Wanting to put his business degree to good use, Sean Smith did a stint in finance and recruiting before swapping his suit and tie for the more casual builder’s wardrobe in 2003. Relaxed attire aside, Smith’s approach to his newfound path—he is both a builder and a developer—is nothing short of rigorous. From the get-go he was determined his first new-construction project—a duplex in Denver—would be a model of exemplary environmental design that included Energy Star and LEED certifications.

“I realized the percentage cost increase for everything was going to be minimal compared to the benefit,” says Smith. “In the industry there’s a general disregard for long-term life-cycle costs, but we’re talking less than 5% to create a tight, sustainable building.

“I really believe in total system integration, and the LEED guidelines provided the necessary tools to get it right,” explains Smith, who embarked on a yearlong study of the U.S. Green Building Council program prior to breaking ground on the homes.

True to his word, Smith’s Wash Park Green, named for its locale in the desirable Washington Park neighborhood, is a stellar example of high style meets energy efficiency that has earned an Energy Star 5 Stars Plus rating and is awaiting LEED-Gold certification. Each 1,940-square-foot unit (2,950 including basements) boasts unique interior finishes along with a long list of green features inside and out, from the drought-tolerant Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF) grass in the front yard to the radiant heat in the concrete basement floors.

Eleven 2.4-kW solar panels, located on the garage of one unit and the roof of the other, deliver about 37% of the overall electric consumption and contribute to keeping utility bills around $80 a month, about $130 less than a comparable home without energy-saving features.

The property was previously home to a century-old single-story house that was in disrepair and hadn’t been updated for more than two decades. Prior to demolition, Smith recycled all the original brick and donated light fixtures, ceiling fans, and sinks to Habitat for Humanity. He then brought in architects David Carnicelli and Joe Colstra of In Situ Design to draft a modern three-story building that would look at home in a historic neighborhood rife with 1930s bungalows.

“In a situation like this you have to match form, mass, and scale of the existing house stock,” says Carnicelli. “A sloped roof is not something we would normally do, but it’s a modern interpretation of what you see on bungalows and Victorians.”

The overall design takes full advantage of a site that slopes steeply enough from the street to the alley that both units back up to the outdoors on all three levels; large BiltBest low-E windows, selected for their 0.29 U-factor, fill the house with natural light. When the lights do come on, all the recessed cans house fully dimmable compact fluorescents.

Smith understands that the core of energy-efficient design is a well-insulated structure with as few air gaps and thermal bridges as possible. The homes reach R-27 for the wall system using Knauf’s blown-in-blanket fiberglass insulation system in the wall cavities coupled with 1-inch exterior EPS foam board that adds another R-4 value to the insulation package. “This gave us the same R-value as [spray-]foam insulation for a third of the cost,” says Smith, who did use R-38 spray foam for the roof. “It’s a non-vented roof assembly, so there’s no attic, and we needed spray-foam to prevent moisture condensation.” Elsewhere, there’s R-7 insulation under the slabs and R-13 batts in the basement.

Smith relied on interior designer Renee Augustine, who has worked on several multi-use green projects in the area, to assemble an environmentally friendly materials palette that included kitchen and bath cabinetry constructed from wheat by-products, low-VOC finishes on the walnut and concrete floors, low-VOC carpets in the bedrooms, and long-lasting porcelain tile in the bathroom. “We selected American-made porcelain over marble for the floors to save the money and energy required to ship the marble from Italy,” says Augustine, who scored half a LEED point for that decision.

The bathrooms are equipped with low-flow Kohler toilets and Kingston Brass low-flow faucets.

Temple-Inland drywall comprised of 30% recycled content was used throughout the project; scrap drywall was recycled for use in soil amendment for Colorado farmers. “Every time I drive past a construction site I see yard Dumpsters overflowing with drywall, wood, and cardboard,” says Smith, who also donated the framing cutoffs from the duplex to Habitat for Humanity.

It’s that same go-the-extra-mile approach that Smith hopes will become his signature in years to come. Plans for developing the lot next door—“all four units will use less energy than the two houses they replaced,” he notes—are in the works along with an affordable housing project in partnership with the Denver Housing Authority. “Anything I build in the future will be rated and give proof of performance for the buyer.”

Mindy Pantiel is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.

Frank Ooms

PROFILE: Sean Smith, Owner, Sean Smith & Co. After relocating from upstate New York to Denver seven years ago and working as a general contractor, Sean Smith quickly became dissatisfied with the quality of the renovations and additions he was supervising and opted to start his own business. Several remodels later his plan to “build one of the best-performing homes in the city” mandated intensive study of the LEED rating system. “I didn’t just want to do it,” he says, “I wanted to understand it.”

His efforts paid off, with his first project slated to receive LEED for Homes Gold and becoming the first to qualify for Denver’s new Energy Star Program, a partnership between the EPA and local utility Xcel Energy that recognizes infill and non-production buildings that meet certain energy standards.

A Cornell University graduate, Smith got his first taste of the building trade working construction jobs during college. One project—renovating an inn built in 1814—turned out to be life-altering. “I worked with the owner, a man named John Van Souest, who taught me about building the right way and the importance of creating something that would last,” recalls Smith. That advice continues to serve him well.

If Smith has a philosophy it is to create “cohesive, holistic” buildings. “Regardless of the type of project, looking at total building performance rather than a piecemeal approach makes for better, more energy-efficient buildings in the long run.” —M.P.