Eco-friendly can be done on the cheap, and save your budget a bundle
Gene and Nan Cazayoux’s house looks just like any other house on the block. The colonnaded French colonial with deep dormers reflects Louisiana’s historic architecture while making the conventional compromise of sitting on a concrete slab. Inside, rich pine parquet floors, massive brick walls, beamed ceilings and French doors leading out onto a slate-floored courtyard combine tradition, elegance and comfort in a house that is designed to flow as easily for a pre-prom party of 50 graduating seniors as it does for a family of six.
No one would ever know that beneath the house are 150-foot deep wells that circulate a consistent flow of 70-degree water to a geothermal heat pump that runs the air conditioning and heating unit. Or that hidden beneath the roof is a radiant heat barrier that blocks 40 percent of the sun’s heat. The gorgeous floors are cut from old beams, recycling lumber. The bricks, too, are used, and here and there in the house are antique armoires, old shutters doubling as closet doors, and even a stair railing hammered out of recycled steel.
“Green doesn’t need to be ugly,” says Nan Cazayoux.
The approximately 4,300-square foot house was designed by her brother-in-law, noted Breaux Bridge architect Eddie Cazayoux, who is known for his environmentally friendly building design. But while most people think of green architecture as ultra modern and a sustainable lifestyle as one of austerity (no air conditioning, no toilet paper!), Eddie Cazayoux is out to prove just the opposite.
“Green has nothing to do with style,” he says. “It has to do with design and construction.
“Architecture should celebrate life. Not only do you spend much less money on your utility bills, but the beauty of the spaces enriches your life.”
“I really wanted to live in an old house,” says Nan Cazayoux. “Gene wanted a new one. What Eddie was able to do was create all the beauty of an old house but with new construction. And our electric bill dramatically dropped.”
Nan calculates that the environmental elements incorporated into the design of the house halved their utility bill. “In our previous house, we paid between $400 to $600 a month in utilities,” she says, “now they run $200 to $300, depending on the season. And it was smaller than this house. And a lot of the year, we live with the doors to the patio open. In the other house, it would have driven up the LUS bill buy $150 a month. Here, we don’t notice any difference.”
Eddie Cazayoux says that 90 percent of what he thinks about when he designs a house comes from studying Louisiana’s historic architecture. “In fact the greenest houses are the ones already built,” he says, “especially the earliest colonial architecture. They were sustainable by necessity and not by choice. There is a lot to learn by looking at the older architectural design of this area, an area that did not have the energy available to them as we do today.”
He has worked closely with Madeline Cenac, whose 10-year restoration of her 1840s house, now Chez Madeline Bed and Breakfast at Lake Martin, involved everything from coming up with a recipe to make bousillage (a mixture of clay, Spanish moss and water) to authentically rebuilding her interior walls to finding a way to effectively insulate her attic so that it could house comfortable bedrooms without hiding the ceiling beams or changing the original roof line.
What it underlined for Cazayoux was the innate knowledge of Louisiana’s early European settlers, who used thermal mass (bousillage and brick) to stabilize temperatures, keeping early houses warm in winter, cool in summer; who raised their ceilings high to ventilate hot air out of living spaces; and who paid close attention to the movement of the sun and wind, orienting their houses to capture the prevailing breezes and take advantage of Louisiana’s magnificent live oak shade canopy.
“However,” he says, “in architecture, it is easier to design a sustainable/green building than it is to renovate a building to be green/sustainable. You can do little things, or go whole hog and build completely off the grid. There’s no single answer to sustainable building.” At that point, the question is always cost. Cazayoux takes the long view. “ It is easy to compare up-front cost of construction, but more practical to compare the life cycle cost. This means comparing the cost of using a building over its lifetime and cost of demolition. A sustainable structure will use less energy, it will be more user friendly, it will have higher productivity, happier occupants, and in the end some, if not all, of its contents can be recycled rather that going to a landfill. So in the long run, the initial extra cost proves to be a good investment.”
Here are some no-cost green building strategies from Cazayoux:
1. Keep the Structure Small. Build the square footage needed for the activities in the building and no more. Keep corridors to a minimum — circulation is usually wasted space.
2. Building Orientation. In our area, orienting the structure with the longer axis in an east-west direction helps in many ways. It keeps the east and west wall to a minimum — these sides have the greatest potential for summer heat gain. Putting a carport or garage on the west side is a great strategy. Minimize windows on these two sides or make sure they can be shaded from the exterior. A simple overhang or porch on the south side will keep that longer side out of the sun and cooler. The larger north side can facilitate more windows, which is the best side for daylight and ventilation.
3. Design an Open Floor Plan. This will reduce hallway spaces, give better ventilation and daylighting, reduces duct runs, and minimizes material use.
4. Use Efficient Water Fixtures. There are all kinds of fixtures for commercial use that provide water electronically with sensors that use a minimum amount of water. Low flow heads are also helpful.
5. Be Mindful of Material Sizes. If you are building with 4’x8’ sheets of plywood and sheetrock, design the spaces to work with those dimensions and cut down on waste. If a 2’x6’ joint has to span a room that is 14’-3” wide, reconsider the width. Wood usually comes in 2’ lengths — design to those dimensions to minimize waste.
All of the no-cost things should be designed into the structure as a basic strategy. For cost-effective strategies that require more up-front cost consider some of these:
1. You want a well-insulated envelope and sealed tight to stop infiltration. Infiltration is unwanted air entering or exiting the building at doors and windows, plumbing, electrical and mechanical penetrations, and just poor construction. In our area this will bring unwanted moisture and heat into the building, and moisture in the wall cavity is a problem for mold and rot. Fresh air is needed, but must be brought in from the exterior through the mechanical system. It is also important to use materials that do not out-gas emissions hazardous to our health — this includes finishes and furniture. Vent all moisture and heat from the bathroom and stove directly to the exterior. And cellulose insulation is made from recycled newspaper or cardboard and is treated with borates to prevent it from burning. Borates are what is used to kill termites, roaches and silverfish. It is more of a green insulation product than a petrochemical foam insulation.
2. Shading is our major ally in this area. Our air conditioning system is sized for the heat gain the building will experience. Keeping the heat gain to a minimum will minimize the size of the unit. The orientation principles stated above work well here. If glass in the exterior wall sees the sun, use low-E glass or better yet shade it on the exterior. Heavy curtains on the interior do not work. Shading should be done with trees, vines, trellises, shutters, or other creative ideas on the exterior. Along with shading is roof color. A dark fiberglass shingle will gain much more heat that a galvalume metal roof. A radiant barrier in the roof system will eliminate 40 percent of the heat gain from the roof.
3. Lighting and Daylight. Good daylighting design will cut down on the need for artificial lighting during the day. There are new green lighting fixtures and bulbs that cut down on the energy use, and even more so for our area — will cut down on heat gain. About 90 percent of the energy going to an incandescent light bulb produces heat and only 10 percent for light.
4. Air Conditioning and Heating. Sizing the unit is very important. Not only do we want to be cool, but the humidity control is also very important for comfort and mold growth. A good green design will require a smaller unit. Over-sizing the unit is a problem because the unit will run less and not dehumidify as well. Leaky ducts are also a problem especially if installed in the attic space. Geothermal heat pumps are very efficient and you can get a tax rebate on the cost. They use the constant 70ºF temperature of the earth in this area to heat and cool the building.
5. Plumbing. Sizing the water heater and where to locate it is important. Long runs might mean that a gas tankless unit might be a better answer. You can also use the geothermal heat pump; you get free hot water during the summer air conditioning period. All the water pipes should be insulated — cold water lines in a wall or attic space could cause condensation. And look at low-flow showerheads.
6. All appliances should be Energy Star labeled.
If you want to be more sustainable and invest a little more funds to this end, then here are a few more suggestions, but only do them after you have done all of the above:
1. Solar water heaters are the most cost-effective of all the solar devices. They work for you year round. There are many different types of systems and they need to be coordinated with your domestic hot water heating system. You can get a 30-percent federal tax credit for this investment.
2. PV or photovoltaic are solar cells that give you DC electricity from the sun. Sounds like magic, but it works. Earlier you needed banks of batteries to store the electricity for when you needed it, but now Louisiana has passed a law that requires the utility companies to take that energy back into their grid. This is called net metering so the batteries are not needed. Basically the electricity runs your meter backwards during the sunny day when your home does not need it, and you pull electricity back off the grid at night when you are home using it. The 30-percent federal government tax rebate applies here also, and Louisiana passed a bill to give you 50 percent back up to $12,500. Yes, that is 80 percent off!
3. The same 80 percent rebate is given for wind generators, but not all sites get the wind needed to make them cost effective.
We all create our own little eco living environments. The more benign that is the less negative impact we have on the environment. I personally have found that living closer to and with the natural environment has enriched my life, provided better human comfort, and saved me money.