bulbs last for 20 to 30 years, and you've got a product that is likely to revolutionize the way we think about lighting.  It becomes a built in piece of the home's infrastructure rather than something you have to keep replacing every few months. (You can learn a lot more about LEDs here, and help spread the word. And many thanks to CREE incidentally, for taking the time to educate me on this subject.)


So I'm convinced that LEDs are the way of the future, but I'm concerned that a lot of what we see for sale in stores is too bright and too blue for current American tastes. We're used to the color of the incandescent bulb, which has a color temperature around 2700K. Most of the bulbs being stocked in the stores I've visited are 3000K and up, which tends to look very chilly to most of us -- the lighting equivalent of a cathedral ceiling -- ideal for a retail store, but uncomfortable for the home environment.


I searched for quite a while to find an LED sponsor for the showhouse that was willing to help us demonstrate the warmer color temperature that's possible with LEDs, and to show that when these are used, the difference between an incandescent bulb and an LED bulb is almost indistinguishable.  I'd almost given up, but finally, just as the house was being prepared for the Grand Opening, the company who supplied much of the lighting for the house put

Showhouse living room cove lighting
The cove lighting in the living room was 2700K LED from the start
me in touch with Satco Lighting, who has a new line of LED replacement bulbs called KolourOne. With their help we were able to switch out about a third of the bulbs in the house to 2700K LEDs. Given the sophisticated energy monitoring system we have installed, we're looking forward to seeing the effect that the presence of these bulbs has on energy usage. I'm thrilled to be able to model this in the showhouse so that visitors can see with their own eyes what LEDs can look like.


Other Sustainability Features

There are a variety of other sustainable features in the Showhouse worthy of mention:  

  • The flooring throughout the main level is a
    beautiful bamboo product from Mr. Bamboo.
  • There's a segment of Green Roof on the roof deck above the garage from an innovative landscape architecture company called Hursthouse.  
  • The paint used throughout the home's interior is a Sherwin-Williams product with zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds), called ProMar 200.
  • The siding is from James Hardie.  It is a prefinish fiber-cement product that's highly durable, doesn't rot, and handles heat and UV radiation well -- all important features in sustainable construction. 
  • The windows are from Integrity, which are Energy Star rated, with a low-conductivity framework and Low-E (low emissivity) glass with argon gas. 
  • Light fixtures and appliances are Energy Star rated wherever possible.

You can read more about a number of these products on our sponsors page


By looking at the systems of the house as a whole, and allowing the homeowners to participate in the process of reducing their own energy consumption, it's possible to design a home that is highly energy efficient, yet affordable. I believe the showhouse models an attainable solution for homebuyers looking for a house with "green" features that helps them keep utility costs down and comfort up. 

*Living room photo by Barry Rustin 

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Priority Energy logo
For more information about Priority Energy, please visit their website.


Mark LaLiberte 
 Building Scientist Mark LaLiberte visited the showhouse during construction on a couple of occasions, and provided his expertise.  Sarah has consulted with Mark on energy efficiency since they were both starting out in their careers, back in the 1980s.


Showhouse roof deck
The beautiful roof deck landscaping was done by Hursthouse Landscape Architects and Contractors.  Don't miss the installation video, below.

Not So Big Showhouse Rooftop

Showhouse stairwell from above
Sherwin Williams provided the zero VOC paint for the showhouse interior.

Showhouse exterior siding
James Hardie provided fiber-cement siding for the exterior.

Showhouse bamboo floors
The gorgeous bamboo floors came from
Mr. Bamboo

Laundry room window
All of the Showhouse windows came from Integrity.

*Roof terrace, stairway, and hall photos by Barry Rustin