The Green Dream: Hard-Won Advice From a Proud and Exhausted Green Builder

Bringing it all home

Bringing It All Home

House: 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom contemporary Location: Greenwich, N.Y. Budget: $350,000John B. Carnett

Fifteen months ago, I set out to fulfill a lifelong ambition of building my own home using the latest green technology. On a $350,000 budget, several dreams came true. I installed a solar-powered boiler, a rooftop garden and a graywater recycling system. Other dreams were harder: A delivery truck damaged the recyclable foam panels meant to form the frame of my home, and I'm also considering suing my window contractor. But it will all be worth it when we move in next month. For those considering your own eco-haven, I offer four pieces of advice.

It's Not Easy Being Green

Leaky window frames and damaged insulating panels that form the bones of the Green Dream threatened to derail the project.John B. Carnett

#1: BALANCE BENEFITS OF NEW TECHNOLOGY AGAINST RISKS

The Dream: An easy-to-install prefab frame made of insulating, recyclable foam panels
The Reality: Some panels arrived damaged and improperly cut, stalling construction.

Wooden frames can leak heat and take weeks to measure, cut, and nail into place. So for the budget-minded green builder, prefabricated insulating panels are a smart choice. They hold up the house and keep it warm. My panels are made out of light-gauge steel studs and recyclable expanded polystyrene that's blended with graphite to lock in heat and keep out mold. I was the first residential customer to install the panels—and at the time, the vendor, Lightship Group, was apparently still working out some kinks. The first shipment of panels were damaged en route from the factory in Rhode Island. And some of the panels, improperly cut, wouldn't fit around my home's steel support beams. But the company handled its mistakes responsibly. It replaced the damaged panels and sent out a repair crew to handle the installation, all on its own dime.

In the end, the panels took 14 days to install instead of eight. If not for the great customer service, it would have been a disaster.

Leaky Window Frames

John B. Carnett

#2: KNOW YOUR CONTRACTOR

The Dream: Efficient, sleek aluminum windows and doors
The Reality: No doors, empty window frames, and lawyer bills

I wanted the look of my home to be industrial yet rustic, so I decided to combine modern aluminum windows with 100-year-old hemlock-and-cedar siding. Aluminum frames tend to be poor insulators and can cost upward of $140,000 for a three-bedroom home, but then I found a window contractor who promised to deliver custom-made triple-paned aluminum windows and doors for $60,000. His frames use a special insulating technique that makes them 50 percent more efficient than vinyl ones, so I'd save money on heating and cooling costs. The technology was great; the workmanship not so much. As of press time, my home is still without doors. Plastic sheets cover missing windows, rain puddles collect beneath the windows that were installed, and the contractor is stalling on repairs. I've purchased wooden doors instead of aluminum, but I'm stuck with empty frames, and I can't install the drywall until the job is finished. My advice, especially where custom work is concerned, is to get references.

Damaged Insulating Panels

John B. Carnett

#3: ACCEPT YOUR DIY LIMITS

The Dream: Homemade solar collectors to generate hot water
The Reality: Some things are best made by the pros.

When I began evaluating my options for solar collectors, I was turned off by the bulk and expense of commercial models. I decided to make my own. Turns out there's a reason to just buy 'em. The prototype I built couldn't make enough hot water in cold weather to fill my home's large water tanks. In the end, I ordered solar collectors online that use evacuated tubes to generate higher water temperatures. They're easier to install and less intrusive-looking. Remember—pretty much every part of building a green home is going to be at least somewhat new to you. If you're uncertain about your qualifications, you probably need a bit of professional consultation.

#4: RESPECT YOUR BUDGET

The Dream: Geothermal wells to save on heating and cooling costs
The Reality: Overbudget; installed a single well and reduced demand

My initial plan called for a $16,800 geothermal system with two wells that use the constant 50oF temperature of the ground to cool and heat my home, and to augment my solar panels on cloudy days and during the night. But with my budget nearly tapped, I needed a cheaper plan. I discovered that I could save $7,000 by installing a single well. To reduce demand on the smaller system, I decided to eliminate the radiant-heat concrete on my second floor (my wife wanted hardwood floors anyway). You're building a functional home on a limited budget. Don't kill yourself over the green technology you can't afford—finish it with the green technology you can.